Slimes, squishies and social influencers: How The Entertainer is looking to rip up the toy market rule book

The specialist toy retailer says the high street is “far from dead” but making sure it has a “key point of difference” in an increasingly competitive market will be integral to its success.

High street toy retailer The Entertainer’s new £700,000 flagship store in Westfield London is a children’s haven of high-tech tablets, interactive floor projections and fart buttons. Stand in front of its augmented reality mirror and you can change your outfit entirely.

To avoid the same fate as recently-folded Toys R Us, The Entertainer knew it needed to offer more than rows of shelves crammed with toys. And with profit up 37% year on year, CMO Phil Geary’s belief that specialist high street retailing is “far from dead” certainly seems justified.

“Us and a number of other specialists on the high street are keeping that alive through literally having a key point of difference,” Geary tells Marketing Week. “To us, that is engaging with the child without just selling big boxes on shelves.”

And so The Entertainer “ripped up its rule book” and decided to transform its traditional static store windows into something that could grab a child’s attention and keep it. The hope is there is enough going on for them to remain interested for three to four minutes.

The windows now have a variety of branded content jumping between dynamic screens, inspired by “a very long list of fun stuff” children said they wanted to see.

“Your slobs, your squishies, I want to be talking about the latest movie releases and crazes,” Geary says.

“We’re working with our partners, such as Hasbro, to make sure we have plenty of fresh and exciting content that represents what’s exciting at the moment. It’s a great opportunity now for all our suppliers to get that content on screen.”

Our growth over the last three years is the complete opposite of what people are thinking is happening in the retail environment versus Amazon.

Phil Geary, The Entertainer

Beyond toys, tech and flashing lights, The Entertainer is pumping increasing amounts of spend into social media and influencers, who Geary says play an “incredibly big part” in its marketing strategy and give it “bang for its buck”.

“The growth of influencers in the last two years has changed the way the suppliers market their products, so some spend has moved out of traditional media into influencers ” Geary explains.

The Entertainer has done above-the-line advertising; 18 months ago it ran a £1m campaign that Geary says gave a “relatively strong return” and he believes there is still room for TV, outdoor and print, if there’s a specific message. But he describes it as a “drug” that once you are on is “difficult to get off”.

“There’s still a place for TV advertising to launch a product and if you’ve got a very specific promotional message there’s still plenty of room for other forms of media like outdoor and press. But right now, bang for buck, we’re getting our best return on investment from our influencer programme,” he adds.

Amazon, Argos and new competition

Naturally, The Entertainer is hoping to pick up some new trade since the demise of Toys R Us – especially as it faces growing competition from the likes of Argos and Amazon. However, Geary doesn’t seem too concerned about Amazon encroaching on his business’s turf.

“As a consumer, if all you’re interested in is price, I understand Amazon could be your point of reference,” he says. “But that isn’t how people shop for toys because a child doesn’t care what price a toy is. They have to see it, feel it touch it, so there will always be a place for physical toy shops. There is very little excitement about a brown box coming through your door.

“Our growth over the last three years is the complete opposite of what people are thinking is happening in the retail environment versus Amazon.”

Where his challenges do lie, however, are with supermarkets and discounters – particularly around Christmas time.

“The thing with the supermarkets and discounters like B&M is that they flex their space up for Christmas,” he says. “So while you probably wouldn’t be thinking of going to your local supermarket to buy a toy today, at Christmas you will because they have 12 aisles of it.”

Some 70% of The Entertainer’s sales are done between October and December, with Geary admitting there is a “huge impact” on sales during the festive period.

“If I took [supermarkets] out of the market then we’d probably do better so naturally they must be having an impact when they flex up their space,” he says. “But our year-on-year numbers are healthy.”

Indeed they are. Between February 2017 and January 2018, total sales were up 6.8%, while, The Entertainer’s online platform, boosted sales by 30% – a five-fold increase in the last five years.

But The Entertainer is doing more than just selling toys. Earlier this year it began running a quiet hour every Saturday morning for children with autism to try and make the often noisy and overwhelming in-store experience more bearable.

While the store remains open to all parents and children, all the radios, demo toys and sounds are switched off between 9 and 10am.

Geary says this is something The Entertainer is looking to do on a more regular basis, as well as encouraging other retailers and shopping centres to do the same.