Is it really better to shop local?

pocket money stocking fillersWho wants to shop local nowadays? I work for an independent retailer and we get fairly bombarded with e-mails etc. from local groups promoting independent retail. They’ll often ask us to be part of this or that initiative to encourage people to shop local. There are some brilliant ideas out there including loads of ways to make shopping a fun and personal experience for customers in a unique way. Often we’re asked to participate in a way that only an independent store really can. However, what stores do once we have customers in the door is really what will encourage more local shoppers.

amazon-frownThe real issue for local shops is that they’re fighting a battle on two fronts. On one side you have the reduced prices and convenience of the supermarkets and on the other you’ve got web stores. Although the big supermarkets can cause problems for an independent retailer, the really tricky thing for a lot of retailers is competing with web stores: a web site can get extremely specific in it’s range and expertise or extremely broad (e.g. Amazon). The specific sites can give you access to customer service and expertise that can equal (and in some cases surpass) their high street counterparts. When you consider, on top of this, the range of the ever-present behemoth that is Amazon, you can see how the internet can be a formidable opponent to a ‘good-old-fashioned’ bricks-and-mortar store. So what’s a retailer to do?

I think there’s a market for playing on the idea that there’s something traditional/ quaint about independent stores but it can also be quite limiting (not to mention the fact that visiting ‘ye olde…shop’ can get a bit repetitive if everyone’s doing it) and it has the potential to hinder the creativity of the retailer , and that’s the key skill at the disposal of smaller shops: creativity. Most of the staff that you’ll meet in an independent shop do a lot more than their name-badge might suggest. To be honest, even when we’re just staff we have to have something entrepreneurial about us and also have a slightly artistic eye so that we can create an experience for the customer. Sure, we can play up the ‘old-fashioned’ idea, there’s nothing wrong with that, and if we really put our backs into it we can make it feel authentic instead of a simple contrivance or gimmick, but there are more options than just making people feel like they’ve stepped into yesteryear.

MBL BL RabbitKaren (the owner of Fun Junction) often explains that she likes the shop to feel like you’ve just entered a party. Given the mixture of toys that we have out on display in the shop I tend to agree with her that ‘party’ is a good way to describe the atmosphere. When it comes to younger children coming into the shop I like to think we’ve put together something similar to a mini playgroup as well, where children can feel comfortable playing with open toys on the play table (display toys getting a bit beaten up is par for the course for us).

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

Wooden railway train that can actually take passengers, you can get one here.

Overall kids will enjoy coming into any toy shop to look at toys regardless of what a retailer does, so we could have just left it at that. However, if all children saw when they walked into the shop were boxed up products that they recognise from TV adverts they’d get pretty bored pretty quickly. That’s why we try and stock unusual toys and games, and when we get the chance we open up some of these for kids to try (a lot of the time they’ve probably not seen/played with toys like these before).

We want to show off our range of toys and celebrate them, we’ve taken time and energy going through product ranges and picking things because they look fun (we are ‘Fun Junction’ after all) not because they’re TV advertised or linked to the next movie franchise. That said we’re the first to admit that just because a toy is well-known/ popular that doesn’t mean that it won’t be high quality. I’ve personally never subscribed to the idea that rarity/obscurity and quality are synonymous; sometimes something is popular because it’s good, popularity isn’t always just made of hype and hot air (check out my recent post about branded toys to see what I mean).

gordon and durward crieffAnother important aspect of a shop is the theatre of the experience. If that theatrical experience consists of a step back in time then fantastic, especially if it’s done well (this sweet shop from Crieff is a prime example of that). However, there are loads of ways to make someone’s shopping experience fun (and, if a retailer is really good, special too). We’re trying out some new ideas this year at Fun Junction. We started with a mermaid day in our Perth shop (she brought along her friend Jolly Jim the Pirate too). She’s since visited our Crieff shop as well, you can visit this post to find out more about that. We’ve had a ‘Brio Train Day‘ too and there’s lots more in the works (watch this space).

Is there anything that really draws you to return to any of your local shops? Do you think there’s still a place for independent shops alongside the world of web-stores and giant supermarkets? As always I love to hear what you have to say either in the comments below or over on twitter. Thank you for reading, all the best, John

Is it good to be bad?

by Zotto1987

Image by Zotto1987

Do you miss something if you always play the ‘hero’? My eldest son is obsessed with superheroes, so much so that it’s basically the only thing he’ll play at the moment. The down side of this is I often have to be a bad guy and a fairly inept one at that, I’m constantly having to back-track on my bad guy antics as I’m informed that the bad guy ‘can’t run that fast’ or that ‘they aren’t that clever’, or ‘that strong’.

Thwarted at every step by a superhero with the power to change the very fabric of reality, my bad guy is doomed to failure, but should he be? Am I missing the opportunity to teach my son some hard lessons in a safe environment? Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes being ‘bad’ is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the ‘hero’ is simply the one who gets to tell the story. History favours the winners after all.

There are some big life-lessons there, possibly more controversial than the birds and the bees, death, and the difference between real and imaginary all put together. These are realities that even most adults have trouble with. We tell ourselves that karma will catch up with bad people, or that they’ll be judged by a deity but often we’re looking at their behaviour through a lens.

karma-quote-funnyIt’s easy to see good and bad as black and white but I’m not sure it’s either useful, or helpful, for us to think about the world in that way. To be fair a lot of us recognise the grey area between good and bad but even that has its limits, to really get to grips with the way motivation works we have to understand that few people choose to do something that they themselves truly consider to be bad.

Some people get annoyed with police presence, with surveillance cameras, parking attendants and with other features of an organised society. When you hear someone put the police down or say that they ‘hate’ police officers it can be hard to understand, in some ways it’s easy to assume that they have something to hide or that they have villainous motivations. However, these features of society all include a human element behind them and you can see why someone might be mistrustful of this degree of power being offered to a select group of human beings. Sometimes, with as little as the press of a button, a person’s liberty can be compromised and it seems fair to worry about the type of person standing with their finger on that button.

Supermanredson

You can get it over on play.com

DC comics released a fantastic spin on the Superman storyline called ‘Red Son’ in which Superman’s ship lands in soviet Russia rather than in the good ol’ US of A. Instead of a Kansas farm he grows up on a soviet ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm) and joins the communist party to become an upholder of communist ideals (whilst being the antithesis of them at the same time). He helps Russia to take over the world, creating a working (if hyper organised and fairly corrupt) communist world society. The last bastion of freedom (yep, you guessed it, the USA) is headed by president Lex Luthor.

Now Lex Luthor’s mistrust of Superman looks well founded, his efforts to take down the man of steel are understandable, reasonable even. No one man (or woman I should add) should have that much power and Lex Luthor knows it. In essence Lex Luthor becomes the good guy simply thanks to a change in our perspective.

Should I use pretend play as a way of demonstrating not just the ‘greyness’ of morality but also the relative nature of how we judge goodness? Perhaps I’m over-philosophising my parenting again but I can’t help but feel that it’s important for my sons to grow up aware of the fact that people’s motivations for action can differ significantly from their own.

Sometimes it may be very difficult to understand why some people do the things they do and we don’t live in a world where those with darker motivations wander around telling people that they are ‘baddies’, ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. They think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least they don’t think that what they’re doing is ‘that bad’. If my sons learn anything from me I want it to be that good people can do bad things, bad people sometimes do good things and that often neither type know which one they are.

I’ve a feeling that my ‘baddie’ persona is about to get very interesting. As always thanks for reading and feel free to chat with me over on twitter. Are there any pearls of wisdom that you really hope your children can pick up from you? Do you think the black/white perspective on morality is something that should be maintained through childhood? Are kids unable to recognise the subtlety? Let me know what you think in the comments bellow or (if you can fit your comment into 140 characters or less) pop on over to twitter and get the conversation going, Cheers, John

Getting Creative

scottish mersAs I write this we have a real live mermaid waving to passers-by from our shop window. As is probably the case with many largish towns (i.e. nowhere near city size but a lot of people about) we have a very diverse and vibrant community here in Crieff and this weekend is something of a celebration of that, it’s the Crieff Arts Festival.

I’ve mentioned Crieff’s creative side a few times on here, whether talking about ‘Mole’s House‘, random forts and dens or just the generally interesting things you can come across here (check out #awesomecrieff over on twitter to see a wee selection of what our population of 6000 can do).

real live mermaidSo back to today, guilty as I am that we’ve pinched the living mermaid (Clan Dragon had her on display at last year’s festival) it’s a great match for the toy shop and kids are loving getting a chance to talk to her (some are little shy so they’re opting for waving behind their parents’ knees).

This is just a wee short one today. What creative town events etc. do you feel particularly proud of? I love how surprising it can be to be involved in these kind of events, if I’d known how fun it was as a teenager (back when I had some of that mythical ‘free time’ that I hear people talking about) I’d definitely have been more involved. What’s the most rewarding community project you’ve been involved in?

As always, thanks for reading and don’t be a stranger, if you’re an actual human being I’ll happily follow back over on twitter, Cheers, John

That drum is too loud for kids! The nanny state strikes again

xian-drum_tower-boy_at_big_drumI’m all for looking after children and making sure that their play experience is as safe and worry-free as possible but do we really need regulations that think so little of a parent’s own common sense? As of the thirtieth of September a new testing requirement will come into force for toys sold in the UK, this one is about sound (I found out about this in Robert Hutchins‘ article in Toy News). I’ve worked in toys for a fair portion of my life and I’ve yet to encounter any harm coming to a child as the result of a musical/noise toy, more so I’ve not even had a customer complain about the sound levels of a toy, not once, in over fifteen years, not once. This isn’t to say damage can’t be done just that anecdotally I haven’t come across any. I should also point out that there are already safety regulations regarding acceptable noise levels in toys.

So lets look at the ‘why’ of this change to legislation over toy safety, is there legitimate cause for concern? According to the US environmental protection agency, sounds over 85db (decibels) can cause damage and they recommend ear protection in environments where sound at that level might be encountered. So what noises might count? Well a washing machine apparently runs at 75db falling short of the need for ear protection and normal human speech falls somewhere between 55db and 65db so lets just take this in for a second. The new regulations include a range of toys designed to be used at a fair distance from a child’s ear so apparently we now need to test if these toys can produce sounds louder than a washing machine.

John Crane Washing Machine_A_SS-1I have never encountered a toy that can produce more noise than a washing machine. Even a toy drum (probably the noisiest toy I can think of), though it may be hard to talk over, is not even close to the volume of a washing machine. Even a washing machine is 10db shy of causing problems for your ears, so these ‘dangerous toys’ must be pretty impressive, somehow producing sounds which approach the same volume as heavy city traffic (85db) or a petrol-powered lawn-mower (95db). I have no idea what these new toys (that must have prompted this new addition to toy safety testing) must look like and I’m not sure I want to know.

You can be safe in the knowledge that no-one involved selecting the toys we sell at Fun Junction would ever choose to stock a toy that could rival city traffic or a petrol-powered lawn mower in terms of volume level, whether they passed safety testing or not. If nothing else we’d be stuck listening to them throughout our day (we get previews of all our ‘noisy’ toys all the time, as kids play about and sample the toys on the shelves, it’s part of the job).

Noise exposure (we’re talking things as loud as a nearby airport here) has also been found to produce cognitive impairment and memory problems for children. You can check out this paper from the health protection agency in the UK from 2010, the content on p63 (p73 on the pdf) deals specifically with the effect of noise on learning and memory. So apparently hearing loss isn’t all we have to worry about in relation to load noises around children, the impact of sound on a child’s development isn’t to be taken lightly.

EarphoneThis is something to be careful of and I’m not going to ignore the fact that proximity to your ear will also change the effects of noise exposure, as the US environmental protection agency‘s ‘Sound Thermometer’ shows a walkman (maybe we should just call it an MP3 player now, ‘walkman’ seems a bit out of date) can produce 105db of sound directly into your ear. With this in mind then of course we need to be wary of the kinds of sounds children are exposed to (not just their raw background decibel level) but I’m not sure if further regulation was necessary in the case of toys that don’t utilise headphones/earphones.

Even a few feet away from your ear the sound from small headphone speakers on full blast can start to resemble a whisper (15db-25db) so there is a high level of relativity when it comes to the way sound meets the ear. Holding a toy phone directly to your ear means that in order to be safe the speaker will have to produce a lower volume than you might otherwise find (e.g. on a toy where close proximity to an ear is unlikely). Toy companies which produce close to the ear toys already have to meet regulations regarding proximate decibel level but this new change to safety regulations means that things like toy drums etc. will have to be tested in new ways.

chimp in a suitI’m not advocating that we ignore the potential side-effects of noise on a child’s ears but it’s important to remember that the people buying these toys are responsible adults. I wouldn’t buy a toy phone for my kids that was louder than my own phone and I certainly wouldn’t buy any toy loud enough to drown out our washing machine. One of the duties of a parent is to look out for our child(ren)’s safety, surely we can rely on parental choice and already existing controls on the volume of sounds in toys. The only positive thing I can see coming about as the result of this new regulation is that the regulators will have more to do and there will be more money to be made.

From what I’ve heard normal safety testing can cost between £1000 and £10,000 per toy type (if any significant change is made to a toy, or importantly if regulations change, it will also need to be retested). (N.B. Please let me know if I’ve got these costs wrong). As with anything the cost goes down the more you get, with this in mind smaller companies already have a hard time factoring the cost of testing into their toy whilst still making the retail price reasonable. Further regulation will only hinder these companies more. I’ve lost count of the number of local toy makers we’ve had to turn away because we legally can’t sell an uncertified toy product in a toy shop. The only way these people can sell their (often fantastic) toys is to market them as ‘craft’ or ‘gift’ items and even then things can be tricky for them.

It’s a sad world and it’s getting sadder, I can only hope that this madness will end soon and small companies (and even start-ups) might get a chance to sell their toys as toys. What do you think? Is regulation like this important and unavoidable or do you think people could get by without it (or at least with the regulation relaxed significantly)? As always I welcome any views/perspectives, feel free to comment in the box below or pop over to my twitter page and chat about it over there. Thanks for reading, all the best, John

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

War Games!

wpid-imag0743_burst002_1.jpgI know for a fact that there must be 10s (possibly 100s) of people playing/modelling with Games Workshop (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000) figures in Crieff so it definitely has an active presence in the local area but sadly there doesn’t seem to be any centrally organised group set up for those wanting to arrange games-days/nights or even just to talk about the hobby with one another.

I’ve had a lot of kids in recently asking about local groups and seeing if there is anywhere that they can play locally and unfortunately I’m completely in the dark. In an effort to get something organised and simple together I put up a local wahammer/40K group on facebook but other than that I have nothing to point them towards. If you’d like to know more about the hobby and/or would like to be able to meet up with others who enjoy the hobby then feel free to pop over to the page. I used to play, a long time ago, and the shop is lucky enough to have a really hands-on Games Workshop agent so I can usually find the kind of answers you might need fairly easily.

wpid-imag0746_burst002_1.jpgGames Workshop produce an amazing array of assemble-your-own figurines which you then use to play war games. There’s a degree of customiseability that you just won’t find in ordinary board games etc. and because of this it’s a hobby that can be extremely personal, creative and expressive. You can turn up for a game with friends and show off your latest regiment and all the fiddly little customisations you’ve spent the past few weeks doing to it. Judging by the questions I’ve had in the shop there are rakes of children (and teens) who want to get involved but who are reluctant to start because they don’t know anyone else who’s involved in the hobby.

Possibly the saddest thing for me is this lack of support locally for younger hobbyists who seem really enthusiastic about both the painting and gaming side of the hobby. I’ve had boys and girls in the shop buying models, paints and other peripherals who haven’t been able to find people to play against. I’ve suggested they join their school’s games workshop groups only to be met with blank stares, either their school doesn’t have one or whatever group they do have at school isn’t very well known (or isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘official’).

wpid-imag0745_burst002_1.jpgConsidering the rise of interest there has been in fantasy over the past few years I’m surprised that games workshop/warhammer/40K groups haven’t seen a booming growth in members. I’ve been assured by Yan (our rep) that we could easily manage to provide support for local groups and there are resources there that could allow us to provide some resources free of charge to any local group who thinks to ask us for it. Sadly we’ve been in the position to help for months and, as yet, no one has taken us up on it.

If you live in the Crieff area and want to join a group (or better still if you run, or you want to set up, a group) then pop on over to the Crieff Warhammer/40,000 group on facebook to ask for advice and other information.

Just going for a nice short post this time, as always thanks for reading and comments are always more than welcome, Cheers, John

Everything you know will change!

the knock crieff den wooden structures forestIt gets pretty repetitive hearing people tell you that having children makes you look at the world around you in a different way, to be honest this is so well recognised that it’s hardly worth saying. However, one thing you don’t expect is for your children to change the way you look at the town you live in. For those of you who don’t know, I live in a medium sized town in Perthshire, in Scotland, called Crieff.

Having kids has made this whole familiar town change before my eyes. It’s not so much seeing the town through the eyes of a child, I’ve lived here since I was seven years old (with a break of about four years when I left for Uni) so I’ve already seen it through the eyes of a child and an adolescent. I don’t think any teenager is able to find redeeming qualities in the place they grew up, to be honest when I was that age I never wanted to see the place again. I think the main difference in the way I look at Crieff now is that things that I’ve grown accustomed to are surprisingly exciting to my kids, whilst things that I find unusual and different sometimes have no effect on them. And then there’s little things that surprise and entertain us all.

Not all that long ago I started using the hashtag #awesomecrieff on Twitter to highlight things that I was doing with the kids or things that just stood out as highlights of Crieff. Trust me the teenaged John would have been shocked and appalled that I could ever find anything ‘awesome’ about this little town. Nonetheless, the more time I spend looking for positive things about this little place the easier it’s becoming for me to find them.

Mole's house Lady Mary's walk Crieff PerthshireThe first thing that comes to mind is the creativity and slight rebelliousness of the people that live here. I’ve posted about ‘Mole’s House’ before (a tree which has been customised and decorated to provide a perfect home for ‘Mole’ down in Crieff’s Lady Mary’s Walk). However, this is by no means the full extent of creativity to be found, I’ve lost count of the amount of small dens that we’ve found in various wooded areas around the town, but by far the most impressive so far is one that Hazel and the boys found up the Knock (the name given to the big hill upon which a large portion of Crieff is built). Apparently there was room for the three of them to sit in the den’s provided seating fairly comfortably (you can find a picture at the start of this post). There’s no way of knowing who creates these little houses but this one really stands out, so far they win the prize of Crieff’s best den (I’m not sure what the prize is but whatever it is they win it).

wpid-imag0578_1.jpgThere’s plenty of ‘official’ creativity to come across too, we’ve had June McEwen’s Highland Cow installation (now replaced by a Highland Calf) which the boys liked to pretend was going to charge after us when we passed it on our way home from the shops (was always a good way to hurry them home anyway). The cow is only June’s most recent addition, she also provided the driving force behind the ‘Crieff Arts Festival’ which was on last week, and a number of years ago she also painted some bustling barflies on the boarded up windows of an old pub at the far end of the high street, the boys were intrigued by these strange characters but probably (thankfully) didn’t get what they were all up to. We have a whole host of local artists in Crieff but along with June one of our art institutions has to be Pedro, who is an artist/photographer/caricaturist who often turns up at local events and draws caricatures of kids and adults (we’ve even seen him up at Crieff Hydro a couple of times).

wpid-imag0615.jpgIt’s probably part of being a parent that you start looking for things that will entertain your children, some of the things scattered around our little town might not have stood out to the boys if Hazel and I didn’t spot them first and the same goes the other way. Maybe the transformation in the way I look at things now comes from not just looking at what the world has to offer me (as I think we all do as children, to an extent) but what it has to offer my children. This occurs through almost everything I do but it’s perhaps most unusual and most noticeable when this ‘parent’s eye’ is aimed at the domestic, the familiar and the everyday of the town where I grew up.

Have you had any familiar places change before your eyes since becoming a parent? Is there anything you miss from before you developed ‘parent eyes’? (e.g. seeing a fancy restaurant and not immediately imagining restless children and temper tantrums, or looking into a lovely open fireplace, watching the flames dance and the logs glow and not thinking ‘Oh my God! Hazard! Where’s the fire-guard? Dow we even need a fire on?’) As always comments are more than welcome and I love to catch up with anyone who reads my blog over on twitter. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John