BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIAL: Too cool for school?

Do pens, pencils, rulers, rubbers and notebooks have a place in toy shops or should they leave it to the stationery stores? ToyNews asks four indies for their view on whether it’s worth looking at back to school.
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Pens, pencils, rulers, rubbers, notebooks and backpacks: all essential kit when preparing to head back to school for a new year.

But with stationery shops seemingly the first point of call in the run up to a new term, should toy shops resign themselves to leaving the sector well alone or are they missing a trick by letting stationary outlets have it all their own way.

Back in 2011, some toy retailers, reluctant to blur the line between toy and video game shops, initially ignored the release of Skylanders and Disney Infinity. But just as video game indies are now happy to stock Mario plush and gaming figures, the toy retail landscape is returning the favour by embracing the gaming franchises.

The same is happening to some stores with back to school ranges.

ToyNews spoke to several toy shops about their experiences of stocking, or avoiding, school ranges.

"I do stock a few bits, but I have to be careful" - Nigel Kemp, Halesworth Toy Shop

Halesworth Toy Shop has found success in stocking a range of back to school products, but is wary of stepping on the toes of a nearby stationery store.

“I do stock a few bits but I have to be careful as we have a stationery store in town, otherwise I’d do a much bigger range,” Nigel Kemp tells ToyNews.

“We do pens, pencil cases, pen cartridges, rulers, notebooks: things we’ve done for years. I could extend it more but out of decency to the nearby stationery shop, I’ve kept it fairly limited and in turn, he avoids the character-based things that I do.

“There is fairly good margin so I would definitely recommend other people do it if they can.”

While Kemp is aware of retailers being wary of stocking non toys, he believes licensing has opened the door to stationery, with current ranges vibrant enough to belong on his shelves.

He adds: “Some are bright, colourful and character orientated, so that’s what I deal with.”

"Toy shops should be toy shops" - Paul Warner, When I Was a Kid

While some have enjoyed success with back to school ranges, others feel they should be left to the stationery stores, like Wellingborough-based store When I Was a Kid.

“It’s come to a point where if we all stick to what we’re good at, there’s enough for everybody to go around,” owner Paul Warner tells ToyNews.

“We’ve always been quite niche so we wouldn’t go as far as to even stock bags for kids because if you’re a toy shop, you’re a toy shop and that’s what you should do.

Warner believes that by stocking wide ranges of non-toy products, some stores are losing their identity.

He adds: “Through panic, a number of retailers have got themselves into the situation where they’ve seen back to school and thought ‘we can sell pencil cases, we could sell pencils as well, and we could do bags.’ Where do you draw the line?

“We’ve even stopped doing things like balance bikes because are you a toy shop or are you a bike shop?

“I think toy shops should be toy shops, but I get the convenience thing. People want to buy for convenience and like the idea of a one stop shop, which is why Amazon is so successful."

"We're different as we have a left handed section" - Mark Stewart, Wise Owl Toys

Other stores have successfully taken a different approach to stocking back to school ranges.

“We’re slightly different as we have a left handed section,” Wise Owl Toys owner Mark Stewart explains.

“We also do handwriting here; we have a local lady who has produced a set of books called Morrells Handwriting and we sometimes have handwriting workshops in the shop."

Stewart has found ranges sell best towards the start of a new term.

“It trickles throughout the year, but probably sells more coming up to the start of a term or when exams are coming up,” he says.

“We have done our left handed bits for nearly 20 years now and it makes us different from just a bog standard toy shop.

“Our left-handed bits are on the left side of the shop and we have a language and literacy section. We like to be different because there’s no point being like everything else.”

"We have a big WH Smiths next to us so it's not worth it" - Vivienne Watson, The Cambridge Toy Shop

Store competition is clearly key when deciding upon ranges to stock, and for some, the close proximity of stationery stores make back to school ranges a total no go area.

“We have tried it, but we have a big WH Smiths next to us and an art shop that does everything cheap so for us it’s not really worth it,” The Cambridge Toy Shop owner Vivienne Watson tells ToyNews.

“You’ve got to pick your products because we don’t have unlimited space, that’s the problem.

“If I had a lot of spare space I would give it a go and see whether it’s worth competing, but we have so many nice products that we want to buy, we just can’t fit it all in. I need a bigger shop.”

Watson attempted stocking a back to school range at the end of summer 2013, smack bang in the window for the back to school rush, but the issue wasn’t down to products not selling.

“We had the LEGO range and it sold, but it was really at the expense of having other things on the shelf that had a higher margin,” continues Watson.

“It did sell, so I’m not saying it’s a lost cause. It’s just that, for me, it was at the expense of something else because I haven’t got room for everything.”

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