More big kids than I thought

Just a quick wee post today. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response to the ‘Toys for grown ups for Christmas’ page that I set up yesterday, apparently there are more big kids out there than I thought. The other interesting thing is that by getting up to 10 likes in less than a day (OK it’s not that much but it’s something) the response to this page is much more positive than the initial reaction to the ‘Fun Junction‘ facebook page I set up a few months back. I’m guessing that it’s because it’s much easier to get behind an idea than a brand. For example, people like the idea of traditional wooden toys but few of the brands which are genuinely good at making these products (wooden and tin toys) get very high recognition, whilst companies like Mattel and Leap Frog do.

I think the main reason for this is that ‘traditional toys’ are already an idea in themselves, it’s a fully defined concept, you say traditional toy and you picture perhaps a jack-in-the-box, a wooden train a rag doll etc. etc. (you get the idea). A brand which makes these products (even one that makes them really well) won’t often stand out via their product alone because their product already embodies a fully fledged idea*. However, companies like Mattel and Leap Frog have developed an idea around their toys (or their toys around an idea, whichever you prefer) and an idea is easy to market. Bright clean efficient and recognisable toys (from Mattel) and technologically enhanced learning systems which offer a hands on, robust playing experience (Leap Frog).

So the idea of asking for a toy for Christmas, so that we adults can enjoy the experience of playing on Christmas day too, can catch on easily: people can just say ‘yes I like that idea’ whereas your impression of a shop is likely to be a more complex issue (despite the fact that we all know how great a shop Fun Junction is) . On a side note, I’d love to see people post their idea for what they’d like for Christmas and I’ve explained how to do it in the facebook page but for some reason it doesn’t seem to be working as well as I’d like (my sister posted her idea last night but it’s yet to show up on the main page). Maybe this is an issue with facebook that’ll sort itself out (the page is less than a day old, perhaps they’re still approving bits of it, I don’t know how these things work to be honest).

Anyway thanks to our likers so far, here’s hoping for more soon, thanks for reading.

*With some exceptions such as ‘Brio’ (train pictured above) and ‘Melissa and Doug

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Never too late to ask

This post comes with a disclaimer: I’ll give everyone a bit of prior warning, in this post I will mention a particular famous December event repeatedly and with abandon, if you are at all of a nervous disposition about the early discussion of a particular December holiday I would recommend reading this post at a later date. With that out of the way, on with the po-ho-ho-st.

A quick little facebook back and forth with my sister the other day got me thinking about what adults ask for for Christmas. When asked for ideas from friends and family we’ll suggest books, DVDs, perhaps technological stuff (games systems/peripherals/games etc.) or possibly clothes (if we trust the person’s judgement). What we don’t typically ask for are toys and this is kind of sad. Following on from multiple posts I’ve made about how fun (and good for you) it is for an adult to just get lost in play I suggested on my facebook page that we start a trend of asking for a toy for Christmas.

I’m not suggesting we go nuts and ask for huge piles of toys but I definitely think that a fun little thing to play with on Christmas day would just make you feel more Christmassy. We all remember spending Christmas morning unpacking and enjoying a long awaited toy as children, Christmas and toys just go together. Christmas is typically regarded as a time for children and I would have to agree that it’s hard to enjoy the magic of Christmas in quite the way that a child can. However, with a toy in hand on Christmas morning we could easily let ourselves regress a little and get swept up in the magic too.

As a man I think I’m already half the way there. The kind of things guys ask for at Christmas are basically toys anyway, we ask for gadgets in the attempt to disguise our desire for toys, the truth is we just want something frivolous and silly that we can play with. Why not just end the charade and admit what it is that you really want: a Meccano set with a motor, a hot-wheels ramp set or perhaps a figure of your favourite superhero.

Why don’t we all try and get a share in the magic of Christmas? It won’t detract from your own child’s enjoyment of the day (and they’ll probably end up inheriting the toy after Christmas day anyway) and instead of fussing about Christmas dinner being done in time etc. you can take a half hour to enjoy Christmas for what it’s supposed to be: a holiday with a hint of wonder and excitement (if Christmas dinner is a half hour late it’s hardly the end of the world).

I’m suggesting this right now because this should give us all enough notice to make it known that we would all like a toy for Christmas. Pass on a not-so-subtle hint to friends/family by means of a picture or link to a particular toy that takes your fancy, perhaps post it on facebook or e-mail it round (or maybe hide an image of and some other hints at things you might like in your blog). Even better try and remember a toy that you always wanted as a child and never got, what better way to get some closure and have some fun all at the same time?

I’m considering turning this into a bit of a campaign on facebook so leave a comment if you’re on-board with the idea so I can get an idea of whether it’s worth putting together a facebook page for it. Thanks for reading and apologies for using the C word in August, you can blame my mum she used it first.

Update: I’ve now set up the facebook group for this, click on the link here.

New beginnings

We’re relocating our shop in Perth. I normally work in our Crieff branch but as of September I’ll be through in our new location in Perth once a week too. I was through visiting the new location this morning, Karen (the boss/owner) was like a kid at Christmas and her excitement was contagious. I think everyone relishes the challenge of a new project and this new shop is definitely an interesting project.

I don’t think this is really like my regular blog entries but I felt the need to say something about what’s happening where I work and how I fit into this. Also this excitement at something new is slightly relevant to my last blog post. Here is an example of being faced with something new, an opportunity for change and it’s exciting. We’ve set a deadline of opening in the middle of September so it’s also a little daunting but overall everyone at Fun Junction is completely stoked about it. We’ve all been for a visit to the new location, a lovely shop in great need of some TLC: dusty floorboards and tattered old shelves are transforming before our eyes and every space in the shop brings forth a debate about what will be done with it. Ideas are pouring out left right and centre, it’s a really freeing experience, we’re all getting the chance to influence how the business will look to the rest of the world.

Hopping off the bus in Crieff I was hit with the sobering reality of our wee Crieff shop, much smaller than it’s sister in Perth and already set up and running. However, what this shop does have is an amazing rich fan base of regular customers, familiar faces, and a host of children that we’ve seen go from preschoolers to pre-teens. It’s a funny contrast going from new open possibilities to established familiar (and kind of comforting) routine. To be honest I can’t complain at all, this way I get the best of both worlds. Every week I’m going to get the opportunity to contribute to a brand new store dynamic through in Perth whilst also getting to enjoy the comfort of the Crieff shop. Not to mention getting to be there at the foundation of our web store which, thanks to the awesomely huge office space in the new shop, we will be able to dedicate more time and effort to and hopefully see it grow as a result.

Sorry that this post went a little off the usual kinds of topic but I just wanted to share some of the excitement round. As usual I welcome any feedback (especially any ideas for what we can do in the new shop). Thanks for reading.

Standing out

Sorry for the long absence, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, the end result is I passed my MPhil Viva (verbal defence of my thesis) with minor corrections. Now on with the toy talk (or something close anyway).

This one’s been brewing for a few weeks I just haven’t had the chance to sit down and write it. For a long time I thought it would be fun to do theme weekends in the shop, where I dress up as a character, we get lots of toys and/or books in to do with that character and I hang out in the window doing things in character. For example if we were to do a pirate weekend we’d buy in lots of pirate regalia (swords, eye patches etc.) maybe do face painting (to give kids pirate beards/scars/blacked out teeth) and I’d decorate the window to look like the captain’s quarters and sit there when there weren’t any customers in the store, waiving a sword at passers by. That kind of thing.

The problem is we’ve done events in the shop before with mixed to poor results: face painting days, rush hour challenges etc. It seems like most people just want to come in and shop, which I can understand. However there’s some fun to be had in breaking from routine/the expected, the problem is most of us consider ourselves to be ‘too busy’ for things to disrupt our plans. We may be on our way to a birthday party with the kids and so genuinely don’t have time to stop and enjoy a carefully put together activity. The problem is I’m not sure if this is really what stops people from participating.

We Brits (or Scots if you prefer, don’t want to start that discussion here) will only stand out in pre-defined ways. Yes we’re internationally recognised as eccentric but this only goes so far. For the most part people like to stick to what they know and this is passed on to our kids. When we walk into a shop we expect to find…well, a shop, we probably aren’t particularly well prepared to be challenged to a logic puzzle or be asked if we want our faces painted, let alone be accosted by a pirate and asked to join their crew. There is of course a chance that people expect to find a hidden cost in this, following the old ‘you don’t get something for nothing’ philosophy.

To an extent they’re right, these kind of things cost money and that money comes from the business running it, so even if you don’t pay at the time the business will probably recoup their losses through the price of stock. The thing to remember though is that a shop gets all their products in at cost and an event is supposed to be a form of advertising so often this cost is so minimal you won’t see any price hike just to pay for some new face paint every now and then. More importantly days like this spice up our work week, we enjoy them so we’re unlikely to make you pay for our fun.

Maybe people feel uncomfortable standing out from the crowd, dropping their plan for the day and just going with the flow. Maybe a guy dressed as a pirate would make people afraid that they too would have to do something silly (what a terrifying thought, being silly, in front of your kids no less). Sadly I can easily envisage this: a happy family approaches the shop then spots the pirate in the window… the parents instantly clam up, aware that they may have to do something that they hadn’t planned to do that day and promptly turn and walk away. Maybe this is unfair on our customers, I have to admit that I often react in a similar way to the unexpected, but if my kids are there I suck it up. Just like a fear of heights, wasps or clowns we shouldn’t show our children our true reaction to our fears as they’re likely to end up inheriting our fears too. Instead it’s our job to let them draw their own conclusions about these kinds of things. Though of course we shouldn’t shield them from the truth: people can fall and hurt themselves, wasps do sting and clowns can come into your dreams at night and torment you (OK maybe the last one isn’t entirely accurate).

I’d love to do more event type stuff in the shop but so long as people look unwilling (or even in some cases scared) of such events we’ll have to refrain from this kind of thing. This is sad because it’s a rare opportunity for us parents to teach our children something important that won’t necessarily come up in school: sometimes life offers up an opportunity for something new and if we’re too busy doing the same old thing we miss the chance. When they grow up and make goals for themselves as adults this will have an impact on what they try to do and who they try to become; more importantly if they don’t embrace opportunity when it comes along they won’t accomplish their goals. I remember a bit of pseudo-philosophy (think it’s a quote from Thomas Jefferson) that was getting passed around facebook a few months back that seems relevant and makes a whole lot of sense: “If you want something you’ve never had you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.”

As always I welcome feedback. Who knows, if enough people disagree about the likelihood of success you may see me screaming in the window waving a sword at you sometime soon (and I might rethink the pirate weekend too).

Secret ingredient

There’s an item which we don’t stock in either of our shops which is essential for any child to get the most out of their toys (no not batteries, we’ve got them): imagination. There’s a general consensus idea that adults lose their imaginations as they get older and perhaps statistically this might be true but it’s not a necessary truth. We don’t have to lose our imaginations (or see them shrink). All you need to do is sit down with a child and play with some toys to see just how easy it is to switch that capacity back on. To be honest most of us can manage this ourselves, we don’t really need hints from kids but sometimes the imagination gets so weak through lack of use that people genuinely struggle to get it back up and running.

When you tell someone you work in a toy shop most people say something along the lines that must be a really fun job. Well yes, yes it is. However after that adults can have a hard time making conversation, you see we all use banks so if you work in a bank someone has common ground to have a conversation about the same goes for a whole host of jobs. The unique thing about toys is that they’re culturally seen as ‘for kids’ (see my other post on this to see my opinion of this common mistake). As a result conversation can get a little strained at times but sometimes it can get really interesting (please bear with me I will get back on topic).

This happened a couple of years ago when I was talking to someone who had been on therapist’s training course to look at the advantages of therapy through play. The general idea is something akin to regression mixed with role play will allow people to become more aware of their view of themselves and how they fit into the world. Anyway all the therapists were to grab a toy and get on with it (to see what it was like) and one woman got really upset, she thought it was a futile exercise but when they asked her about why it turned out she really had forgotten how to play, her imagination had diminished so much that she could no longer pretend.

Even as adults the notion of the full loss of this faculty sounds horrific, we recognise the role of this kind of imagining in coming up with new ideas and thinking outside the box and a common dystopia theme in science fiction is a world where people just do what they’re told (e.g. Orwell’s 1984). What keeps the imaginative fires burning is use and one of the best ways to use your imagination is play. Of course books, movies and video games can stimulate the imagination but really pretending involves making your own world, using the resources at hand. I think this is why there’s a new movement of so called ‘kidults’.

Many people call this the ‘information age’ (I think the order is supposed to go stone-> bronze-> iron-> industrial-> information), not sure about the title but it seems slightly right. If you want your business/enterprise/venture/whatever you call it to succeed nowadays you need presence, for that you need information about it to stand out and to stand out you need imagination. I can only imagine that this situation will get more pronounced as more of our lives go virtual so if our children can’t imagine (and I’m not trying to be funny here) they will be at a serious disadvantage. My point is simple then, though we can’t sell imagination in the toy shop we can sell the tools/equipment to make imaginations flourish. Just sport products can’t in themselves make you fit (you need to use them), the products we sell can’t instantly make you imaginative, once you get your product it’s down to you to get to the serious work of playing (of course we’re more than happy to lend a hand and help people learn to play with things, it means we get to play more).

One really good starting point is a product called ‘Rory’s story cubes‘, where you throw nine pictured dice and make a story out of the pictures (any order you like but you have to use all the pictures). We’re posting a new pic (a kind of free sample) every Saturday night to let people have a go over the weekend, so log in and go to our page to have a go, here’s a link have fun, don’t let your imagination down.

Making an effort

The other day I updated the shop’s facebook site to highlight the toy company Melissa and Doug and it got me thinking about the differences between company philosophies. In a way we’re lucky to have a mixture of different perspectives on how business should be done from the companies that make the products we all buy, but the company philosophy that most people seem to loathe yet the one which gets the most money is  the ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ philosophy. Or at least it used to be. Recently I’ve been noticing a change in people’s attitudes (at least towards toys).

We’ve always been proud of the fact that customers come into our shop and seem genuinely excited to find a ‘proper toy shop’ or an ‘old fashioned toy shop’ but in reality a lot of the time these customers will buy the products we stock that receive TV advertising or at least feature TV or movie characters (viz. very often not the ‘traditional’ wooden toys). I can’t blame them, I do exactly the same thing, my son Logan watches his fair share of TV and as a result a lot of his toys are branded characters that most parents would recognise (ice age, ben 10 etc.).

The interesting thing is that people seem more discerning now about how they spend their money, perhaps the financial crisis has changed attitudes from looking for the cheapest to looking for the most value. Now when parents come into the shop I notice more of a tendency for them to describe our pocket money section as ‘junk’ or ‘nonsense’ and insist that their child consider a ‘decent’ toy. Personally I think there are plenty of ‘decent’ toys to be found in a well stocked pocket money section (see my post on pocket money toys from a while back for my views on how great ‘pocket money’ toys can be) but I don’t think that’s the point. What they seem to be saying is that rather than buying four or five things at about a pound each the child should buy one item at five pounds, and I assume this is because they want a toy that will last and not simply a selection of toys that will turn into pile of clutter for the bottom of the toy box.

Parents also seem to be persuading their children to hold back in order to save money (or at least consider it for a while) for a more expensive toy. Overall I think this is part of a new culture of people who are sick of being let down by a deal that seems too good to be true. A few years ago I bought my dad a personal video player, it was an MP4 player similar to an ipod but it was about a quarter of the price (but still pretty expensive, a few of us clubbed together to pay for it), surprise surprise I think it lasted about 2 months and when it did break I got no help from the ebay store I’d bought it from or from the company website of the manufacturer. I think everyone must have a similar story to this that makes them feel less savvy, less intelligent and more gullible. No one likes feeling like that and I think this is what is spurring this new attitude, we don’t want to be duped and when something looks too good to be true it often is, so we learn from these humbling budget purchases and decide not to let it happen again.

In short, the internet has opened our eyes to just how devious manufacturers and retailers can be (and still be operating legally). The flip side of this is that the internet has also made retailers and manufacturers responsible in an entirely different manner, the police might not be able to do anything but every single customer can leave a mark. If you slip up even once you can see a very significant drop in sales thanks to the resulting customer review. The prevailing idea now is that when you buy online you can count on customer ratings to steer you right and this attitude is starting to spread. We’re more careful about spending our money until we hear more about the product or service and as a result we’re all helping each other to become far more savvy shoppers.

Something that shops now have to think about is that the customer doesn’t have to be in their store. Even in the most remote locations, if the post man can get to your door you can buy online. A lot of retailers don’t seem to have noticed this and despite providing good services/products at good prices they’re losing out. The key element in a tangible (not virtual/web) shop is that your staff have to know their stuff and if possible (and in some ways more importantly) the staff or at least the shop should be entertaining.

The experience a customer has in your shop will dictate whether they’ll bother to come back or if they’ll opt for an online alternative (and guaranteed there will be an online alternative). I suppose the point of this blog entry has been a call for street shops to make an effort, it’s all very well asking people to ‘shop local’ but there’s also a responsibility on us to make it worth their while. We can ask a customer to shop local but they in turn are perfectly in their rights to ask ‘why?’

The above picture is a ‘bumblenut’ made by Campbell’s bakery in Crieff (according to Ewan McGregor best pie makers in the world) they always make an effort