After the announcement that there would be a UK lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19, Brian Simpson, Head of Buying at SMF Toytown, spoke to TNP about the company's first priority, which was to protect the jobs of its staff, and using lockdown to make improvements to the business.
How are you all? How’s your team’s morale?
I am pleased to say that we have all pulled together as a team and worked really hard to get ourselves into a position of strength for the ongoing situation. We managed to make all of the front-end bays in our stores offer good ideas for people to keep their kids entertained while at home. We also dropped some already really strong prices to make sure that customers got value, which is important at a time when things are so uncertain for everyone. We managed to work with the delivery bookings we had due in, and we brought as many as we could forward, before we shut up shop on Tuesday 24 March. My boss has also been working with a chain of grocery units to help get essentials out to those most in need within our community, so the warehouse staff were working really hard to process not only a huge number of deliveries, but also to keep reserve enough space for this new venture! I am very proud to work in SMF.
How clear have you found government guidelines so far?
Anyone who knows me will know that I am not the biggest fan of politics, and try my very best to stay away from opinions on the matter, but let me just say that I felt the government were very slow at making some extremely key decisions, such as help for employers to pay wages. We were trying to make critical decisions for all of our staff, but we were totally left in the dark. But I am very happy to say that we haven’t let anyone go. The boss didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs – this was his first priority – and it influenced all of the decisions that the he made.
With the country now on lockdown, how has your business been affected?
I myself am not working at all (other than voluntarily staying on top of my workload), but there is certainly no buying to be done. We stocked up well before everything closed down, so the stores already look great (apart from the shutters being down!).
What’s your social media and online presence like?
Social media is becoming a very important aspect of our business, but we opened up another six stores in 2019, so our focus was heavily on making these a success. All of the stores are keeping on top of their own social media pages, and they will be able to keep customers in the loop for when things start to open up again.
Our online presence is currently pretty weak, but we have a team working at the moment, during this downtime, to begin making progress with this.
Have you had any other ideas about how you can adapt your service to continue trading over the coming months?
With most of our sales being in store, we have taken advantage of the end bays as I mentioned earlier, but nothing much other than that. The price drops we did during the last couple of weeks will have aided a lot of families in getting toys at great prices, so I just hope it goes some way to helping those who will be finding it pretty tough. Although, as I write this, I am sitting outside watching my own kids play in the sand pit, so from my own experience I can think of worse ways to spend my time.
What are your stock levels like at the moment? And what do you have in place for future stock?
I’m very happy to say that we have already taken care of this. We stocked up, knowing that with our growth being up 42 per cent on 2019, we were struggling to keep toys on the shelf. So, before Covid-19 arrived on our doorstep in the UK, we were in the process of filling up our stores and warehouse. This will serve us well when things open up again, as we won’t be chasing orders.
How can suppliers help you?
Ideally, suppliers would have come to us and offered some extra credit terms. I understand that there would be major implications in doing this, but SMF will most likely have to borrow money from the bank in order to keep all of our staff on. Alan Simpson is very happy to do this, but it would have been nice if we were able to juggle things a bit better and work directly with suppliers, in the same way that I have taken a holiday from my own mortgage, loans et cetera.
Do you see any opportunities in all of this?
As already mentioned, we are taking the opportunity to improve things during this time, as we are not having to chase our tails everyday like usual. I do believe that everyone must take their own stance on what is going on. I understand it is greatly stressful and worrying, and I have family and friends who are directly in the firing line for this virus’ worst effects, but I still choose to look at it in a positive light. I enjoy my weight training, but with my job, two kids, and a side business, I don’t get time to do anywhere near as much as I want to. For the next few weeks that is changing, so I will take the opportunity to use my home gym as often as possible. My family also used Zoom recently, to keep up to date with each other via a video meeting, and it worked really well. So, if you can be imaginative, you can stay in touch. My wife also is having “phone dates” with her friends, but when I listen in it sounds like Henry Cavill on the other line… so I’m not sure what to make of that!
How could Toys ‘n’ Playthings assist you?
Nothing but the same as usual to be honest. It is nice to know what is going on with other retailers, as it helps you to feel that you are not alone in this, but as an industry I think we need to focus on the fact that Santa will still be coming, and we have a lot to do between now and this key time of year, regardless of what barriers come in the next few weeks or months.