What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do

It’s not a good time for physical retail in the UK at the moment. On top of business rate rises, the uncertainty of Brexit and dropping consumer spending, most potential customers are currently snowed in due to the weather. And if they do venture out, they’re panic buying bread and firewood. And then this week saw the news that Prezzo is closing 100 restaurants, and both Maplin and Toys R Us UK are heading into administration. While I don’t know how to help a restaurant chain, I do have ideas as to what Maplin and Toys R Us need to do if they want to survive.

What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do


What Can Toys R Us Do?

I’m old enough to remember when the first Toys R Us stores began appearing in the UK. And it was pretty special. It wasn’t magical in the same way as a pre-Christmas trip to Hamleys. That was always an outing similar to Harry Potter visiting Diagon Alley, with demonstrators throwing toys around the ground floor. Toys R Us was always about the overwhelming experience of a massive warehouse piled high with boxes, which worked well  30 years ago.

But it doesn’t work now.

Just as the inventory of Toys R Us gave it a big advantage over smaller, local toy shops which disappeared for a long time, so the almost infinite inventory online makes even a warehouse seem small. And a new generation of competitors has appeared with a slightly more diverse and interesting focus. After a pre-Christmas shopping trip or two, I found almost everything either online or in the likes of Smyths and the Entertainer which stocked slightly more niche toys. Meanwhile a lot of what was in Toys R Us isn’t just cheaper online, but it’s also found in the big supermarkets at a similar price or less. One recently closed seasonal Toys R Us in a Peterborough shopping centre not only had one toy missing from a set, but the missing figure was cheaper in the Tescos 300 yards away.

I’m not the only one that has the impression Toys R Us has stagnated, as articles on the BBC and the Guardian websites show. And the solution is pretty obvious. Put all that space to better use.

Smyths has capitalised better on current trends by monitoring the likes of Youtube. It isn’t hard, when for example, the Dude Perfect channel above has 27 million subscribers keen to see them do things with Nerf weapons, for example. So why does Toys R Us insist on having shelves filled with hundred of boxes of the same Nerf guns and bows I can also buy at Tescos, B&M and a million online retailers.

Stick the boxes out the back, or just offer next day delivery. And instead, set up a Nerf range in every store, with someone potentially able to demo and teach trick shots. Suddenly I not only have a reason to visit with my son, but also some free entertainment which keeps him busy, and means I’ll end up picking up some spare darts on each visit, if not a new gun, bow, targets, or other stuff to renact the trick shots at home. As the owner of a ridiculous amount of Nerf weapons, and still buying more, the idea of being able to use them without spending 30 minutes running around to pick up darts is an incentive in itself.

And why have bikes that can’t be ridden around enough to test properly? Or have Lego that you can’t actually play with? Or radio control vehicles and drones that can’t be tested before buying?

I don’t want to see 100 boxes on a shelf. I want to know that if I visit, I can find either the best toy, the cheapest toy, or something particularly cool, unusual or interesting.

Yes, there will be a cost in demo equipment and staffing. But it can still be profitable and sustainable. And it doesn’t all have to be the latest in high-end toys. Look at how many interesting channels are inspiring kids to play with toy cars again, for example.



What Can Maplin Do?

The demise of Maplin makes less sense than Toys R Us. Yes, it’s almost as easy to set up direct shipping from Shenzhen for a new tech device as it is to find a place to park in the local town centre. But although you can get lots of supplies, advice and tips online, sometimes it’s still helpful to get hands-on tuition and advice.

And the problems haven’t been attributed to the threat from online retailers, as the Maplin CEO has said in a statement quoted in this Wired article.

“The business has worked hard over recent months to mitigate a combination of impacts from sterling devaluation post Brexit, a weak consumer environment and the withdrawal of credit insurance,”

But again, there was a great opportunity here. The author on Wired talks about the advice for the older generation, but it’s as true for those younger as well. It’s not simply about being able to get the knowledge you need to make a purchase, but having a space to connect with other people interested in the same things.

And there are plenty of examples to prove this.

I’m involved with both Digital People in Peterborough, and Peterborough STEM Festival. Two incredibly successful non-profit events which bring together people around technology, digital, science etc. All things which could be done purely online perhaps. But which would then lose the chance to also make human connections, build offline friendships and be able to touch, play, and break things in person.

But what about retail? I’m mentioned the demos at the likes of Hamleys or the big Lego stores. But what about Games Workshop, which always has a group of tabletop and role-playing enthusiasts grouped around a table at the front of the store. It invites more people to come in and try gaming, and potentially become frequent customers.

Or my fairly recent investment and interest in vaping. Over the last 8 months, I’ve checked out reviews and tips online. And had advice from existing friends. But it’s still nice to pop into one of my friendly local shops to check out new products, chat, and occasionally get them to help me out with a problem or question. And it’s also just nice to be able to connect with the enthusiasts that tend to run the better vaping shops and find out what they’re up to. I can possibly save a couple of pounds each month ordering online, but it’s actually nice to catch up with the people who own and work in the shops.

Why isn’t Maplin supporting the likes of DPiP and Peterborough STEM Festival? Or running workshops on how to update your phone, use a 3D printer, or repair your hifi speaker cables? Where’s the weekend introduction to setting up a Raspberry Pi, or helping you out if you’ve struggled with one of the many cool circuit-board based projects you can order online? I recently had a go at building an electronic synth via Tech Will Save Us, and it was great fun. Right up to the point that it didn’t work when we’d finished. Fortunately, the lovely and thoughtful lady who bought the kit for my son and I as a present also happens to be a methodical and careful electronics hobbyist. So she went back through and remedied the wires I’d not connected quite far enough, and a capacitor I may have put around the wrong way. But in the absence of dating a patient and kind electronics geek, being able to actually pop into a local place for help would have been great in the gap until the next monthly DPiP meetup.

And it wouldn’t be too tough for Maplin to have a big trestle table at the front of the store and get an organisation like DPiP or similar to volunteer some people to come along. Or to hook up with local Coding Clubs, colleges, and other tech organisations.


The TL:DR for What Maplin and Toys R Us Need to Do:

It’s simple. Any retail business with physical stores needs to give people a good reason to pick them over ordering online.

And that means having a real, justifiable USP for the hassle of leaving the house and journeying into town. In the case of both Toys R Us and Maplin, that can’t be just having physical products available.

It has to be about offering something tangible that isn’t easily replicated online. And that’s always going to end up being about the human experience.

The saddest thing is that I’m not alone in talking about this years ago. For example, Becky Naylor back in 2013. In fact, if I can cope with the fairly wanky description I used back in 2009, the ‘bankruptcy of the non-descript‘, it’s something that’s been growing for 10+ years. If you haven’t got a clear proposition and a clear justification, then you probably won’t have a business fairly soon…



Photo by Marcela R on Unsplash

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