Gary Grant, founder and executive chairman of The Entertainer, speaks to Clare Turner about the pandemic, product trends, partnerships and new projects for the UK’s largest independent toy retailer

In May, The Entertainer celebrated 40 years of trading. The company was founded by husband and wife team Gary and Catherine Grant in 1981, when Gary purchased a toy shop in his hometown of Amersham in Buckinghamshire. The specialist chain now operates 170 stores in the UK, 30 in Spain trading as Poly and over 280 others around the world as part of its international franchising programme. 

The Entertainer is part of Teal Group Holdings, a family of brands which also includes Early Learning Centre, Poly and Addo Play (of which more later). 

Vtech Marble Rush

Reflecting on four decades of toy trading, Gary says: “There have been milestones over the years, but two challenges and one turning point stick out. The first challenge was the financial crisis of 2008, which was so sudden. Within a year, so much confidence drained out of society and a lot of fear and worry about job losses existed. That really had an impact on Christmas 2008 – and it was in the last quarter of that year that Woolworths called in the administrators and finally closed in January 2009.” 

At that time, The Entertainer had 42 stores – and 35 of them were within close proximity of a branch of Woolworths. “So 2009 was actually a really good year of recovery. It was a challenge that turned into an opportunity.”    

But, he says, “the very biggest challenge in the 40-year life of our business is obviously Covid. Who could have thought that something like a pandemic could wipe through not just our nation but the world, affecting supply chains, stock availability, and ultimately closing our businesses? When we reopened on 12 April 2021, over the past 13 months we had been closed for seven and a half months.  

“Yes, we have a website, and it did very well during lockdown, but the effectiveness and capacity of the internet side was capped because the most important thing was to socially distance all our workers in the warehouse and ensuring their working environment was safe. At the peak of the pandemic, we were shipping huge volumes and still quoting 15-day delivery times, whereas normally we’d expect to have boxes on people’s doorsteps either the next day or two days after they ordered. So our service level dropped.    

“Without government support, last year would have been a complete disaster. But with that support, it was at best an okay year. I’ve often said this: we survived but we didn’t thrive. But we made nobody redundant, all our staff are still employed, and they received more than the basic government furlough pay for the
whole period.” 

Since non-essential retail shops rolled back into action, trading has been “quite exceptional. We are absolutely delighted with the response we’ve had as people have returned to the high street and not only that, web sales are running at about double 2019’s level.” 

During lockdown, parents were obviously looking to keep their children entertained and online purchasing patterns reflected that. “A whole number of categories performed exceedingly well than we’d previously experienced,” Gary recalls. Garden toys, sand play tables, slides, swings, and trampolines were “absolutely phenomenal – and some of those high level of sales has continued. I think it’s because we’ve now seen that market size and demand – we weren’t an active player in it pre-pandemic but now we’ve seen that there’s good all-round sales on products we didn’t previously stock.”  

He adds that jigsaw puzzle sales “rocketed” but have dropped back this year, while craft sales surpassed his expectations and continue to do so. “So last year we were selling items in volumes that we hadn’t previously experienced. But since the shops reopened, there’s been more of a rebalancing.” 

Pocket money items are doing well in-store, along with collectable figures because shoppers now have the opportunity to go into shops and dive into the racks. “We’re seeing collectors, in particular, skimming along our hooks to find a certain Star Wars figure and children going through the Thomas the Tank Engines, because it’s so much easier to sort through assortments in-store than it is online.” 

The Entertainer is known for its ‘retailtainment’ approach and has started introducing some limited in-store activities. But character visits are on hold for now, due to Covid restrictions. “We’re cautious. and shopping centres are not anxious to do things that create crowds. A character visit brings in a crowd and at the moment, that’s not on the agenda. But demos are definitely happening again, because it’s really important that we bring back the enjoyment that children get when visiting an exciting toy shop where there are activities and fun.”   

Partnerships 

Over the past five years, The Entertainer has been developing partnerships with UK retailers, starting with 150 in-store toy departments in value fashion and homeware chain Matalan. “Our involvement and engagement with other companies through partnerships has been growing for a number of years,” says Gary. 

Our involvement and engagement with other
companies through partnerships has been growing
for a number of years

In March 2019 The Entertainer acquired the Early Learning Centre (ELC) brand from Mothercare. With the deal came franchise partnerships around the world. There are 280 ELC departments or shops of varying sizes in 30 countries. 

ELC was established in 1974 by John Beale, whose vision was born out of a personal frustration – he simply couldn’t find sufficiently inspiring toys for his own children. After building ELC to a much loved and trusted brand by families across the UK and globally, ELC was acquired by Mothercare in 2007, which continued to grow the brand’s international following. The Entertainer acquired ELC with a clear mission: to support parents with their children’s early years learning and development through play. 

Now, Gary says, “we’re looking at the ELC brand as to how we reposition it in the UK market, and as a brand that started in the mid-1970s, how do you make it relevant for today? Because I’m not sure that 100 standalone ELCs would work economically in this current market, compared with however well the stores operated in the 1970s and 1980s. I think the market’s moved on – if the market hasn’t, costs have!

“We’re experimenting with some different display concepts within The Entertainer. We’ve branded up dedicated areas in some stores; we’ve stock in unbranded areas in others, but all the stock is together; and we’ve other stores with ELC product in relevant departments…craft with craft and dolls with dolls for example. These experiments
will guide us to see how the ELC brand thrives within The Entertainer retail environment.”   

In 2020, the ELC brand launched on Marks & Spencer’s website. Gary says that it worked really well, because this is the only presence of ELC products in the UK except within all The Entertainers, plus a store-in-store ELC department in the refurbished Birmingham Bullring branch that opened in the middle
of 2020. 

So are we likely to see ELC products on M&S’ physical shelves soon? “Currently it’s only on their website. You trial things with a
hope that maybe trials will grow. I’m unable to say if there will be further developments; my team think it’s been successful.”

In February, The Entertainer agreed a trial with Asda in eight of its supermarkets. Gary says: “We were looking to experiment: take a toy aisle, take the best of The Entertainer’s range and, in ASDA’s bigger supermarkets, actually man the toy aisle with a full or part-time Entertainer employee who is dedicated to merchandising and more importantly, dedicated to customer service and giving advice and talking to customers about toys. 

“The advantage is that our staff keep picking up The Entertainer knowledge – they see what’s actually happening in our stores, what’s moving and shaking, and it gives them a wider perspective on toys that they can then offer within the toy aisle of Asda.  

“We just wanted to know how that might affect sales, because a supermarket has tremendous footfall and already sells toys. But what if you could add a little bit more customer service and magic from someone who is dedicated to that toy aisle, rather than a member of staff who has many responsibilities for lots of other departments? 

“From our perspective, the trial has ticked many of our objectives in terms of deliveries, merchandising, store standards, stock levels, customer service, and creating some theatre in-store. We want to thank our suppliers that have helped us bring that theatre, that magic… It’s still a trial and it’s really early days but I’d say it’s going reasonably well.”  

Moving forward, are there plans in the pipeline to team up with more retailers? Gary is tight-lipped on the subject, saying only that “a number of live discussions are going on at the moment and those aren’t concluded”. But he does add: “One thing we are trying to do is differentiate between our partners. So Matalan has a ‘Totally toys’ toy department, Marks & Spencer’s website has an ELC toy department with other supporting branded toys within that toy area, and Asda has an Entertainer toy department. We’re trying to make the offering slightly different but just as appealing.” 

Investment  

Gary says there are no current intentions to open (or close) any The Entertainer stores in the UK… but deals do come along! “When you’ve 170 stores in the portfolio, you’ve always got things churning; any business of our size would have stores opening, closing, relocating… but there is no store which is flagged for closure. We are right in the middle of relocating our Shrewsbury shop to a larger unit; and we will almost certainly be relocating one of our larger shops in a shopping centre – again, to a larger unit, and there will be a further extension of the ELC presence within that store. We are also looking at other opportunities on the high street.  

“But we’ve just endured a period of huge upheaval and it’s difficult to know where bricks-and-mortar retail will level down to in a normal year. Because our current trading experience is so strong – and if I knew the next five years were going to carry on like this, then I’d open another 100 shops!  But I think it will settle down to a new norm level – and I don’t know if that level is going to be a pre-pandemic level or ahead of a pre-pandemic level… we will just have to wait and see. 

Our website will continue to be one of the
fastest-growing divisions of our business

“But one thing is for sure: the website won’t drop back to its pre-pandemic level. Therefore it’s important to invest… we’ve just signed off a near half a million-pound investment to improve aspects (like the ‘search’ function) because we need to make sure our website is easy to use, and easy to search. 

“Another web investment we are making is to fully integrate a process for managing drop-ship shipments; ie we sell it on our website, and a partner delivers it. From a logistics and supply chain perspective it is very cost-effective. Enhancing the customer experience is really important as it will continue to be one of the fastest-growing divisions of our business over the coming years.  

“We continue to have the confidence in our business to invest both in stores – we’re moving stores, we’re fitting one out now and we’ll start another in July and we’re looking into new stores – and we’re looking to heavily invest in our website.” 

At the time of writing, the company is in the middle of moving its head office to a bigger building literally up the road, with three times as much office space. All operational teams – finance, buying, marketing, web, international – are scheduled to relocate by early August.  

“So we’re gradually putting our business back together,” Gary says. “During the pandemic I felt we lost our ‘buzz’ because we didn’t see anybody in the corridors like we used to.” The new premises is a light, airy, open plan environment “which supports our Covid-safe approach. So we can recreate that hub, buzz and trading environment, which is critical to the way The Entertainer operates. We will bring all our teams back to the office. We are a team-based business and cannot achieve this as well when we are dispersed.”

Going global  

On the international front, Entertainer stores are popping up through franchising all round the world in countries as far afield as Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Greece, and Cyprus. “Our partners have had a tough year in the same way as The Entertainer has in the UK,” says Gary. “They’ve had their stores closed but the world is beginning to reopen – maybe not as consistently as the UK: some countries have recently gone back into lockdown so we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s sort of one step forward and half a step back.”  

Closer to home, in December 2018 The Entertainer acquired Poly: a chain of 33 toy stores in shopping centres and high streets across Spain. In May the Poly store in Valencia was refurbished and rebranded The Entertainer and, Gary reveals, “we’ve just signed off the refurbishment of two more Poly stores and a new site that I expect to open in late September. We will continue investing in Spain. We have owned the business for two years and without Covid we would have started these conversions last year. But we’re really excited about our opportunities in Spain.”  

The Entertainer is widely billed as one of the world’s fastest-growing toy retailers. So what differentiates it from its competitors? Quite simply, he says: “There’s nobody else doing quite what we do. We’re not an out-of-town retailer; that’s not our bag. We don’t sell other products – we only sell toys and we’re a toy retailer in local communities, in towns, in traditional high streets and shopping centres around the UK. We will continue to look for opportunities where we can open viable toy shops that pass our quite stringent appraisal process from a profitability point of view. 

What sets us apart? First, I think our amazing staff: 150 of them have worked for us for more than 10 years and six have worked for us for more than 30 years

“What sets us apart? First, I think our amazing staff: 150 of them have worked for us for more than 10 years and six have worked for us for more than 30 years. So we’ve great committed employees and they just know The Entertainer way. They know our ethos and they make it happen.”  

He also believes his product offer is a key factor. As mentioned earlier, Teal Group Holdings also owns Addo Play: a British firm founded in 2015 by David Martin and Mary Price who aim to create ‘intelligently designed, safe, trustworthy toys offering outstanding value to our customers’.  

Gary says: “One of the things that we’ve spent the past five years developing with our sister company Addo Play, run by toy veterans Dave and Mary, is a fantastic range of own-brand toys. And when I mean own-brand, I don’t mean items that we’ve found in Hong Kong and put our name on the box. I mean items that have been designed and sourced by Addo. This gives us a point of difference because these are items that you can’t get anywhere else. And if people like what they buy, they come back to us and buy some more. They can’t get them on Amazon unless we sell them on Amazon.  

“Addo’s ranges are performing really well. Addo’s six years old now. It had a really strong year last year. Its international business, which also supplies major retailers in 30 countries with Addo and ELC branded toys, has really started to mature. For example, it’s working with [toy manufacturer] Just Play in America which now has an ELC toy department on Amazon in the US.” 

So would the States be a potential market for The Entertainer to move into? “Never say never. As with other markets we need to find a good retail partner like Just Play. which has been a great partner on the supply side.”   

Watch this space…   

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