As the industry mourns the loss of Toys R Us, the Associated Independent Stores group readies another morale-boosting gathering of brands with their yearly Spring trade show. Here, Robert Hutchins catches up with the organisation's head of toys, Miles Penhallow.

With one of the UK's best loved toy shops, Toys R Us, being the latest to fall victim to administration, the world of toy retailing may be in the midst of a seismic shift.

When the retailer first landed in the UK from its headquarters in the US in the late 80s and early 90s, it offered a promised land of ‘toys in their millions’ like no other had done before, with product stacked sky high on floor to ceiling shelves. It brought something new to toy retail at the time.

Yet, 30 years down the line, and Toys R Us has fallen into the hands of creditors, become hamstrung by bad debt to the tune of an formidable $5bn.

While the events of February 28th left some 3,200 Toys R Us workers uncertain of what future they had with the company as it began administration proceedings, on a much wider level, it raised the question, what happens to toy retail now? What do consumers want, if not that 'magical place' that once was Toys R Us?

“I expect that the face of toy retailing will be changing over the next ten years,” Miles Penhallow, head of toys and chil- dren’s gifts at Play Room, the toy division of AIS, tells ToyNews.

“So many toy purchases are made on impulse. I believe that single store inde- pendent retailers in the high street will find retailing even more challenging as the full effect of internet sales is felt.”

The rise of the likes of Amazon and eBay has been the constant headache to the independent toy retailer, with fewer overheads to manage meaningless pressure on margin to be made, meaning lower prices. Add to this, the convenience that platforms like Amazon offer and the advent of same day home delivery, and it really is no surprise that online shopping has become the juggernaut that it is.

However, the independent can fight back, and will, according to Penhallow, who believes that the high street retailer’s best weapon is diversification.

“The high street will always attract shoppers and I believe that our department stores are best placed to prosper due to the variety of products that they can offer in their stores,” he continues.

“Our members are continually investing in their fixtures and fittings and work hard at being at the centre of their local communities. Our more prestigious stores such as Jarrold & Sons in Norwich and WJ Daniel & Co in Windsor have used their unique his- tories to create a brand in which discerning consumers want to feel part of.”

On top of this, Penhallow predicts a shift in the numbers of alternative retailers selling toys, including an increase in visitor attractions and garden centres.

“The show is an important event for our buyers and so making sure we have the right suppliers in attendance, good deals and correct ambience for doing business are our key objectives to enable us to put on a successful show,” he continues to explain.

The annual AIS show – one known for its friendly, relaxed atmosphere and regarded better still for its lunch time menu – is now in its tenth year. The show’s dates are an important entry in the diaries of indies.

The show welcomes buyers from depart- ment stores, garden centres, high street specialist toy shops and visitor attractions year on year, and 2018 will be no exception, cited as one of the show’s biggest years to date, being – by the way – the only UK fair of 2018 to see Hasbro, LEGO, Mattel and MGA all under one roof.

“The other main difference to the toy fair is that all of the exhibitors have been endorsed by our membership as key suppli- ers,” says Penhallow.

“We are primarily here for our members and offering a domestic supplier show at their group headquarters is a prerequisite of all the product category divisions at AIS. Cranmore Park is already the venue for na- tional shows including flooring, schoolwear and lingerie. In addition to the Independent Toy and Gift Show, we also run two season- al toy import shows for our membership.”

Previously held in April, this year’s Inde- pendent Toy and Gift Show will take place on May 1st and 2nd.

“Our previous dates in April were always disrupted by Easter and the general consen- sus was that altering the date could boost numbers even further,” explains Penhallow.

“We believe that we have developed a very successful show formula and so any other changes will be minimal. Following last year’s successful STEM theme, expect to see soft toy displays as we explore the world of plush.

“We have also refined our ‘single product show offers’ which are available to all visiting buyers. These will be known as One Hit Wonders, and details will be given to

all visitors on arrival. These are first come first served single product offers are strictly while stocks last.”

So, armed with what he has billed ‘the strongest exhibitor lie-up to date,” Penhal- low is confident not only of another suc- cessful year for the AIS show in Cranford Park, but for another year of success for toy retail, a ‘resilient bunch,’ that will work and adapt even harder to the challenges faced.’

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