TnP catches up with Martin Blyth, director of Heart of England Wildlife Park, who has expanded his retail operation from clicks to bricks

Left to Right: MP for Mid Worcestershire Nigel Huddleston with Martin

When we spoke in April, you were preparing to open a Heart of England Wildlife Park in Worcestershire and had launched an online shop. What’s been happening since?   

I don’t think anybody could have predicted what’s happened in the past 12 months. We had been working tirelessly on creating plans for Heart of England Wildlife Park, but a combination of problems arising from the pandemic and planning bureaucracy delayed our main plans. We’re currently working with a range of important stakeholders to get back on the right track for 2022. 

With plans postponed, at the start of Lockdown 3 we realised we had a huge number of trade accounts open with key suppliers across the toy and gift industry, ready for creating a jungle-themed retail experience at the Wildlife Park. 

We decided to relaunch our online shop and start trading across Amazon and eBay. Our initial foray into ecommerce outgrew every possible space in the home and the double garage. We initially searched for a warehouse unit to house our online operation, but eventually decided to open a physical environment, to give the local community and our supporters the opportunity to visit us and get a flavour of the unique retail experience we are striving to create. 

Our bricks-and-mortar store, Tickly Tapir, opened in June at Blackminster Park and Shopping Village in Evesham. It’s true to our original mission and is entirely jungle themed. We have tried to create a unique toy store. 

The walls are lined with artificial ferns and palms to create an immersive experience for young guests and their older companions. 

It’s also home to Sarah, our giant Playmobil zookeeper, who greets customers at the door (at the time of her installation, she was one of only four giant Playmobil zookeepers in the country alongside her counterparts at ZSL London Zoo, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and Chester Zoo). 

The flagship piece in the store is our Schleich display stand, which is topped by a giant Schleich tiger and her cubs. We’ve also introduced a few other life-size models in our miniature jungle, with a giant Dilophosaurus and zebra calf also on display. These showpieces are great selfie spots and have really helped to spread the word on social media. 

Do you hold any special events?  

We always had visions of holding excellent events at the Wildlife Park and our enthusiasm has extended to our store. Tickly Tapir is relatively small at 72sq m but we have the benefit of being in a shopping courtyard, which allows us to sprawl out for events. 

In August we held our inaugural Schleich Fan Day and, with the help of Paul Dearlove and Jamie Tank (trade marketing manager and regional sales manager respectively at Schleich UK), we were able to welcome the Giant Schleich T-Rex to the store. We had customers visit our store for the first time, travelling all the way from Bristol, Nottingham and Hertfordshire! We aim to host one event per month and recently hosted a book signing with children’s author Hannah Shaw. 

We recorded our best ever in-store sales day at our October half-term event, when the spotlight was on Tonies, and we even had a visit from the lovable dragon Zog from the Julia Donaldson book series. We’re busy making preparations for our second Schleich Fan Day over the Black Friday weekend, featuring a life-size Black Schleich T-Rex. 

How is trading for you?   

Our online sales continue to go from strength to strength with more direct hits to our online store as a result of launching the physical store at Blackminster. We believe that having a physical premises adds a greater legitimacy to our business, as we can create better content for our social platforms in a themed store than in a dark warehouse. In-store trading during our events has exceeded all expectations and our regular footfall is continually increasing as our social media marketing activities begin to pay off and word-of-mouth referrals increase. 

What are your key product categories?   

Initially we were referred to locally as the ‘zoo shop’ but over the past few months our local market has begun to refer to us as the ‘toy shop’. The vast majority of our products are animal-themed to fit the store’s concept, and we stock a range of plush, pretend play toys and jigsaw puzzles. 

Our key brand is Schleich, and we have worked really hard to offer a phenomenal service to Schleich fans and hardcore collectors. Customers travel a significant distance to see our Schleich offering, which is genuinely on a par with some of the big hitters in the industry such as Hamleys. We have dedicated a significant amount of space in our store to the brand and it has paid dividends. 

What products perform well?   

Schleich’s latest releases – the innovative Eldrador Minis and Meerkat Hangout play set – have sold incredibly well. We’ve decimated our stock reserves and are currently waiting patiently for our latest shipment. In recent weeks we’ve seen a shift from customers purchasing small items or low-value goods. Instead, larger play sets are selling more frequently as customers begin the Christmas countdown. 

What are your best sellers?   

Every day, without fail, we sell more Schleich than any other brand. Aside from Schleich, a number of our best sellers come from Melissa & Doug. Its high-quality wooden puzzles continue to be best sellers and its large baby giraffe plush is a fantastic seller online. The Mary Meyer plush toys have been overwhelmingly popular too, as they make the ideal gift for babies and toddlers. 

What are your latest new arrivals?  

We welcomed Tonies to our brand portfolio earlier in the year and that has got off to an exceptional start. We recently started selling the Steiff Tonies products and these innovative plush toys have really captured the imagination of customers. 

The most appealing aspect of this brand for a retailer is that the initial customer purchase is high value in the Toniebox Starter Set – but then customers come back time and time again to purchase additional Tonie figures or even headphones and carry cases. We’ve also expanded our plush toys range and introduced Living Nature in-store. The dinosaurs from the range have already proved popular. 

What’s the most surprising customer request you’ve received? 

I must get asked twice a day if a customer can buy the giant tiger that tops our Schleich display stand. We’ve now sourced giant fibreglass animals for customers who aim to recreate a jungle paradise in their own home or garden! 

How are you preparing for Christmas? 

In the first week of September, we really noticed the transition in consumer behaviour towards focusing on Christmas gift-giving. So, we’ve ordered stock with our key brands in advance to ensure that we don’t experience shortages. We held our Christmas preview event in late September and have been incredibly busy planning for peak ever since. 

Our store has received a festive makeover, with the entrance display transformed from tropical jungle to arctic tundra with the introduction of giant polar bears and penguins. We noticed at Easter that customers love buying seasonally themed items, so we have ordered higher quantities of festive animal-themed toys and books. 

Our Schleich Black Friday event will be the highlight of our year. We are really looking forward to selling the exclusive Black Friday range from Schleich, while helping collectors to finalise their Christmas shopping. 

We have also planned our ‘Christmas Magic at Tickly Tapir’ event and will be welcoming Santa and his reindeer to our store to meet customers. 

What’s next for your business?   

Tickly Tapir has really taken on a life of its own and there is potential for a second store to open in the near future. Our business model is built on immersion and storytelling, and we believe there is potential for themed toy stores across the country. It would be nice to get the Wildlife Park open too. I really wish there were more hours in the day!

What’s in a name? 

Martin called his toy shop Tickly Tapir because “we wanted to create a brand with character and tie it closely to the animal kingdom. The Tapir has always been one of my favourite animals, but it’s not as well as known as many other animals you might find in a British wildlife park. If you’ve ever met a Tapir, you’ll know that they LOVE tickles. We had a few different names that came out in the planning process, but Tickly Tapir always got the reaction we wanted; a smile!

“My favourite toy is the vintage Schleich Tapir, which sits on top of my desk. Having named our store Tickly Tapir, I’m so glad that Schleich is bringing the Tapir and Baby Figure back to its range at the start of 2022.”

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