Hamleys, the world’s oldest toy shop, opened its doors to Ireland in the height of the crash in 2008. Its rent at the time was €1 million. A decimating recession was the backdrop to its early business days in Dundrum in the heart of south Dublin. Despite this, the store flourished and showed that there is money to be made in the toy industry regardless of circumstances.
After successful trading for a decade, Hamleys then shut its doors and left the Irish market on May 7th, 2018. The Dublin shop was located in an underperforming area of Dundrum shopping centre. Due to plans for redevelopment, Hamleys had to go.
The toy giant, founded 259 years ago by William Hamley, decided not to open another toy shop in Ireland. Now, the unit vacated by Hamleys will become part of hospitality tycoon Paddy McKillen Jr’s Press Up Entertainment Group empire and open as a bowling alley in 2020.
Revenue for the toy industry in Ireland alone reached €391 million in 2019 ahead of Christmas, according to figures from Statista. This is up 0.1 per cent from last year. For an entire industry in a country, these are not earth-shattering earnings but they are far from insignificant.
The departure of Hamleys left a gap in the market for a large and grand, decorative, interactive toy shop which focused on the value of the customer’s experience while they looked around. A toy shop that would look like those seen in movies. Like the one in the film Big, where the character portrayed by Tom Hanks played Chopsticks using his feet on a massive keyboard. Or Duncan’s Toy Chest seen in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. A competitor is now filling that market gap.
FAO Schwarz comes to town
Famous toy shop FAO Schwarz opened in Dublin at the end of October this year, just in time for the Christmas shopping surge. If it looks familiar, that’s because it is. FAO Schwarz is the actual toy paradise seen in the Home Alone sequel. It will also have a replica of the dance-on piano seen in Big.
The 6,000 sq ft store is located in Arnotts on Henry Street. The toy shop is also in Selfridges in London, a sister department store to Arnotts making the Irish move a logical one. FAO Schwarz is now selling toys in four cities worldwide; London, Ireland, Beijing and New York.
It also has a moving cogwheel display which gives the sense you’re in Santa’s workshop
Once you enter the main entrance to Arnotts, the shop is difficult to miss as the stairs in front of you has an FAO Schwarz sign overhead. At the bottom of the steps, the first impression is a slight let down. The space is filled with baby clothes and plush toys, including an oversized Octopus teddy. While it is quite charming, it does not give off an intimate, colourful, toy chest vibe which a consumer might be expecting, especially before Christmas.
However, if you go past the pastel colours and baby clothes and follow the soundtrack of songs heard in classic Disney films, such as Hercules and the remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, you reach the heart of FAO Schwarz’s Dublin toy chest. The first thing that meets the eye is the trademark giant black and red toy soldier and the FAO Schwarz own brand range of wild animal soft toys.
Popular toys for this Christmas according to the experts
FAO Schwarz: A remote control Robotosaur costing €80 aimed at slightly older children.
Nimble Fingers: Grimm’s Rainbow Sunset wooden toy costing €59.99 aimed at children aged 0-1 years.
Toys4You: For girls: “Anything LOL”, according to shop manager Declan Sullivan. These are little dolls that come wrapped inside a surprise toy ball. LOL toys can cost from €13 to €200.
For Boys: Nerf Guns which can cost up to €47.99
This part of the shop is elegantly designed with wooden flooring and tunnels for smaller customers to go through. It also has a moving cogwheel display which gives the sense you’re in Santa’s workshop, especially as some employees are dressed up as different characters like the hallmark toy soldiers. The shop also sells Pick n Mix sweets in a cup for up to €6.
“We have our iconic clock tower that wakes up and sings every hour, our Build Your Own Racer interaction, and the FAO Adoption Doll space. Our global brand partners offer some amazing interactions from Bunnies By The Bay to interactive dinosaurs at Schleich that are exclusive to FAO Schwarz,” says Jan-Eric Kloth, COO of ThreeSixty Group which owns the FAO Schwarz brand, on what customers can expect in the Dublin store.
The store was founded in 1862 by Frederick August Otto Schwarz and the FAO Schwarz’s New York store on Fifth Avenue was known around the world and tourists flocked to it until it closed in 2015 due to high rents. It made its return to New York this month when it opened at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
The Irish venture has been in the works for some time.
“We started talking to Arnotts only about a year prior to the store opening. This was a very strategic move for both parties and the discussions were all with top management,” says Kloth.
“We are always looking for strong retail partners that are pushing the boundaries of today’s retail and Arnotts is a like-minded, innovative brand who was looking to expand their toy business and offer something unique. We are able to create an experience for their customers unlike anything else in Ireland”, Kloth added.
While walking around the store, customers and staff can be heard trying out the dance-on piano. Staff member Aisling Haigney, who can already play the piano, and her colleague Liam Wilson-Smith have been regularly learning songs to play during their work hours.
Along with all the trademark furnishings of FAO Schwarz, they will also be bringing new toy brands to the Irish market including the FAO Schwarz own brand, Discovery, and Sharper Image.
“We absolutely feel it’s important to have something for everyone and therefore offer an array of accessible products along with one-of-a-kind pieces”, says Kloth.
In comparison to Smyths Toys, which gives more of a warehouse feel to its store, FAO Schwarz focuses heavily on display and design. This may be lost on some older children who seem to just want to play with what they see and FAO Schwarz Dublin does not provide a lot of play room. Whereas Smyths Toys has floor space and walls stacked high with toys which would dazzle any age group going into the shop.
What FAO Schwarz lacks in space, it makes up for in style and variety. Even if the prices may be on the dear side. For example, the recognisable small-medium sized FAO Schwarz teddy bear costs €46.
Providing customer experience
Online shopping is a growing trend for consumers across industries. Research by the SME Digital Health Index 2019 shows over half of Irish consumers think online shopping will supersede bricks and mortar stores. The toy shop industry is the outlier defying this. Amazon continues to dominate the online toy shopping sector, yet players in the Irish market don’t seem to be concerned just yet.
From small to big, there is one answer to the question: Do you make more sales online than you do in-store? A resounding “no” is the response.
“The majority of our sales do happen in-store. Obviously, online shopping continues to be a trend, but we believe our experiential retail is a viable and attractive offering that will continue to be relevant. As a toy destination, we offer personalized experience and engaging store experiences”, says Kloth.
Toy shops often put the customer’s experience while shopping at the core of their business model. The question is, if all toy shops are doing this, then how do they set themselves apart from the global success story that has just set up shop in Ireland?
Competitors are not throwing their toys out of the pram.
Family-owned business Nimble Fingers, the red-fronted shop on the Old Dublin Road in Stillorgan Village, is not concerned about FAO Schwarz’s presence in the Irish toy market this Christmas.
“I don’t think Hamleys affected us and that was closer to us and I just think it’s so different from what we do. I’d be very surprised if it did affect us”, says Katherine Staunton, who runs the shop with her brother Gareth, on the arrival of FAO Schwarz.
I think everyone’s becoming more conscious of sustainability and eco-friendly toys which we do, and I think the bigger shops don’t really do
This small independent toy shop is rooted in Irish history. Earlier this year Ryan Tubridy and the late Gay Byrne were on their way to the cinema in Stillorgan to see a movie when they passed Nimble Fingers. Byrne turned to Tubridy, who is a customer of the shop Staunton told The Currency, and said: “that’s the shop where the Toy Show began.”
Byrne’s researcher for the Late Late Show, Pan Collins, came into the shop and saw toys that were appealing to adults as well as children.
“So, she went back with the idea and that’s the start of it,” said Staunton.
Like FAO Schwarz, the Stauntons also see the importance of customer experience when it comes to running a successful toy outlet.
“People want to come in and see the toys,” said Staunton.
The businesswoman spoke of when a customer rang her to check if she had a certain toy in stock. They didn’t but the customer replied with: “I kind of knew you wouldn’t but I was looking for an excuse to come into you.”
When asked how this underdog has stayed in business so long, Staunton believes it comes down to reputation, niche and nostalgia.
“In recent years I think everyone’s becoming more conscious of sustainability and eco-friendly toys which we do, and I think the bigger shops don’t really do. So, I think that’s where we’re doing well at the moment in comparison”, says Staunton, adding that some toys found in Nimble Fingers are made from recyclable plastic and wood.
The toy market is often aimed at the younger generation. However, Staunton notes how valuable elderly customers are to the toy shop industry. Many still visit the shop to reminisce about coming in during their childhood.
“They might have come in here as kids,” says Staunton about her older customers.
A large elderly customer base explains why many are not shopping online in the toy industry. When it comes to Nimble Fingers, Staunton knows where the shop makes the most money.
The shop launched its new website two years ago. “Overnight it did quite well. It is going well for us, but I’d say the maximum we could ever reach of our overall turnover would be like 20-30 per cent”, says Staunton about online sales versus in-store sales.
Smyths Toys is the clear winner of the toy industry in Ireland. They do 75 per cent of their annual business just days before Christmas.
“If you think about our customers, we’d have a lot of elderly people. A lot of the grannies and granddads are shopping with their grandkids. They want to come into the shop”, she says and states that the small percentage that are shopping for toys online are working parents.
Nimble Fingers is confident in its success. Thus far, it has survived the recession, the arrival of Hamleys and stayed in business while Smyths Toys operates just down the road in Carrickmines.
Smyths Toys is the biggest competition for Nimble Fingers, but only because of its close proximity, says Staunton.
Nimble Fingers has an interesting history aside from being a part of the genesis of the Late Late Toy Show.
It was first opened in 1962 by Robert and Hilda Tweedy. They sold handcrafted items and sweets before eventually selling educational toys. Then in 1983, the couple sold the shop to Mayo man Patrick Staunton and it remains a family business to this day.
Patrick Staunton was the director of the company Anovil Enterprises alongside his wife Jean. The shop operates under this company and trades as Nimble Fingers. The shop owners claim it’s Ireland’s oldest toy shop on its Twitter bio. “We don’t know of any shop that’s older” and “we asked around and there doesn’t seem to be,” says Staunton.
Patrick Staunton handed the business down to his son Gareth who was officially appointed director three months ago but is no stranger to the shop.
“Everyone kind of cares about the shop I suppose. So, we would all discuss it as a family but when it comes down to things it’s just me and Gareth. My dad still comes in and out. Especially around Christmas,” says Katherine Staunton.
When asked what Christmas is like for the Staunton family, Katherine jokingly replies: “It’s the best and the worst.” Not only because it mixes family with business but also because a quarter of their annual return is done in the month of Christmas, which is “hectic” according to Staunton.
Patrick often did media interviews about his toy business, however since his retirement, his children have been less inclined.
“My brother was on his own here for a while and since then he wouldn’t really be into it so he didn’t do it then for a while so we’re just trying to get back into it I suppose,” says Staunton.
Even if their competition is not a huge problem facing them currently, the shop was close to shutting a few years ago.
“My dad had retired just before the recession and then my eldest brother had joined. Then he had to come out of retirement to help the boys through.
“Luckily, he was very clever. During the good times, he knew it wasn’t going to last. So, he paid off his debts. So, if he hadn’t done that, I don’t think we would have got through,” says Staunton.
Around the time of the recession, Staunton brothers Ross and Gareth, as well as their sister Katherine, were abroad. Their father contacted his sons and said if he didn’t receive help with the shop he would have to sell up. Gareth came back and took over and has been there since.
Katherine then returned from three years in Australia and was considering going back to college. However, her brother asked her to come in and work a few days a week and see how it went.
“A few days a week became a year. I just started to really enjoy it,” says Katherine Staunton who has been with the shop for three years now.
“Kids are coming in happy and excited and leaving happy and excited. It’s just a nice place to work,” she adds.
She also spoke about the other perks of the job such as going to Germany and sourcing toys and running the website.
“The fact we do everything here ourselves is great and keeps it interesting.
“And having free reign. Our Dad just lets us do whatever. He’s handed the shop over more or less so he just lets us do whatever we want,” says Staunton.
The shop currently employs 10 people including the brother and sister owners and never sold a share to any other business.
The toy business is not for everyone. One of the older brothers of the Staunton family decided to open the cafe Foodgame in Ringsend and another sister became a nurse instead of working in Nimble Fingers.
Parallels can be drawn between the story behind Nimble Fingers and the plot of the movie You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The small family run bookshop is forced out of business by a larger chain bookstore. However, it looks like Staunton’s will have a happier ending.
“What we do is so different to them (FAO Schwarz) and it’s more personable you know I think that’s what people come back to us for,” says Staunton.
An Irish success story
Smyths Toys is the clear winner of the toy industry in Ireland. They do 75 per cent of their annual business just days before Christmas. Their profits reached €35 million last year. The Smyths Toys owners (four brothers: Pádraig, Liam and Tom) acquired the European Toys R Us shops last year. The lucrative deal gives the brothers control over stores in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Smyths was contacted for comment for this piece but could not be reached before publication. Founded in 1986 in Claremorris, Co Mayo, the toy conglomerate to date has 110 stores across Ireland, the UK and Europe.
Nimble Fingers’ success endures while having this behemoth as its neighbour through the years. Therefore, it seems there is plenty of room for newcomers to play in the Irish toy market.
Elsewhere in the country, small independent shop Toys4You in Galway is not worried about destination shoppers travelling up to Dublin this Christmas for FAO Schwarz and driving business away from local toy sellers, according to the shop’s manager Declan Sullivan.
We’re a small toy shop but we have a really good connection with our customer base
However, even outside of the capital these toy shops are wary of their competitors.
“From an independent toy shop, it’s competitive. You have the likes of Smyths who basically run the toy business in Ireland”, says Sullivan.
For this reason, they entered into a partnership with the Toymaster franchise “to get the best possible price.”
The shop employs just three people and is open for eight years. Despite being in its infancy in comparison to their Dublin colleagues in this piece, Sullivan reiterates the same thoughts about online versus in-store shopping and the importance of providing an experience.
“Our approach is that any customer that comes in, we give them fantastic service. Especially the older generation. They still come in and we give them honest advice. We don’t have to sell them the biggest most expensive toy in the shop. We give them honest advice on what’s most suitable for the kids.
“We nearly know all our customers by name. We’re a small toy shop but we have a really good connection with our customer base,” says Sullivan.