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A day on the front lines I

t was at a point halfway through the day, when I was trying to work out how many rubber balls to put into each store’s delivery of pocket money items, that I forgot I was editor of Toy World and felt like a toy retailer; I was entirely consumed by the task at hand. Working in a toy

shop was a revealing experience, and showed me just how hard and rewarding a job it really is. As editor of the UK’s leading toy trade magazine, it seemed strange that I had never once experienced the job that so many of our readers do. So, with that in mind, I got in touch with Mark Buschhaus and Stephen Barnes, owners of the Toy Barnhaus independent toy retail chain, to see if I could come and work as part of their team for a day. They were more than happy to accomadate my request, and so it was on Monday 28th October that I turned up at Crawley’s County Mall to start my day on the front lines of toy retail. Entering the mall, my first glimpse of Mark and

Stephen was of them busily putting the final touches to a stall on the lower floor of the mall below their shop which is situated on the mall’s upper floor. As part of their half-term events, not only were they running a Playmobil-figure treasure hunt throughout the mall, but they were running the stall on the lower level to showcase some key ranges and let kids play with the toys. The stall was filled with products ranging from the strong-performing Robo Fish to a dedicated play section of Wow Toys’ latest items, but it was also where shoppers picked up the treasure hunt entry forms. Mark told me that although shoppers could pick up

their treasure hunt entry forms from both the stall and the shop, they could only enter them into the prize draw by going into the store; a simple and effective way of controlling the flow of foot traffic. All-in-all, the treasure hunt itself had over 650 entrants, and Mark and Stephen caught more than a few parents having pictures of themselves taken with the life-size characters on their walks around the mall. The week after, Stephen told me that the half-term trading period was very good for Toy Barnhaus, with the Crawley branch doing especially well. He said: “The stall and the products on display throughout the mall in glass cabinets definitely helped, and more so than ever before we were able to actually demonstrate products downstairs. This resulted not so much in sales there and then, but over the following days we have picked up good sales on these items.”

Building on the past To give you a bit of background, when Woolworths sadly collapsed, former employees Mark and Stephen pooled £24,000 of their redundancy money and sank it into stock for their first branch in the County Mall. It’s hard not to be impressed at the rate their business has grown from one shop to seven in just five years. Their days at Woolworths visibly influence their current business model, which invokes a feeling of

28 Toyworld

familiarity when you walk into their shops. Their approach to pocket money toys, and the prominence they give to those items in store, is just one thing they took with them. They also keep the shelves packed with items and stacked high; a visible reminder of their roots.

The pair reflect that one of the reasons Woolworths collapsed was its growing inflexibility and emphasis on following a company-wide stocking plan, as opposed to investing faith in store managers to know what will work where in their stores. It’s a mistake they have pledged not to repeat in their own business. Mark and Stephen commented: “The promotional ends are just one thing that we inherited from Woolies, with the sale lines with point-of-sale on them. We also really get behind various lines such as lunchboxes, backpacks, and also Lindt chocolate at Christmas and Easter. The seasonality of our stores is also something we got from Woolies, with the paddling pools at the front in Summer and the boxed games for Christmas. Also, our people management has been derived from our previous employers, with the emphasis on staff incentives and daily briefings.” The six other stores all operate under a trusted manager (the Crawley branch is managed by Mark and Stephen), and competiton between all branches is actively encouraged. These competitions range from something as simple as which branch can sell the most of a certain product, to a business-wide single largest transaction by a member of staff competition (at time of print, the biggest single transaction stood at just over £300). Mark added: “All our branches are set targets, but between the stores there is a lot of healthy competition. Some of our managers would rip the shirt off your back for a bestseller. However, we always encourage the motto that you cannot stick on stock if you are not selling it. If it is out the back of the store, it’s fair game.

There is

always banter between the stores, and the manager of the bottom store will be worried, while the top one will be very happy.”

At the end of the day When I sat down to write this article, I tried not to put

something so obvious as “by the end of the day I was tired out”...but I just did, and I really was. Mark and Stephen had me helping with deliveries, splitting deliveries of toys up between branches, fronting up shelves, getting the pocket money items into their respective baskets, and helping to man the stand on the ground floor. But I was just one cog in the machine, and a very small one at that. The staff at Toy Barnhaus are enthusiastic and dedicated to their jobs, and carry out their duties with a smile at all times; Mark told me a smile was part of the uniform. The Toy Barnhaus boys have built something very special in their corner of the UK, and they are eyeing further expansion into more stores and a heightened online retail presence as the next steps. But they have made sure to learn from their experiences at Woolworths; it’s important not to rush things, timing in life is everything.

In a bid to get even closer to the toy trade, Toy World editor Tom Roberts spent a day working in toy retail at Toy Barnhaus’ Crawley branch during the busy October/November half-term trading period.

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