The disappearance of its distributor Nikko in the UK meant Meccano had to quickly rethink its strategy here and led to it setting up its current operation in the UK, which is headed up by former Mega Brands chief Sue Barratt.
Barratt has since built the firm up from nothing, having set up the new-look Meccano UK in October of 2007. Last year was its first full year of trading.
Nikko was the firm’s distributor for five years in the UK. Its decline gave Meccano’s French head office the opportunity to take greater control of its own destiny in the UK and intensify the focus on its brand.
“The brand awareness is massive, much bigger than the actual company. My job is to change that around,” says Barratt.
“We’re happy in terms of the growth of the business, the distribution we’ve achieved and our relationship with the retailers.
“The downside for us is the exchange rate and the current economic climate. We manufacture in Calais and the business is run in Euros. 40 per cent is made in France and the rest in China. But the economic climate is not impacting us too greatly.”
There’s no question that Meccano is a tough sell in an age with numerous other entertaining distractions to occupy the dwindling attention spans of children.
But, it does have that crucial element of aspirational parental choice. Parents want their children to play with Meccano and, whilst there is still a mad-keen adult collector base, the introduction of fresh fans is crucial to the continued success of the Meccano brand.
“People are more careful about what they spend money on now; spending it on stuff with longevity rather than a five-minute wonder.
“We’ve always got a new generation coming through, which is why the four-plus range is so important to us.”
Retailers too, recognise the authenticity of the name as a toy brand. It’s as if every toy shop should stock Meccano, just as they should Lego. And Barratt says retail take-up of the range has been good so far.
“All the retailers are really supportive and really happy to help us and support us in terms of information and selections.
“We retail at the slightly more John Lewis end of the market rather than the Woolies end. But there are very, very few retailers that we’re not supplying and there isn’t really a category of retailer that we’re not selling into.”
The key for Meccano, as for many long-established heritage brands, is to maintain sales of the core lines while bringing the brand into other areas. A good example is its recent success with the Spykee robotic range, which did well on the high street and online with an older gadget-loving audience.
“We need to look outside the box to grow the business,” says Barratt.
“We will do more on price points, more on girls and more on play patterns to broaden the range. We’ve got to have a range that means the consumer comes back and buys more. But we need to make sure it’s incremental business and not cannibalise the range.”
As a brand, Meccano still has a great deal of recognition among parents and children. And although construction is a tricky sell in these thrill-a-minute times, the firm managed to double its UK market share last year and is now among the top 50 UK toy firms.
It is still a small operation, taking small steps, but there is much more to come from Meccano. Like some of its more complex sets though, it just takes a while to build.
New lines will feature in two of Meccano’s most popular collections this year. The Design and Tuning ranges come in vivid colours, flexible metal and each set creates realistic models with a contemporary design incorporating the latest technology.
New for July is the Design RC Concept Car, which contains parts to build three different metallic blue racing cars. It will be the first radio controlled car in the range and is set to retail at £39.99.
Just out are the new Design Starter kits. There are six sets and each builds one model: beach buggy, tractor, digger, plane, motorbike or helicopter. They retail at £5.99.
Meccano’s Tuning RC Carbon Style Car will be one of the latest additions the popular Tuning range. Available from July, there are three different remote controlled vehicles to build. Kids can even choose their favourite music style – rock or hip hop – to play and will enjoy the sounds effects of screeching tyres and a roaring engine. It also includes neon lighting under the frame of the car and flashing headlights as well as flaming stickers, back fin, chromed looking parts and chrome rims, retailing at around £44.99.
Out this month, The Tuning RC Red Hot Racer has two different RC models to build – a racing car and a roadster. A range of tuning accessories are included such as stickers, back fin and chrome rims, retailing at £29.99.
The Tuning RC Sound System set allows kids to connect their MP3 player, turn on the lights and take control of the car. There are three RC vehicles to build and quality speakers to hear their MP3 choice or rock or hip hop music. It retails at around £59.99.