THE BIG INTERVIEW: Duncan, Gary and Stuart Grant, The Entertainer

The UK?s biggest independent toy chain's owner Gary Grant (middle) and his directors ? and sons ? Stuart (right) and Duncan (left), explain how the retailer is offering the traditional toy shop ideal on a national scale.
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Speaking to Gary Grant, we find out what has changed since the first Entertainer store opened in 1981, why treating kids like royalty is important and what can be done to make toy launches more exciting…

In terms of expansion, 2012 was your biggest year yet. How do you plan to keep the momentum?

The company has been going for 31 years. It started in 1981 and from opening to 1992 we opened three shops. Then between 1992 and 2002 we opened a further 25 shops and another 50 between 2002 and 2012. So that just shows the stepping up of our growth. 

The industry has changed dramatically since the end of 2008, which marked the closure of Woolworths. When you have a retailer, which I think at the time was 14 per cent of the toy industry and had 880 stores offering toys in all of them, when that retailer goes what gets left is a vacuum for toys. 

Obviously people don’t stop buying toys so they start to change their buying habits and they go to other places.

Maybe they’re going to another town, or maybe they’re turning to the internet. But assuming that people haven’t given up buying toys, the fact that there’s now not a toy offering in some High Streets, means that there is a huge opportunity for a toy retailer to expand.

How have things changed since you first opened?

Retail is changing. It isn’t all about boxes on tin shelves now – it’s about a retail experience. That’s our objective: create an environment with knowledgeable staff and a great collection of products at fair pricing to enable something that keeps bringing the customers back. 

Would you ever consider the super store model?

No. That’s not our remit, we’re not an out of town seller. We are a retailer of toys in towns and communities that have regular footfall.

We are where children are with their pocket money. We are where children are after school, where people go shopping as a family on Saturday. We know the model that works for us, and large out of town super stores – that’s not us. 

Are you bringing the traditional toy shop back to the High Street?

If you talk to an adult or a grandparent and you allow them to reminisce about what a toy shop was for them when they were three, five or seven, it would’ve been a magical, inviting place.

We do many things to engage with children in the store, from swap days to character visits. I guess in everything we do it’s about saying: ‘How can we make a child king or queen for a day? How can we make them feel really special?’

So how do you do that?

It comes about by observing what’s going on in the shop. 

Once, one of our members of staff completely overlooked a child that was at the counter and went on to serve the customer behind the child. I went ballistic, because it is a children’s shop. To overlook the child and sell to the adult behind them because they’re taller – we really failed that child.

We now have steps at our counters so children can walk up and pay for the product themselves. That’s part of being treated as somebody special. It’s making them experience something no other shop in the High Street [would do] - You wouldn’t get that in Next, you wouldn't get it in WHSmiths, you wouldn’t get it in Tesco.

So when they are asked when they are a parent, they can reminisce about their experiences in a toy shop the same way their parents or grandparents can. 

How do you work with suppliers and brands?

We work much closer with suppliers and licensors in how we professionally put our windows together – we have a proper window programme and now everything is professionally printed. When suppliers are about to launch a range our windows marry in with those product launches.

We also have character visits in-store. We probably have three or four characters around some of our shops every week. 

With Moshi Monsters Moshlings Series 4 we opened our shops early to launch [the range]. It’s trying to create excitement and some of the razzmatazz around something, rather than just putting it on the shelf.

Other industries make a big deal about their launches and as an industry we just put things out.

We’ve got to start competing. We’ve got to learn from other industries and make the toy industry just as good as them.

If Nintendo was launching a new game, you wouldn’t stroll into the market and just find it – you would know about it. The toy industry needs to be the same.

It's not just about the TV advertising, the promotion, whatever it might be, has got to drop through to retail. Because if they spend all that money doing those things and then people wander in the shop and [the product’s] not out or it’s on the top shelf, then the industry collectively is not getting the rewards from the investment that’s being made in marketing.

What’s the best part of your job?

Apart from seeing the Saturday night figures come in? It’s the buying that makes me buzz. As a family, the most satisfying thing for me is to have my two oldest sons in the business.

Duncan Grant – he’s our multichannel director so he’s involved with the Internet, with strategy and to some degree, with the finance side of the business because he’s a chartered accountant.

Then there’s Stuart Grant, my next son down who more people know because he’s our buying director.

Just working with the boys every day is one of the highlights.

Another thing that’s been a highlight over the years is that as a company we support a lot of charities. We give ten per cent of our profits every year to charities and seeing the difference our business has been able to make, predominantly in the lives of many children, has also been an enjoyment. 

Next, we speak to Duncan Grant, director of multichannel and Stuart Grant, buying director, about how the pair came to work for their father and how, in these ultra price-competitive times, the successful retailer is giving consumers a reason to shop with them, both on the High Street and online...

So how has business been?

Duncan Grant: It’s been good. We’ve been trading up and we’re ahead of budget, which is good. I think it's a difficult trading environment. You only have to look at the NPD data to see the trade had a difficult Christmas.

Stuart Grant: On top of that, the discounting and level of promotions is unprecedented. Every year we say it, and you think it can’t get any worse, but I genuinely think this year’s been pretty bad.

I think a lot of people will see a decline in margin and turnover. There are very few items that, if they’re not price promoted, are still selling. With things like Furby we’ll sell everything we can get. But there’s other key things in the industry that if you’re not price promoting, you’re not selling. So it is a tough environment.

How do you decide to what level you’re going to match or compete on price? Obviously you want to protect margins…

Stuart: We tend to put together quite a robust plan for Christmas and tend to stick to our plan. A lot of the discounting out there is below cost selling.

Bearing in mind we only sell toys, we can’t match what a grocer is doing because they’re making money on the food footfall. 

Duncan: The important thing is that price is just one element of our formula. I don’t believe that in the long term you can run a successful retailer purely on price advantage, because someone will always be cheaper at some point, either now or in the future.

It doesn’t seem to be hurting you too much. The Entertainer is consistently trading up…

Duncan: Well we’ve been working really hard. We’ve invested a huge amount of time and money in making sure that we’re doing the best we can possibly do and give the customer the best possible experience.

We are trading up, but we’re working twice as hard as we might have had to five years ago. 

We’ve got some great people around the business who are very good at what they do and they work incredibly hard, from the store managers to the training teams – every department of the business pulls together.

Stuart: I think also we’re maturing quite a lot as a business. Our window displays and the store environment are light years ahead of where we were five years ago, so a lot of that is driving incremental growth for us. I think we’re becoming a High Street brand whereas maybe ten years ago we were perceived as a specialist toy shop, or a little independent. I think all of that is delivering growth.

Duncan: The Entertainer of five years ago would not be being as successful as it is at the moment. It would be struggling, but we work harder January to October than we do in November and December, as far as a head office team, because we’ve only got ten months a year to look at every area of the business and move it up a notch. So you have to have that continual drive to improve, because all the other retailers are doing the same thing – Amazon gets better every year. The grocers do different things every year. There’s always a threat.

So how do you do it better? What’s the formula?

Duncan: The focus for us is not to go head-to-head against another retailer and try and be better than them. The focus for us is to create a formula which is unique, which sets us apart from other retailers.

Number one is the range. We want to have promotions which are better than other retailers; we aim to have products which other retailers haven’t found; we aim to have fantastic customer service and a really exciting store experience that is relaxing for parents or the toy buyer, but exciting for the child. 

We also aim to have a fantastic multi-channel experience where you can order online and pick up in-store in 30 minutes. We aim to have great marketing, which really explains what we’ve got and what the brand means. 

Look at our locations. We’re in shopping centres, the High Street and community locations – which is different to the big box, out-of-town retailers and it’s different from the online only retailers and the grocers. So we’ve immediately set ourselves apart.

What are your first memories of your Dad’s shops?

Stuart: My first memory was when Keepers were big. They were little snails, you undid their shells and you could keep things in them. They came and visited the store and I met them, and I remember being super excited that I’d met these characters. That was my first experience in our Amersham shop.

Duncan: My earliest memory probably wasn't of the stores. I can remember helping on the weekend to go and get stock from a warehouse, but not in the way you would think of it now, it was essentially a large lock-up where we would go to get stock ready for the weekend. 

When did you first start working for the shops?

Stuart: I think when I was six..

Duncan: Do you mean legally? [laughter]

Stuart: Legally, I think we both ‘had to work,’ is probably the best way of putting it - we worked every single Christmas in the warehouse pricing up toys.

Duncan: Going back ten or fifteen years, one of the biggest jobs was pricing product because we used to do it with a little gun rather than doing the shelf all at once. We used to work in the pricing room for £2 an hour.

Stuart: Good money in those days!

Duncan: Yes, so that was probably the earliest time when we worked in the business. 

You can’t really separate the business from the family. It’s like another member of the family really, so we’d talk about it over Sunday lunch or in the evenings or whenever we got together as a family. It’s not really separate – although officially we weren’t on the payroll – we always knew what was going on. I joined full time in 2006.

Stuart: I applied to university then deferred it for a year to travel, deferred it for another year and then I thought, ‘actually, I know this is what I want to do – why would I spend three years at University to do what I want to do anyway?’ Then I joined our web department and worked my way up.

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