Battling the internet retailers

Throughout Europe, independent toy stores are facing an existential threat from internet retailers of toys. Do they quietly capitulate or do they seek means to hit their enemy where no retaliation is possible?
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When I was at Hong Kong toy show a German business friend told me of a toy store owner in Hannover who has enjoyed a celebrated success with his strategy, so I decided to investigate.

On March 22nd at 8pm, I went to the store to participate in Männerabend (Men’s Evening) with 43 other guys. We each paid 30 Euros for three and a half hours of competitive fun and excitement. 

Together with his team of 11 male promoters, they cleared space in the 12,000 square feet store so as to enable 11 teams each of four guys to participate and compete against each other and the other teams in the following events:

• Slot racing competition
• Radio control truck slalom around obstacles
• Darts
• Radio control helicopter – with points for every successful landing manoeuvre.
• Table football
• Snooker
• Boccia (bean bags thrown at a target)
• Beer dice game ( a popular bar game)
• Tip Kick - a football game
• Basketball – standing throw to basket
• Poker

Pretzels warm from the in-house oven were served all evening and beers or soft drinks as wanted, against a voluntary donation to a piggy bank (which generates more income than if he charged regular prices).

The frenzied atmosphere has to be experienced to be believed, fuelled by the competition, the rapid pace and changing of the events, and the outgoing and friendly personality of the owner Heinz Lehmann, ably assisted by his team of 11 who supervise each event. These guys are so enthusiastic and clearly enjoy it so much I am convinced they would do it even if Heinz didn’t pay them.

Competition points are won on each event and at the end of the evening there is a presentation. Heinz takes hundreds of photos which he uploads to the website so that suspicious wives can check up to ensure their husbands were not up to no good. In fact, many of the tickets are bought by women as gifts for their partners.

In just a few months, Men’s Evening has created such a stir that camera crews from no fewer than nine TV stations have reported on the events. Heinz and his team have also won a national enterprise award sponsored by the government.

Amazingly some participants come from hundreds of miles away and stay the night in Hannover, because midnight strikes when the show is over. Some also take over the whole evening with their friends whom they invite for a birthday celebration.

Demand is now so brisk that it is booked out until the end of the year, and Heinz has started doing it two or three times a week. You can work out that €30 x 44 men twice a week brings in nearly €150,000 a year, most of it profit, which is more than most independent stores make from running the toy shop.

So successful has it been that Heinz now additionally stages event evenings for kids aged six to 12 during which they go on a fantasy international flight and get to experience the kids and culture of countries as diverse as India and Australia, with the language, music and traditions. They love it and are learning at the same time, so their mums feel good about them being there. There are also games evenings for men and women together (don’t worry – all fully clothed!)

When I first heard about Men’s Evenings I thought ‘what a no-brainer, why hadn’t it been done before, and all over the world?’

Well clearly not every store has the space, and not every owner is a ‘people person’ with the infectious enthusiasm of Heinz, who loves meeting 44 new people and working through to midnight and then insisting we go to a bar till 2am even when I have to be up at 05:30 to take my flight back to London...

If readers would like more information or perhaps attend one of these Men’s Evenings to pick up tips, please contact Andrew Dobbie by clicking on this link.

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