John Baulch talks to Toys“R”Us Asia’s chief commercial officer, Jo Hall, about the past year and how the retailer has emerged stronger than ever from the challenges it has faced.
Jo Hall’s name is synonymous with the heyday of two of the UK’s largest and most successful toy retailers – Toys“R”Us and Woolworths. In an illustrious toy trade career spanning more than 30 years, she has gained a reputation for being one of the most formidable retail buyers and managers, as well as a committed, passionate advocate for the toy industry.
With no possibility of bumping into each other in Hong Kong this year, John caught up with Jo via zoom. Despite Asia being the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, the turbulence of the past year hasn’t derailed plans, and Jo discussed in detail store opening objectives for the coming year and explained how last year saw the company evolve its business strategies to respond to its customers’ changing needs.
The company’s optimism was tested to its very limits one year ago, as Jo explains: “It was the eve of Chinese New Year, which is bigger for us here in Asia than Christmas. Our stores and DCs were locked and loaded with inventory. Then we suddenly found ourselves in near total lockdown across parts of China.”
Jo describes what Toys“R”Us learnt in those early weeks in China: “We learnt very quickly to be nimble – that the welfare of colleagues and customers was paramount and the centre of all our decision making. It enabled us to move very quickly. It changed our marketing, it changed our online business, it changed how we responded to families’ needs, encouraging us to go above and beyond and be an even greater support to parents.”
Jo speaks of the responsibility of providing a support mechanism for colleagues, as well as for the families and communities served by the retailer, and describes the challenges of dealing with the 10 markets within the Toys“R”Us Asia organization, as the government within each market dealt with the situation differently.
Inevitably, eCommerce became crucial to keeping the business operating: “Our online business grew exponentially. Everybody pitched in and responded to the needs of the local community to satisfy online orders. It was a herculean effort due to the demand, but we did it, and it was a great learning curve.”
Marketing shifted to supporting the local community, and becoming less targeted towards tourists. This sea change in marketing communication was underpinned by the fact that, despite its tribulations in the US and Europe, Toys“R”Us remains a hugely trusted and respected brand in the Asian market. Jo welcomes this relationship with customers: “ I am very proud to be in an industry with a brand that can generate that kind of powerful emotion.”
Now, it is all about looking ahead and planning for the future: “We have come out the other side with our great teams fully intact. And through it we were able to demonstrate a resilience, compassion and support for our customers and colleagues, along with quiet, nimble leadership. That unwavering focus on our customers and our colleagues – along with healthy doses of stoicism, resilience and courage – has seen us through.”
To find out more about how Toys“R”Us is looking forward to stores reopening and continued expansion, how the team is coping with virtual product previews and how Jo believes suppliers’ efforts to showcase new products digitally must be fully supported, read the full interview, which appeared in the January edition of Toy World, here.