TALKING SHOP: Halesworth Toy Shop & The Toy Box

Nigel Kemp has been in the toy business for 17 years, running two Suffolk shops with his father. Lewis Tyler talked to the independent about Twitter, rising business costs and the new wave of app-cessory toys...
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How did you get started in the toy business?
I was made redundant from Sainsbury’s in 1994 and, with the money, my father and I decided to look for a retail business.

After looking at several we came across a unique, old-fashioned toy shop in Beccles, Suffolk. So we bought that and I started up in November 1995, one month before Christmas – which was good fun and a good initiation into the toy trade.

We ran the shop successfully and did it up and increased the trade quite a bit. Then in 2000 the couple who ran the Halesworth toy shop about 12 miles away in Suffolk wanted to retire and asked if we’d be interested in buying the shop. We’ve been running the two for ten years.

How much have things changed since 1995?
It’s quite a bit different; it’s obviously much tougher. When I first came into the business our oldest customers were 14, or even 15. Now we struggle to get children over the age of 11 into the shop. 

Back then if we ever needed to sell stuff, a sale sign for ten or 20 per cent off would be a good way to encourage people into the store. But people aren’t interested in that any more, it has to be at least half price – they see huge discounts at the multiples, where the sales are up to 70 per cent off.

How do you differentiate yourself from the competition?
We try to offer a more diverse range. Somebody may buy a large Sylvanian Families item if they go to Toys R Us or Argos, then they can’t get the accessories – when they find them in our shop they will usually say: ‘You’re so much better than the big shops.’

Trying to get people into the shop is the problem, though. It’s the footfall you need to increase. Both of our shops we have got right, it’s getting people in there to see it. Once they’re in there they are hooked, really. But business is about keeping costs down.


The Toy Box in Beccles, Suffolk

Do you find it hard to do that?
Well the main ones are rent, business rates and wages. Then there’s little things like refuse collection, fire extinguisher servicing, alarm servicing. They even charge us £82 a year to have our name on a key holder’s register with the police, which used to be free.

What can be done to improve the health of the High Street?
I would like to see landlords get together and perhaps, if there’s any empty shops in town, to offer rent free periods or cheaper rents for a few months. It’s in everybody’s interests. Some landlords nowadays are being a bit greedy trying to get full rent, which is a bit stupid in this climate.

So you picked up a Toy Shop UK Twitteraward for ‘Best Retailer’ – who’s behind the Tweets?
That’s me. But I don’t do much social media. Twitter is the only one because I find it quick and easy to get a point across. I try and be a little bit funny and give some insight into the day-to-day running of a toy shop.

I’ve had a lot of interest from people on Twitter and local people. I advertise it on the door so people know about it and I can highlight events and special offers.

In the past year what lines have you noticed performing well?
I think girls crafts have increased and pre-school is very good. But I think the main success story, and I think most toy retailers will say this, is Lego, which has been tremendous.

And what toys do you expect to do well in the future?
Well I sent my assistant Dan to the toy fairs and he came back very enthusiastic. He was impressed with the number of toys which are linked up to iPhones and iPods.

Are you stocking any of these toys?
Not at the moment but I’m going to look at it – I think we need to do something in that area. The trouble is being undercut by the multiples. There’s no point in me getting them in if Argos and Toys R Us are going to sell them at silly prices.

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