Sector Insight: Toy retailing

The Early Learning Centre has an 8% share of the toy market
The Early Learning Centre has an 8% share of the toy market

Toy stores are facing increased competition from supermarkets and online retailers as the sector fights back after the recession.

Whether it's Diablo or Buzz Lightyear, Gogo's Crazy Bones or Puffles, each year a different craze sweeps through the nation's playgrounds, with an inevitable impact on toy retailers. However, while these fads happen all-year round, the toy retail market has a clear peak sales period -the final quarter of the year, leading up to Christmas.

In 2008, the country was in the grip of recession, and one particular toy retailer, Woolworths, felt the full force of the economic downturn, falling into bankruptcy and disappearing from our high streets, although the brand name does survive online.

Many argued its positioning - having a product selection that ranged from kitchenware to toys and sweets to CDs - was outdated. As £1 shops took up residence in Woolworths' abandoned stores, toy-shoppers boosted the market share of its rivals; Argos and Toys 'R' Us both increased toy sales in the wake of its demise.

By 2009/2010 the sector as a whole was starting to recover and even tip into growth (increasing an estimated 5% in 2010), taking the UK value to almost £2.2bn, according to Mintel.

In addition to the recession, the focus on price that has gripped the market has also had an impact on value. Discounting and special offers have become a mainstay of the competition between retailers, despite toy imports from places such as China rising in value.

Nonetheless, the structure of the market is changing, as toy specialists have felt the full weight of competition from supermarkets and internet retailers. Online stores in particular gain from being able to stock greater toy ranges compared with the limited shelf space of high-street shops.

Although catalogue shopping has fallen off considerably in some sectors, it remains buoyant in toy retailing: 24% of toy and games buyers look through catalogues before purchasing, according to research by Ipsos MORI. Almost a third say that being able to browse a catalogue at home would attract them to a particular retailer. This compares with 29% of toy- buyers using the internet to compare products and prices, and 16% saying they often buy toys and games online.

Generally, toy shopping is a mixture of planned and impulse buying, although pester power is alive and kicking in this sector, as any parent will testify. Children are strongly influenced by ads, films and TV shows, as well as peer pressure. The influence of TV and movies means that licensed products form a major part of the toy industry.

Educational toys, meanwhile, are popular among adults - more than half try to buy them, and sets such as Lego and Playmobil, which can be expanded over time, remain firm favourites (27% of adults like them).

Toy specialists made up an estimated 42% of the market in 2009 (up from 37% in 2007), according to Mintel. Among the specialists, Toys 'R' Us leads the pack, followed by Early Learning Centre, which has a different proposition from its rival. Argos and Tesco were the biggest non-specialists in the sector. According to Ipsos MORI, 32% of adults have shopped at Argos in the past 12 months, followed by Toys 'R' Us and Tesco.

Meanwhile, in a bid to generate footfall, retailers and toy manufacturers are joining forces on promotions. These have included Toys 'R' Us and Nickelodeon Consumer Products on the Dora the Explorer product assortment; Hamleys and Learning Curve's Chuggington toys, based on a CBeebies pre-school series; and a Mighty Beanz promotion in Entertainer stores (the biggest independent in the sector).

The projected growth of the child population over the next five years is set to be a boost for the sector. The under 14-year-olds group is predicted to increase 3% between 2010 and 2015, with the biggest rise in those up to the age of nine.

By 2015, the market is expected to be worth £2.5bn, up 13% on 2010, according to Mintel. When inflation is accounted for, however, this is a decline of about 14% over the period.

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