Garden centres might be more synonymous with a garden gnome than a Barbie doll, but they’re becoming more prolific in the UK toy trade.
Like supermarkets, they offer customers supplementary products or services they may not visit for but could be interested in, whether it’s drinks, Christmas trees or toys.
Garden centres also attract a broad demographic, from parents to children, local traders and first-time home owners. Not only that, but many have their own cafe?s, kids’ play centres, Christmas Grottos and other family offerings.
“During weekdays we get a lot of young mothers coming in,” one garden centre worker – who wishes to remain anonymous – told ToyNews. “Like all good retailers we looked at our customers and tried to find other things they’d be interested in – and certainly toys has grown.
“We try and cater for everybody. We’ve tried to emulate what lovely independent toy shops do.”
Some garden centres even have branded toy shops housed within them.
Aquillis Traditional Toys manager Amanda Griffiths has a shop in Ormskirk, but recently opened a second within Golden Days garden centre in Wigan.
“It really has a good level of footfall and the right sort of families that are looking for gifting products,” she says.
“It’s a local place so it’s quite busy. There weren’t toys there before we moved in. We rent a small space stocking traditional wooden products.”
A statement from Hilltop Garden Centre in Ramsden reads: “At Hilltop we stock a huge range of toys and gifts that suit all tastes, budgets and ages. For younger children, we have an amazing selection of Melissa & Doug traditional hand-crafted wooden jigsaw puzzles, for older children, there are books, toys, art sets, traditional board games and jigsaw puzzles, that the whole family can enjoy together.”
Interestingly, of the handful of garden centres we spoke to, all of them stocked more traditional, quirky and quality toys (like those from Asobi and Melissa & Doug), as opposed to a focus on pocket money priced or
collectable products that you might see in non- traditional toy retailers like corner shops.
“Garden centre customers do not expect to find the ‘must have toys’ in these outlets so shelf space can be given to ‘nice to have’ toys,” explains Miles Penhallow, toy division manager for buying group AIS/Play-room, which has 21 garden centre members selling toys in 51 outlets between them.
“This means that less high profile toy companies are often supported, which can only be good for our industry. Given the diverse nature of their product ranges, garden centres are also able to group licensed product from different categories. Two recent examples have been The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo where clothing, toys, gift and stationery have all been displayed together.”
Several suppliers say they’ve seen an increase in garden centres stocking their toys.
“We certainly have,” says MV Sports sales and marketing director Phil Ratcliffe. “Particularly since the demise of Woolworths and the growth in accounts such as Wilkinsons, Dobbies, Go Outdoors, Wyevale etc. Plus, further consolidation in the garden centre sector presents opportunities.
“The dividing lines between different retail sectors are definitely blurring, spurred on by the accelerated growth in online sales. Also in difficult trading conditions retailers do look to other sectors to increase turnover if growth is proving hard to come by in their established ones. The challenge going forward is getting more garden centres to stock toy products in general.”
H Grossman MD Martin Grossman, who supplies centres mainly with outdoor and wheeled toys, adds: “We have seen a definite expansion in the less typical toy retail sectors that now stock toys from us.
“Specifically garages, theme parks, museums and garden centres.”
Asobi MD Thierry Bourret comments: “I have found that garden centres have lots of parking space and normally plenty of display space too. We stock Seedling, Radio Flyer and Vilac in garden centres and they are all doing really well.
“Garden centres have become destination shopping and they are very smooth operators who understand that competing with the large DIY stores on plants is futile, so have decided to work on advice, selling the more unusual and not trying to compete on run of the mill plants that DIY stores can do much cheaper. Maybe this is something that toy shops could try and do by stocking less licensed toys and trying to compete on LEGO prices with the very large multiples. I think large, free car parks help, customers appreciate the convenience. Town centre managers should probably take a leaf out of their books.”
Penhallow says: “In recent years AIS has seen a significant increase in enquiries from garden centres interested in membership. With free and easy parking, good coffee shops and restaurants and a pleasant environment to visit, garden centres will see footfall increase.
“We can offer expertise and experience in many of the product categories that [garden centres] are looking to grow.
“For membership enquiries please email david.standing@ aistores.co.uk”
BLOOM OR BUST
Some independent toy stores are finding it tricky to deal with the increased competition.
“We have a large garden centre about four miles away from us who have recently been permitted to start selling LEGO, presumably because they are majority owned by a large supermarket,” says Toy Hub’s company director Helen Gourley.
“This, together with the opening of a LEGO store in Glasgow, has had a noticeable impact on our LEGO sales. We also notice they have a lot of arts, crafts and game ranges. This gives us a lot of competition, but we generally find that people come back to us once they have tried elsewhere, due to our knowledge of the kids in the area and the items they love.”
The challenge of competing with garden centres is also felt outside of the UK.
Vadim Deylgat, supply chain coordinator for Belgian toy retailer NV Dreamland, says: “Specialist toy retailers feel pressure from all sorts of competitors, though most from online giants like Amazon. I think these USPs of toy retail specialists will become more important in keeping or gaining customers: a wide range of toys on offer, good service, the shopping experience and offering competitive prices.”
It’s true that while these factors are impacting the toy market, the independent retailer still has many points to compete on - a point echoed by Naomi Simpson from Forget- Me-Not Toys and Books.
“The main challenge is competing with the supermarkets and online giants” she explains.
“We are also experiencing competition from garden centres. But we have found an independent toy and book shop can flourish, even in these times, if the location is right.”
THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE (TOY) BOX
There are a host of alternative retailers that also stock toys; here's a quick round up:
Local convenience stores have been selling trading cards, sweets and sticker packs for years. Pocket money products like blind bag toys and LEGO Minifigures are also well suited to local stores. New kids’ collectables Floppets launched with Smiths News and Menzies Distribution.
The independent book retailer has faced tough competition from Amazon over the past decade, but they still offer a charming outlet for gift lines and games. Waterstones has stocked more licensed toys in recent years, such as LEGO Lord of the Rings and Gears of War board games.
National discount chains like B&M Bargains and Poundland may be taking market share away from toy retailers, but they offer a fast way to clear old lines. Low price points may not always mean high margins, but discount stores’ value for money certainly attracts customers.
Video game stores
High Street retailers of boxed video games have had to deal with digital downloads, as well as fierce competition from supermarkets and online stores. Many – including GAME – have branched into other categories, notably gift products, CD repairs, posters and even toys.
Stocking educational, historic or scientific-focused toys, museums also lend themselves
well to licensed ranges. Some even sell own- brand toys, stationery and other gifting products.
Family adventure parks are all about fun, making toys a perfect product type for their gift shops.