It's no secret that the majority of big name retailers have had a monopoly on the digital trading space for some years, now.
Household name retailers such as Argos, Toys R Us and even The Entertainer have been perfectly positioned to tap into the vast wealth of online digital resources.
In fact, last year saw total online sales at The Entertainer – the UK’s fastest growing family-run omnichannel toy retailer – surge by 60 per cent year on year in the five weeks leading up to December 27th.
And it was no accident that the number of online sales collected in just one of the retailer’s stores alone jumped a massive 81.7 per cent, as increasingly, the digital movement has been at the forefront of the firm’s global operation.
However, terms like ‘Cloud technology’, ‘Click and Collect’ and ‘omnichannel’ are beginning to infiltrate the aisles of smaller toy retailers too.
I’ll admit now, half of this feature itself has been written with some kind of Smart device, then saved to the (ominously named) Cloud and ‘pinged’ to my email account.
So it’s no surprise to me, that when Andy Mulcahy, insight editor at Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) talks about technology in society today, he describes us as a species that “walks around with faces stuck to mobile phones.”
And it’s not just a habit restricted to train journeys. So too the High Street has become increasingly digitised, and experts now suggest that in order to make any lasting impact on today’s consumer, the High Street vendor must, as Mulcahy puts it: “become relevant to the digital age.”
But how can the independent retailer make digital work for them? How important is it that they do so? And just what the hell is an omnichannel anyway and how does it sell toys?
Clare Rayner is the founder of the annual Future High Street Summit, the Retail Champion and an avid campaigner for High Street prosperity.
In a position that sees her work closely with independent retailers, Rayner believes it’s through embracing the e-tailer movement that High Street stores stand the best chance of a prosperous future.
“It is essential in this day and age for any serious business to have a digital presence,” she tells ToyNews. “Particularly for toy shops, where the end users are children. After all they are the digital natives, they have never lived without access to the internet, touch screens or mobile phones.
“Therefore [digital] is something that even the staunchest traditionalist will have to take full advantage of eventually, as fewer customers will engage with retailers they can’t find or interact with in the digital world.”
For the major outlets, this is already a reality and IMRG’s Mulcahy notes that for the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, being omnichannel has become imperative to their survival and attempts at success But whereas the majors have to ensure they are prevalent across all platforms from Click and Collect to Twitter, Mulcahy says that for the independent toy shop, it is gauging exactly what level of digital presence is needed that is the key to conquering this new consumer playground.
“There are many various options available to independent retailers,” adds Rayner. “And it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.
“As a minimum, setting up a Google listing (‘Google My Business’) is a no-brainer. It is completely free of charge and you don’t even need a website, it’s a great way to get that digital ball rolling.”
When ‘going digital’, it is easy to get carried away with the various initiatives popular with the larger retailers, such as Click and Collect services.
“It’s pretty much the biggest digital initiative on the High Street at the moment,” Mulcahy explains. “It’s a great thing for the customer and it’s a very useful way for the consumer to know their product is going to be in stock.
“So, where competition used to be about prices, over time it has become more about digital experience and increasingly about convenience.”
However, it does come with a warning, and for those concerned about costs, then weighing up the management of an e-commerce website against its return is an important consideration.
“The tough part for a small business is that you have to do everything yourself, you are the accountant, the marketing person and the digital one, too,” says Helen Gourley, owner of Scottish independent toy retailer, Toy Hub.
“We had a website designed for us and it was fabulous, but it cost us way more than it brought in for us, so you do have to watch your money with that side of things, because you can waste it quite quickly.”
Of course, one of the most cost effective ways to stamp your mark on the digital High Street, according to Rayner, is through social media.
With the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest being the first choice for most, the greatest investment involved in such platforms is in their daily management and engagement with online consumers.
But with every investment, you’d expect a return and when it comes to your own time, why not add some monetary value to those Facebook page likes?
“Ultimately, digital needs to earn its keep, and the most obvious way to achieve that payback is by adding transaction capability,” continues Rayner. “This can be done through eBay, Amazon or Etsy, or through your own branded, ecommerce.”
Using the PayPal service, Luan Hall, owner of independent toy retailer Fairies n Frogs, has been selling toys through her shop’s Facebook page for the last few years, and has been truly delighted with the outcome.
“It’s been working really well for us,” Hall explains. “People see our posts from all over the country, and because we don’t trade on Amazon or eBay, it has been a great alternative route to digital.”
For Hall, online operations only currently make up around ten per cent of her store’s business, but with a new website in the pipeline, she expects this to increase over time as digital presents “a cheap alternative to advertising.”
North of the border, Toy Hub’s Gourley believes that in a domain where the independent fights head to head with the major retailers, it’s indies that are better poised to win the social media battle.
“With Facebook and Twitter, you can immediately put your personality across on them,” Gourley says.
“People buy from people, which is hard to emulate on a website, but on social media, it is so easy to sell yourself and have a point of difference to someone like Smyths.”
And it’s a sentiment Mulcahy readily supports, believing that in a space where the indie can be a lot more agile than the major, “is a hell of an opportunity for small businesses.”
Ultimately though, the appeal of the indie toy retailer is in its High Street presence, and driving footfall is the biggest concern to any retailer whiling away the quiet Tuesday afternoons with a spot of Twitter.
And Rayner believes that bringing the digital in-store is the next big step for the indie scene.
“Digital is essential, and the physical and digital need to work together to provide the customer with the experience they need,” she explains. “Ensuring customers can interact with product and then transact online,
or buy online and collect in-store, is almost the standards expected by the modern shopper, and retailers can’t afford to not to keep up with the customer’s demands.”
While the High Street is evolving, it remains true that people love shopping, and as long as the independent retailer retains its uniqueness, there is a lifespan for them on the High Street.
And rather than being counter-productive, digital is offering indies even more means of showcasing the many ways in which they differ from their deep-pocketed competition.