This will be the year in which independent toy retailers wrestle power back from the clutches of the major players and the industry’s big boys, is the message to emerge from the independent retail scene as we kickstart 2019.
While the likes of Mothercare, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons paint a somewhat bleak picture of 2018’s year end with trading results released at the start of the year, the sentiment couldn’t be more to the contrary when it comes to the UK’s independent toy shops.
From Scotland to the South coast of England, ToyNews has been gathering reports that Christmas really has performed a trick for independent and specialist retailers, some of whom are reporting profits of 15 per cent on the same period one year ago.
A successful Christmas period for many of these outlets has boosted confidence that despite the many hurdles that the UK faces as we now march into 2019 and the eventual delivery of Brexit- whatever shape that will take - has set in motion the belief that 2019 truly will belong to the smaller players on the world’s toy stage.
Gerard Gourley, director and senior technician of the Dunblane toy shop, ToyHub told ToyNews that they certainly do think this “is going to be a successful year for the independent toy retailer, all across the country.
“With the loss of the big boys, suppliers themselves are starting to come to us first and do us the product first, and it is fantastic.”
ToyHub was one of the first retailers in the UK to get its hands on Ty Flippables in the run up to Christmas. The store was handpicked for an exclusive soft launch of the product, which according to Gourley, “absolutely flew out of the store as soon as it came in.”
He said: “We stocked 70 of them and within a matter of days, they were all gone. They were absolutely flying, and it was fantastic that we, as an independent toy shop, helped Ty launch that product - they are now doing a full launch.
“So it’s true that suppliers are now seeing a strength in the independent toy retailer again. The loss of the big boys has been very good for the independents.”
Gourley’s story contains echoes of that of Somerset’s own Kids Stuff, part of the Toymaster buying group who this Christmas has seen sales come in at £3,000 up on December 2017.
The holiday period was in fact labeled as “superb” by Lee Borastero, Kids Stuff’s owner.
“Christmas was superb for us. We had a very good year last year and we are very excited about moving into 2019,” he said.
“We have money in the bank and shelves that need restocking. Toymaster asks, ‘what are you doing to be successful?’ and the answer, nothing.
“We don’t do slime, we don’t do LOL Surprise… the only collectables we do are LEGO Minifigures and Hot Wheels. We are just doing something right with the lines we have as what you would call a traditional toy shop.”
Borastero admits that over the Christmas period, his online operation did business to the tune of exactly one item. The rest was through in-store custom with shoppers travelling in some cases 20 miles into visit the store.
“You see in the news that the big players are moaning - Mothercare, Sainsburys, Morrisons, but we are flying. I think this will be the year for the independents. Customers are backing us and wanting to back us.”
It’s a community mindset that the consumer has found themselves in, suggested Amanda Alexander, owner of the Didsbury toy shop, Giddy Goat Toys.
“Consumers are finding themselves in this conscientious mindset. They are wanting quality toys, they are wanting value for money. I hear customers moaning about ‘plastic tat’ and avoiding it, before buying something traditional from me, and I think they are understanding of the importance of an independent toy retailer to the community and they are showing willing to support that.”
The caveat to that is “as long as the prices aren’t too high.” Price is a major factor being weighed up by consumers today and ‘value for money’ has never been as precious as it is now.
“Whether it’s Brexit or just consumer expectations, value for money is paramount,” says ToyHub’s Gourley.
“If I see a product that is £10 and I think I won’t pay £10 for that, I know my customers won’t.”
“Customers are looking for quality when they part with their money,” agrees Giddy Goat’s Alexander.
“We are lucky because we are in an affluent area and have customers who like and support us. And we appreciate them, and for that we return to them quality and appreciation.”
Yet despite the chirpy disposition of many of the UK’s retailers, the topic of Brexit still looms overhead, casting an ominous shadow over what the UK’s economy, and retail scene, will look like come March.
While in Scotland, Gourley can report no real rumbles of Brexit trepidation, around Leeds and Manchester - where we find Giddy Goat Toys and Armadillo Toys, the topic weighs somewhat heavier.
“Brexit has got me worried,” said Alexander. “I want to keep my head under the covers and just hope that it all gets reversed because no one will be immune from it. Even some of our suppliers are worrying about what's coming in from Europe."
Armadillo Toys seconds the sentiment, stating that more than confidence, 2019 brings uncertainty for all retailers, not just the independent.
“We are heading into a year of uncertainty and we are going to have to depend on our suppliers to give us the best deals that they can,” said the shop’s spokesperson.
“I think once we know what we are doing, we can all get on and do it and from 2020 onwards, we will be rubbing our hands together.”
But already, some are. Back in Scotland Gourley is primed for a year of solid licenses in the shape of The LEGO Movie 2, Playmobil Movie and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and while the jury is out on the innovation in the toy space currently, there is a definite buzz this toy fair season.