Why it's such an important Christmas for Yorkshire's independent toy shops and why they need our support
Only it hasn’t quite panned out as Louise hoped. “Who would have thought in your first year there’d be a national lockdown where you can’t open your shop and you’re doing home schooling with your kids?” she says.
It’s been a tough year for everyone, and those in retail have been among the hardest hit. The parlous state of the nation’s high streets has been well documented and for independent toy shop owners this is their busiest time of year, but after being in lockdown during November they have spent the last 10 days trying to make up for lost time.
Louise lives in Robin Hood’s Bay and her children go to the village school. Her shop specialises in wooden toys, games and puzzles for babies upwards. “I’d had this idea that a toy shop would be a good idea in the village for a few years, not only for locals but also visitors,” says mother-of-two Louise.
Wooden trains, spinning tops and Miffy soft toys are among her bestsellers. “Quite often it’s the parents, or grandparents, who recognise them and start reminiscing about their childhood. They also see that the wooden toys are better for the environment, they tend to last longer and some of them educate as well as entertain the children.”
Louise concentrates on selling more traditional toys. “I try to only have toys in the shop that I would love in my house for my children to play with. I’ve got two little ones, they’re now six and three, and the wooden toys they were given as newborns have survived and the plastic ones have broken and have gone.
“The wooden trains I used to play with when I was little have come out of my mum’s loft and been played with by my children and they’re still as good as they were and they can be passed down to the next generation, and I think that’s really important.”
Children can, of course, be fickle creatures and fashions come and go faster than you can say Cabbage Patch Kids.
However, Louise feels attitudes, certainly among parents, are changing. “Traditional toys teach you and your children so many more skills than you can learn from a computer game. If you give these toys to children then they will play with them.”
There is also a growing awareness of the ‘‘use it, or lose it’’ ethos and the importance of supporting independent businesses whether they are toy shops or your local green grocer and butcher.
“Although this year has been hard for businesses, I think it’s made people look at what’s on their doorstep,” says Louise. “They can see where their money’s going. I know that this Christmas I’ve been spending my money in the shops I want to see on the high street next year and the years to come, because if you don’t do it now then they might not be.”
The pandemic has changed the way people shop, though this can perhaps become an advantage for smaller independents. “Because my shop is really small we have one family in at a time,” says Louise. “So people have to wait outside but when they come in they get the shop to themselves, and they can browse without worrying about bumping into someone else, and it becomes a more exclusive experience for them.”
Lisa Clay has been running Armadillo Toys in trendy Chapel Allerton, in Leeds, for the past 17 years. She sells toys suitable for babies through to 10-year-olds as well as jigsaws and games. “Family games and jigsaws have been more popular than ever this year, and we’ve increased our range enormously to try and meet demand,” she says.
Like Louise, she focuses on toys that she feels will stand the test of time. “I didn’t like the fact that my children were picking toys that were highly promoted through children’s TV programmes and when they actually got them they didn’t want them. I felt there was much better stuff out there and that’s why I started the shop, to find those products and buy things that were good value and good quality and something that children would get enjoyment out of.”
This year, though, has been tough. She had to furlough her staff earlier in the year and carry on working herself. “It’s been twice as hard for half the money and it’s been a fight to keep the business going.”
Lisa has had a website for the shop for the past 12 years but found it hard to compete with the likes of Amazon – not on price, but being further down the list on google searches. However, recently she’s noticed a change.
“There’s been a shift in how people are finding us and that’s because more people are wanting to shop locally. So the majority of my online business now is local customers. We’ve had people saying ‘we want to support you’ and that sentiment has been very well received by us and some of the other businesses here in Chapel Allerton, and it’s keeping us going.”
As well as a loyal local following, Lisa has regular customers from as far afield as Rotherham, York and even Whitley Bay. “We can offer our expertise and advice. People might come in and they haven’t a clue what to buy for their grandson. They might say ‘he’s a three-year-old boy and we want to spend £10,’ and we can help them choose something that will hopefully be a good present.”
Lisa’s shop is back open again and she is hoping for a good end to the year. “It’s make or break, because if we have a really good Christmas then there’s the hope that we can get through next year as things maybe get back to normal.”
According to Toymasters, there are in the region of 600 independent toy stores in the UK and Ireland, though this figure is certainly less than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Bill Deakin opened Silly Billy’s Toy Shop in Hebden Bridge toy shop in 1997, the year Tony Blair became prime minister and Tamagotchis (remember them?) were the best-selling Christmas toys.
He’s seen the toy industry change dramatically since then. “When I first opened, we had Woolworths, Toys R Us and I was peppered with independents in my area and a lot of those have disappeared now.”
Toys have changed, too. “I used to sell Hornby trains and Scalextric when I first started but they’ve gone with the advent of PlayStation and you have to move with the times.”
Today, Lego is his biggest seller, while the likes of Playmobil, Orchard Toys and House of Marbles are also popular.
Hebden Bridge is famed for its independent shops, which are a big draw for visitors. At least they are normally. “It’s such a lovely place which is why you get people coming here, but this year because of the covid restrictions we’ve not had the customer footfall,” says Bill.
In the past few months he’s set up an online side of the business and this, along with click and collect, kept the shop ticking over. But there’s a lot riding on December.
“Christmas is pivotal to our year. Two-thirds of our annual takings are taken in the last two or three months.”
But he says the town’s communal spirit has been crucial this year. “It’s a very close-knit community. Hebden Bridge really does support local shopping and it has helped keep us going.”
And he says he’s determined to weather the storm. “It’s hard work but I’ve still got that enthusiasm. I believe in giving a good service and looking at things from the other side of the counter, and I think that’s why we’re still here.”
Armadillo Toys, Chapel Allerton, Leeds, tel 0113 2667500, www.armadillotoys.co.uk
Silly Billy’s Toy Shop, Hebden Bridge, tel 01422 843 304, shop.sillybillystoyshop.com
The Toy Shop, Robin Hood’s Bay, tel 01947 880088, www.thetoyshoprhb.co.uk