TALKING SHOP: Messenger Enterprises

Jason and Emma Messenger bought their first toy shop eight years ago ? today, the pair own seven Toymaster stores, the most recent of which is Hamlins in Berkhampstead. Lewis Tyler speaks to MD Jason Messenger...
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How did you get into toy retail?
In 2004 my wife and I had three flower shops in Oxford and we found the opportunity to buy a toy shop in Marlow. We spent a lot of time in toy shops around then as we had young children, and we thought how fantastic it would be to have the opportunity to run our own one.

Once we bought it our main aim was to improve customer service and we didn’'t ever like the thought of a customer walking out of the shop without anything – or not being able to give them what they want.

How do you select your lines?
With the big brands like Sylvanian Families and Lego, we try to be comprehensive, while cherry picking what we like from the less-popular ranges.

We find TV advertised product doesn’t sell as well for us as general, unbranded products. Just because something is on TV it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to fly off the shelves.

How much of a problem is the aggressive pricing of the multiples?
What I’ve noticed the last few years is that, as we go towards Christmas, our figures are down on previous years, whereas at this time of year (March) we seem to consistently trade up.

My belief is that when we get to Q4, suddenly every Tom, Dick and Harry decides they’re going to do toys. Wilkinson fills their shelves, as do Tesco and Sainsbury’s and suddenly everybody becomes a toy retailer. Other times of the year you go into these places and their offering is quite poor. 

I think the competition grows and everyone gets hammered on price and that’s the problem the industry has got at the moment. I think for some time to come Q4 is going to be in decline for indies. However, I think we’ll do better in the first three quarters.

Was your first shop a Toymaster? When did you first join?
It used to be a Youngsters member; when they closed we came up with the idea that we would do all the buying ourselves, independently. 

We went to firms we had been trading with through Youngsters and thought we could trade with them. We found it difficult to open accounts and even with those we could trade with, the amount of forms we had to fill in was so daunting.

We first joined Toymaster in 2006 and I dread to think of the amount of work we would have to do if we were not a member. Especially with their new invoicing system online. 

Having the support of a buying group – especially one that doesn’t dictate to you and is quite flexible – is invaluable. Anyone that ever thinks of joining, I think it’s the best move you could make. The support and the information available makes an incredible difference to how you can run your business. 

How do you pick new locations?
The last three are all shops that have been closing down, or closed. The latest one, in Berkhampstead, I think the person went bankrupt. 

We actually looked at opening a shop in Newbury about a year ago and I spoke to Ian Edmunds at Toymaster. I was all for it and was ready to do it, but he said I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole – they were able to offer that knowledge because they knew other members who have been there and come and gone.

Some people say toys is a recession proof business, do you agree?
To a certain extent, yes. I’m not saying we haven’t seen a drop in sales since it all began, but overall we’ve grown as a business due to the fact we expanded.

We’re seeing increases in customer numbers, but a decrease in average spend. While this Christmas was slightly down on the last, overall about one per cent, our customers were up ten per cent.

I wouldn’t say it’s recession proof, but as long as you manage your costs and you overheads I’d say there’s money to be made in a toy traditional shop. It’s a big thing being able to draw children like we can.

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