Independent retail sector focus

Only a year ago the independent retail sector was in disarray following the closure of Youngsters. For many, the future looked bleak. Fast forward 12 months, however, and things look a lot more positive. Ronnie Dungan talked to retailers and suppliers to find out the current state of play?
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Who could have foretold that in these most difficult of times, when jobs are under threat, banks are being propped up by tax-payers’ money and even TV chefs are on their uppers, that it would be independent toy retailers that would be thriving?

Even allowing for the fact that toys tend to weather the rough seas of a recession better than many luxury products, at a time when consumers are more price-driven than ever, who would have given the indies much of a chance against the majors who were keen to discount toys to drive footfall and sales of grocery items?

In a recession that even seasoned analysts are struggling to make sense of, few would have forecast a positive result for any independent retail sector, let alone toys.

But the disappearance of Woolies has transformed the toy retail landscape and with it, the fortunes of many independents that had hitherto struggled. Supermarkets are not devoting more space to toys so the indies are picking up the business. All of a sudden, a sector that has been in decline for some years, has a real chance to thrive again.

TRA chairman Gary Grant (pictured) believes it is the product profile that was particular to Woolworths that the indies have been able to capitalise on.

“For the average low-priced Woolies purchase, people are not going to Toys R Us for that amount of spend,” he says. “Sure, TRU is primed to pick up the Christmas and gift shop and as for Argos, well they can’t cope with the collectible business, but they’re great if you want a Fisher-Price garage.

“There are elements of the business where the independents are best-placed to achieve sales. Batman, Ben 10, Crazy Bones and so on, that’s where the indies pick up business.”

Duncan Conner MD of Bus Stop Toy Shop in Larg, Scotland has seen a noticeable upswing in sales since the demise of the retail chain.

“We’re only in year three and prior to the closure of our local Woolworths, we were running at around a 30 per cent improvement on year two. That’s increased to around 60 per cent in the first three months of the year, so it would be fair to say that Woolworths’ closure has added around 30 per cent to our turnover, so far. I should point out that we’re a very small business and that this doesn’t represent any vast sum of money in January and February.

“The school Easter holiday will provide a good yardstick as to whether the growth will be maintained. It’s hard to imagine that the growth won’t continue in the medium to long-term ­­­– the loss of Woolworths has left us with a 20-mile radius with no other shop selling a significant amount of toys.”

Alan Caswell from The Arcade Toy Shops in Dudley, adds: “We are slightly ahead of last year and are getting asked for lots of items that we no longer stock because of the likes of Woolworths, perhaps it’s time to restock certain items again.”

On the supplier side, the positivity towards the indies is echoed by Jumbo MD Gray Richmond, who says: “We have had a very strong start to the year with the indies, the best we have seen for many years. Without doubt they are benefitting from Woolies demise and it seems as though they are really gaining some momentum. Toymaster, in particular seems to be really taking advantage of the current climate.”

Graham Canning, sales director at VTech, has seen a rise in sales of between 10 and 15 per cent with his indie accounts.

But is all this a mere blip or can the independents really hold the ground they have taken this year? What do the specialists need to do to reinforce their position and ensure they keep this extra business?

“Make sure their presence is known to consumers in the towns and areas that had Woolworths stores. Make sure they are in stock on key lines and there is depth of range in their stores,” says Canning.

“I believe the independent sector need to maximise their locations on the High Street and be perceived to offer the ‘value’ that Woolies offered,” says Michael Halpern, national accounts controller at Mega Brands. “This needs to be coordinated if possible through the buying groups. I am sure many suppliers would be willing to help.”

For Mike Walls, sales director at Halsall, it’s in-store where the battle is won or lost for the indies:

“We would wish to see the Indies being more proactive in marketing and driving their business. Visiting their stores needs to be habitual for families. They need to reinforce this as a good thing. The store needs to be exciting for a kid and offer value for money to the parent.”

This shift in the balance of toy retailing has proved to be good news for certain suppliers which are seeing their products exposed to a range of new customers.

“Flair, Galt, Trends, Ravensburger and DKL are all doing well,” says Gary Grant. “And in many cases the Woolies customers are being exposed to their products for the first time.

“The ranges that Woolies were strongest at, are the ones the indies will pick up. The indies have got great product knowledge.”

And the other thing the majority of indies now have is terrific buying group support from Toymaster and AIS: Extremely efficient organisations which make it possible for many indies to survive when they might not have otherwise. A lot of retailers find it impossible to run their business without them.

But it is horses for courses and not all retailers are fans. Some prefer being able to run their businesses totally autonomously.

“A group makes you lazy,” says Arcade’s Alan Caswell, a former Youngsters member. “I have enjoyed getting back to the basic skills of negotiations and choosing carefully what to buy and who to deal with.”

“We are proudly, totally, independent,” echoes Bus Stop’s Duncan Conner.

“As times gets tougher, the simple principles of running small retail businesses are amplified. Those indies that survive will be the ones that control outgoings and buy smart.”

It was ever the case. But the upheavals of the last few months have given many toy independents the opportunity to do more than more than merely hang on. For the first time in a long time they now have the opportunity to thrive.

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