Retailers from across the nursery and toy sector have come together for a virtual conference, addressing and discussing the uncertainties and challenges being faced by the industry during the UK’s lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The team at Progressive Preschool and PreschoolNews.net hosted the meeting, which took place this morning (Friday 24 April) and a wide range of retailers in conversation about the current situation and the difficulties involved in planning for the future. Those in attendance were: Jason Heller (Huggle, London), Sarah Hanson (Hoiti Toyti, Bromsgrove), Amanda Heppel (A3 Baby Barn, Surrey), Emma Charlesworth (Babybirds, Weymouth), Ian Davidson (Babylicious, Wirral) and Jo Studholme (Pushchair Expert, Lincolnshire).
Talking from his shop premises, Ian kicked things off, revealing that he is still coming into the store on a regular basis in order to keep things ticking over and to process online orders.
“We are not physically open for customers but we are still operational and it’s going quite well. We are reasonably busy with orders still coming through from online and of course social media is doing well for everyone. It’s important to be really active and engage with customers. There was some confusion in the early days, but a car seat is an essential purchase for new parents so we need to make sure we can still offer a service wherever we can. Prospective parents are anxious enough at the moment without adding to their stresses!”
Also focusing on the online side of her business is Amanda, who has gone one step further and is offering customers the opportunity to come into the shop one at a time or even enjoy a virtual shopping experience if they don’t want to leave home at all.
“When we went into lockdown we had hundreds of orders in the system,” she explained. “Those babies are going to keep coming, the stock is already there – from a business point of view it would make no sense to stop trading. So we’ve been booking hourly appointments for people to come in the shop to pick up their orders. We have new gloves for each customer, masks, sanitisers – it’s as safe as possible. They collect their main order and can then walk around the shop to pick up any other bits they may need. We’ve found that people are so grateful that we’ve been able to offer that service.”
If consumers can’t come to collect, Amanda has been delivering the orders personally, complete with a virtual shop tour so they can add on any extras they may need. “They have peace of mind when they know we are there to help,” she added. “If we, as small independent shops, can be part of the solution and make their lives easier then I think that is our USP and what we need to push.”
London-based Huggle – which has one branch on a high street and another in a shopping centre – has seen a similar situation. “Our Westfield White City store actually closed before the lockdown as it was like a ghost town,” Jason revealed. “On the whole, London is really quiet, but people still want baby product. We are getting lots of calls, enquiries and requests coming through on social media and online. Our warehouse is still shipping, albeit at a slightly slower pace.”
He continued: “The most important thing for us at the moment is not so much what’s happening now, it’s more six to nine months down the line. We’re getting some support from the Government at the moment but the challenge is going to be what happens when that support isn’t there if the economy hasn’t picked back up again and people are still reluctant to spend. That’s what we’ve really got to be prepared for and to work through.”
Concerns were also voiced regarding stock levels, with supply chain disruption already leaving some retailers in a position where they are low on core products, with some suppliers proving more effective than others at updating their live stock lists. The difficulties of ordering and holding lots of stock at the moment were also discussed, with cash flow proving a crunch point for everyone.
On that note, it was clear that the various grants, loans and other financial help being offered by the Government have been welcomed with open arms, and were widely agreed to be ‘just about enough to keep things ticking over’.
“It just means we can pay our bills,” explained Sarah. “It means that when we do come out of lockdown we will still have some money to purchase new toy stock to come in. We’re really low on stock at the moment. I know that some toy companies are doing really well online and we’re doing ok. We’ve been well supported by local people which is great – we’re doing free same day deliveries locally, so that’s been a big driver for us.”
Keeping the focus on stock, Sarah also reported a significant upsurge in the sale of jigsaws and games, crafting sets, Lego and bath toys while Emma – who also looks after pram company Roma – reported a huge increase in the sale of the brand’s toy doll prams.
“We normally see a spike in sales when people start to get ready for Christmas,” she said, “but since this lockdown started, we have seen an incredible jump in sales, especially at the lower price points. I don’t know if it’s people trying to entertain their children indoors, but it’s been great. We have also seen an increase in interest in our Uptown Rider, a seated version of a buggy board. I think it’s because parents want to control what their children are touching while they are out of the house. There are opportunities everywhere, we just have to find them!”
Also making the most of the situation is Pushchair Expert, where the relatively new online side of the business has also been doing particularly well, to the extent that most staff have been unfurloughed in order to meet the demand.
“It’s a big change,” said Jo, “but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a negative change. Our online growth curve has been great, so we’re trying to add as many products as we can onto the site just to keep up with everything. Travel cots are doing especially well for us, I think because people are using them as playpens!”
She continued: “Suppliers have been very supportive on the whole, they’ve been really flexible and are offering more drop shipping options than before, which is really helpful. Some have changed their payment terms, but that’s entirely understandable in the circumstances.”
It was widely agreed that ongoing, honest communication between suppliers and retailers is crucial to future business relationships and that a key priority is working together to ensure that everyone will come out the other side.
Looking to the future and to what the ‘new normal’ will look like after lockdown restrictions are lifted, the general consensus was that the preschool industry as a whole will continue to thrive, although – as consumer confidence in the high street is expected to take some time to return – online businesses will continue to lead the way.