Retail's private-label toys: The enemy within?

Own label toys are now a key part of several retailers? strategies. But could private label actually be having a damaging affect on the overall toy market? Samantha Loveday takes a look
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The Argos-owned Chad Valley is the third biggest toy brand in the UK, with revenues of £430 million in 2010/2011 (the latest official figures published).

Sainsbury’s is planning to significantly expand its Grow & Play line. It already includes wooden products, soft toys, bath products and classics such as stacking cups and blocks.

Tesco’s exclusive Carousel pre-school range continues to grow in stature, and covers everything from creative and wooden products, through to musical and bathtime toys and vehicles.

Toys R Us’ UK MD Roger McLaughlan recently revealed to Retail Week that he wants 50 per cent of the chain’s offer to be exclusive to TRU, which includes plans to up its own brand line-up.

Asda has its Play and Learn label, Morrisons-owned Kiddicare has major ambitions to expand its presence going forward, and even John Lewis has given more visibility to its own brand toy offering.

In an economic environment where every penny counts for the consumer, own label – or private label – has become a key battleground. The lines assist the retailer in providing a better mix of margin across the complete offer, bringing up the overall value of their categories.

But, with shelf space already stretched to bursting point, and many retailers still unwilling to take risks on new brands, could the overall toy market be taking a hit from the success of this strategy?

“Private label is a fact of life and here to stay now, whether we like it or not,” says Neil Bandtock, MD of Vivid Imaginations. “In some categories it adds valuable choice for the consumer and when done well is a credit to the industry.

“When done badly, it downgrades the retailer’s brand image and drags the industry down in the eyes of the consumer. Retail margin expectations are generally balanced by higher margin private label goods, so if it helps bring more profit to the sector for retailers that has to be a positive.”

Ian Wickham, sales director at Re:creation, agrees that if toy space doesn’t shrink at retail because the margins are held up by own label, then this could be a good thing. “The negative,” he points out, “is when own label comes out as a direct counter to a brand, where the investment is being made to deliver – TV, promo support, press, online, seeding campaigns, etc.

“This potentially shrinks the overall opportunity for the brand and shortens the shelf-life of the products being marketed.”


Loss of shelf space to private label is, of course, a primary concern for suppliers. However, Tom Folliot, buying manager for toys at Sainsbury’s, is quick to point out that the supermarket works very closely with its suppliers, both in the UK and internationally – and that it is all about balance.

“The two can, and do, co-exist,” he firmly states. “It’s about offering variety at competitive prices. Sainsbury’s has been selling own label toys since 2000. The decision to launch the new Grow & Play range [which debuted in 2012] was driven by in-depth customer research and the name was a clear winner. Own label is an extremely important part of our strategy and customer feedback has told us the new ranges are being received very well, with sales growth reflecting that.”

Indeed, Sainsbury’s plan is to expand the Grow & Play range, with new items and designs to give it a fresh feel. Pre-school, boys, girls and plush lines will all get new treatments for the back end of 2013, with more to come in 2014.

However, Vivid’s Bandtock sounds a note of caution, saying that retailers who over-do private label can catch a cold very quickly, as consumers will end up shopping elsewhere to find brand choices: “Any branded manufacturer that is not concerned by private label alternatives is naïve or foolish,” he says. “The only way to ensure brands keep deep and broad distribution is to make them so attractive to consumers that retailers will lose out if they do not stock them or substitute with private label.

“I think the consumer is the ultimate arbiter. If any retailer over-commits to private label then they open the door to more savvy competitors to offer better choice and value to consumers. I think in the long-term there is a natural equilibrium for brands and private label dictated by the desires of the consuming public.

“Brands, of course, have the huge advantage of being heavily promoted via entertainment media or advertising and promotion, which means that kids are highly brand-conscious and brand loyal. No private label action figure or doll is going to win the hearts and minds of children away from Moshi Monsters, Barbie, LEGO or a Nerf gun.”


So, are there certain categories which are more at risk from own label’s growing presence? Vivid’s Bandtock believes that pre-school is the most vulnerable because the choice is made by parents, not children. “Also there are lots of basic, classic pre-school toys that can be cheaply copied and can offer cash-strapped parents a ‘value’ alternative to brands,” he says.

This is something which is borne out by the comments ToyNews collected from a selection of parent bloggers (see box out). The Argos-owned Chad Valley line came out as a popular pick, with many stating that it was a ‘trusted’ name.

The main thing from parents, however, was the value for money aspect, although many admitted that once their children got to a certain age and started recognising licences and brands more, own brand toys began to take a back seat.

According to Re:creation’s Wickham, however, it’s not just pre-school that should watch out, as all categories can be affected by own label. “The difficulty comes when you are a secondary brand looking to gain listings and space in a retailer where there is an established own label and an established leading brand,” he points out. “The leading brand drives the demand, the own label delivers the margin balance and the new, secondary brand becomes a nice-to-have and not a need-to-have – making the sell-in to retail much harder.”

Bandtock concurs that private label is squeezing secondary and tertiary brands off the shelf, although he also points to the internet as a way to circumnavigate any retail exclusion. 


Private label is obviously an emotive topic within the toy business, but as Bandtock, Wickham and Folliot all agree, there is a way for brands and own label to co-exist successfully.

“The balance comes from ensuring we are offering a credible range to our customers, with great choice at great prices,” states Sainsbury’s Folliot. “This covers both own label and branded products.”

Bandtock adds: “Private label toys and branded toys will always co-exist as they have done for the past 30 years. The question is whether the balance will tip one way or the other. Naturally, we believe that brands will always take up a dominant share of the market, as they are the traffic drivers.”

Wickham concurs: “Own label will not hurt the toy market in the UK significantly. They both offer a solution to different consumers. One is a margin enhancer and tends to be a secondary purchase, while the other (brand) is the supported must-have item that attracts the consumer into purchase. They can exist side by side as the offer is very different.”

Do you have a view on private label and how it is affecting the toy business in the UK? Is it causing damage to suppliers or simply a margin enhancer for retailers? Email


We asked some parent bloggers if they ever buy retailers’ own brand toys and if they think they are good quality and value for money:


“Yes [I buy them], especially the Chad Valley range. It now has a history of its own and isn’t seen as ‘budget’. I don’t think the quality is any better or worse than branded product; they all have to reach a certain standard.”

Sarah Dazjc,

“I buy toys from the Chad Valley range and also toys from supermarkets. I’ve bought various things – toy toasters, bricks, yoyos, skipping ropes, card games and also larger remote control toys – and I’ve always found them to be good value. I have never had a problem with the own branded toys I have purchased and I think they are equally as good quality.”

Emma Button,

“Yes, I buy them, but probably not as a main birthday or Christmas present, more as supplementary presents. We have lots of Chad Valley outdoor toys as it doesn’t matter if they get ruined as they are easy to replace. I think own brand is worse quality definitely, but not so much worse that I wouldn’t buy them. I think there are some toys for which quality matters and others where it doesn’t really matter at all.”

Emma Harris,

“I don’t [buy them] any more. I went down that route one Christmas thinking the prices were great. Come Easter, pretty much most of those toys ended up in landfill sites. It made me put more thought into what I buy and how long it would last. For durability, I tend to try and buy wooden toys or toys that do look like they withstand more than a few playtimes.”

Helen Wills, Actually Mummy

“Thinking about it, I have very rarely bought own brand toys. I suppose I perceive them as poor quality, without even trying them, which is ridiculous really as I buy own brand foods from supermarkets all the time. I imagine that I would be more likely to buy own brand toys if my children were younger, as branding is not such a big issue for them then.”

Pippa Wright, A Mother’s Ramblings

“The quality is just as good as branded products on most things. There are a few toys which wouldn’t pass repeated play, but I think supermarkets and other retailers know they have to be great quality and value or they won’t get purchased.”


“I have always bought Chad Valley and supermarket own branded toys. I think you have to pick and choose where own brand is good enough or as good as, but usually supermarket own are more than good enough.”

Sian To,

“Own brand toys offer excellent value for money and, if that is high on your list of priorities, I can’t see why you would even consider buying branded products.”


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