A number of retailers have spoken to Toy World about how the restrictions will affect their businesses as we continue the countdown to Christmas.
Retailers in Ireland will enter one of the strictest lockdowns – Level 5 – seen in Europe for six weeks from midnight tonight (Wednesday 21st October), while Wales will trigger a two week ‘Firebreak’ from Friday, as part of the latest measures to curb rising numbers of coronavirus infections in the UK.
While few are quibbling the need for a lockdown from a health point of view, the timing could certainly be better. Christmas shopping is underway earlier than ever this year, thanks to campaigns by the likes of the British Retail Consortium and The Entertainer, and while non-essential retailers currently under Tier 1, 2 or 3 regulations can carry on trading as normal, those in Firebreak (AKA Circuitbreak) lockdowns or Level 5 measures will be forced to temporarily shutter for the duration, as they did during the nationwide lockdown that started on 23rd March. So what does this mean for toy retailers during what is peak Christmas shopping season?
Smyths Toys Superstores, Ireland’s biggest toy retailer, told Toy World that its stores are ‘ready and prepared’ for the Level 5 lockdown. Customers will be able to order online for free same-day delivery on orders placed before 3pm, while home delivery will also be available. A spokesperson commented: “We can’t have shoppers in-store, but we have changed the stores so we can have a till collection point at the door and have also upweighted our delivery capacity. Our Taoiseach has a heart for Santa after all.”
Toytown will have to close one store in Wales during the two week Firebreak, and doesn’t have any in Southern Ireland, though managing director Alan Simpson says the Level 5 lockdown there will still have an affect on its other stores due to limited cross-border traffic to its stores in NI. He adds: “My main concern is that this situation evolves in the UK, and NI or Scotland follow a similar route. At that point, it’s ‘when’ and not ‘if’, lockdowns will have an impact – I feel that Boris will come under pressure to follow suit if those areas trigger lockdowns too. If this is to be an inevitability, I’d rather see it sooner than later, and for a definitive period. If it buys some time until January, while not ideal, so be it.”
Elsewhere, supermarkets – which are deemed essential retailers and are therefore allowed to remain open throughout – are taking steps to address potential toy panic-buying. The discount retailer Aldi has imposed a strict limit of one of each toy per purchase, and is assigning marshals to each store, ticketing customers and managing queues to ensure social distancing is adhered to and stock is fairly distributed. While a crackdown on panic buying will be welcomed by those who remember the March lockdown (flour, flour, my kingdom for some flour!), limits on toys may prove unpopular by parents with more than one child to shop for. Aldi Group Managing Director, Niall O’Connor, said: “The provision of a ticketing system will ensure as many shoppers as possible will get to avail of the offers and do so while shopping in a safe environment. The safety of our staff and customers while in our stores is our number one priority and we continue to have in place several safety measures across our 144 stores.”
While the lockdown themselves are one concern, trepidation remains about how the period after they end will be for toy and game retailers. The nationwide lockdown we all went through in March was a novel experience, with government furlough and loan schemes in place to lessen the blow to businesses, employers and their staff. Since that lockdown ended – larger Irish shops reopened on 8th June, while English shops reopened on the 15th, Welsh stores on the 22nd and Scottish ones from the 29th – various areas in both Wales and Ireland, as well as England and Scotland, have been subject to local lockdown restrictions, creating a challenging environment for stores to operate in.
“It’s very hard to part-run your business,” says Ian Davis at Rules of Play, which has a store in Cardiff and another in Bristol. “Either you’re open, or you’re not. And if the doors are open, you have to offer in full the facilities and services you usually would, from staffing to stock and everything in-between. This means you’re running at full-steam, ensuring the Christmas best-sellers are in stock, that social media is up to date and so forth – yet local lockdowns mean no-one can travel to the city centre and actually visit the store. We’ve been seeing only 15-20% footfall for a number of weeks now; as a retailer there are pros and cons to the Firebreak.”
He explains: “If the Firebreak can end the local lockdowns, meaning people can travel into the city centres again, then great – we can start planning for that peak Christmas period properly, with a view to seeing some sense of normality. However, if it just dampens things down a bit, and doesn’t end the local lockdowns, then we’ll once again find ourselves running the store at 100%, but only seeing a fraction of the footfall. That is where the problem lies.”
Similar to the latter end of 2019, back when it was the B-word making headline news each day, rather than the C-word, it’s the uncertainty and indecisiveness from leadership that is causing the most angst for retailers, especially those in areas where strict lockdowns such as those in Wales and Ireland haven’t (yet) been imposed. Scheduled lockdowns, ideally announced far enough in advance, will allow retailers to plan their response accordingly, manage stock levels, release statements on social media addressing their local communities and beef up their click & collect, home delivery and kerbside drop services, where necessary. With the lockdown guillotine hanging above our heads for an indeterminate amount of time, putting contingencies into place is much harder.
“We have not had a lot of time to prepare for a six week lockdown, especially in what is normally the run up to Christmas,” notes Tony Duffy of Duffy’s Toyworld. “However, we have been in preparation mode; the critical number of Covid-19 cases were increasing weekly and we started planning early to ensure stocks were made available to us. We also have had plenty of hints from the trade; reading between the lines in your excellent magazine of possible shortages meant we bought on a continuous basis over the late summer and early autumn. Because our customers were fearful of another lockdown they were buying early, but so far we have been able to meet demand as we continue to buy various stock ranges.”
To help it get through the period, Duffys is also employing a raft of different communication systems, has built an impressive new website, and continues to use Facebook, Instagram and social media to stay in touch with its customers. Adds Tony: “We have built up a nationwide circle of customers who are very enthusiastic about our range of quality toys. During lockdown we’ll be using a top rate courier service for deliveries all over Ireland, and we’ll also be using Click & Collect to make it easier for our customers. Hopefully, we will be able to report after the six weeks that business has been successful.”
As it stands, no one, be they in Wales or Ireland or anywhere else, knows if the short, sharp lockdowns now being announced will result in a clear run to Christmas – and higher consumer confidence in the physical shopping experience. Only time will tell. Warnings have already been issued by retail bodies about the possibility of online services being swamped by a Christmas rush, so allowing bricks & mortar retailers to reassume their vital services this festive season will be imperative in heading off disruption, stock issues and long delivery delays – provided the government decides it is safe to do so.
As we’ve previously reported, the toy industry is in a good place at the moment, and Christmas 2020, despite the ongoing pandemic, should be a positive period for many. Buying groups are also on hand to support retailers at this time, as Brian McLaughlin, retail manager at Toymaster, told Toy World. “Our members adapted well to the original lockdown back in March, and we are able to share the successes with the rest of our members, particularly how they used social media to communicate with their local communities. Having a support network offers reassurance during uncertain times like these; the Toymaster team, as well as its members, will keep lines of communication open throughout this period, to share ideas and help each other.”