My last Christmas in the toy shop

wpid-imag1527This isn’t easy for me to write but I want to say something about it. This Christmas will be my last in the toy shop. For the past nine years I’ve been ‘the toy shop guy’ and I wanted to say thank you to all of the people who have made it such an amazing experience.

I’ve already written about the strangely slow process in which kids grow out of toys and then disappear from the shop but at the time of writing I never would have thought that I would be moving on too. I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to do something that will be a huge challenge but which I expect will also be extremely rewarding. However, the toy shop will always be something very dear to me.

big movie tom hanks playing with toysWho wouldn’t love the chance to test-drive toys and play games for a living? I’ve enjoyed nine years doing a job that, as a kid, I would have gone crazy for. During that time I even had two kids of my own who have let me see toys through new eyes and who taught me more about the simple joy of play than I could have expected. I know they’re going to miss having their dad working in a toy shop too.

Being a “toy shop guy” is a job with a very transient clientele; every year our customer base shifts as children grow up just that little bit more. There’s something sorrowful, yet wonderful, inherent in watching kids grow up. Obviously as a parent I experience that every day with the little people in my house who are steadily getting less and less little. However, I feel honoured that I’ve also had the chance to share that a little bit with our customers.

I can’t list everyone I’m going to miss here because there are so many. To the parents and grandparents reading this I just want to thank you for the stories and the laughs we’ve had over the years as the children accompanying you grew with each visit. If it weren’t for all of you I would have just been some guy moving boxes around all day. You made my work in the shop what it was and for that I want to thank all of you.

You have also been amazingly supportive towards my series of children’s books. I can’t imagine a situation where getting a story out into the world would have been such a pleasant experience. Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame was my first proper jump into the world of writing and I wouldn’t have enjoyed anything close to the response I got if it wasn’t for you all.

For almost a decade I’ve made toys my life, I did everything I could to understand the ways that different types of play can help children develop their skills and talents, and more importantly learn things about who they are. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I would be able to find something to fit a child’s needs. This is part of what’s involved in being part of the amazing team at Fun Junction.

To be honest the most important thing about Fun Junction‘s staff has always been that we’re kind of big kids at heart, we love our toys, we’ve played with most of them, and we want to make sure we get the very best products around, so that we can be sure that we have something for everyone. You can’t go wrong in getting a toy at Fun Junction.

I was so happy to hear that I would be getting the chance to enjoy one last Christmas at the shop. It is honestly the best part of the entire year; not because of sales or footfall, but because of the magic of Santa lists, siblings secretly picking out presents for each other, and of course the odd flying visit as some of the bigger presents are picked up by the big guy before the big day 😉 I would have been devastated to have missed all this.

My first ever John the Toy shop guy blog post 'Pocket Money'

My first ever John the Toy shop guy blog post ‘Pocket Money’

My last official day as John the toy shop guy will be on the 31st December (Hogmanay). It’s normally one of the quietest days of the year (and we normally close at about 4pm because of that) but I’d love it if you could pop by for a quick wee visit if you’re about (I’ll pop the kettle on). Again, thank you all for an amazing nine years, I really will miss all of this, it’s going to be very strange not spending my days in the toy shop. Hope Santa is good to you all, Merry Christmas, all the best, John the Toy Shop Guy.

Barbie’s toilet!

wpid-imag1365_burst003.jpgThis post is basically just a chance for me to talk about Barbie’s toilet and here it is. Who would have thought that Barbie had a toilet? For that matter, who would have thought that she had enough internal organs to need a toilet? (Sorry that last bit was a bit nasty, but seriously no woman has a waist that small without something weird going on)

Has Amazon lost its way?

amazon box lost in the rainIn my eyes, back in the early days of online shopping Amazon was Cinderella and Ebay, and the many others who have long-since left us, were her ugly stepsisters. For years I smugly admonished friends and relatives who used Ebay, it baffled me that they somehow expected to get what they paid for. In my eyes Amazon pushed for trust every step of the way whilst Ebay (and other sites) left sellers on a very loose leash, allowing all kinds of admonishable behaviour (and you never felt like the sites penalised people for their less-than-honourable selling practices).

Like I said Amazon was the diamond in the rough that was online shopping at the turn of the century. It was the Cinderella to a host of ugly step-sisters, but it turns out Amazon turned up at the ball in a mask and it’s becoming clear that she ain’t no Cinders.

I have been an Amazon customer since I was a student, about five or six years after they started trading (that’s more than a decade ago). Back then I bought books (it was all you really could buy from them in those days), but within a few years I was buying all kinds of things, mainly at Christmas, as Amazon started filling its warehouses with an increasingly broad stock range. Thanks to Amazon (and Amazon alone) I grew to love online shopping, I was sold.

I still love online shopping (though there are a number of things I would always rather buy in person) and Amazon’s digital services are fantastic (and don’t have the high-end price tag you pay to start using iTunes). However, I’m becoming aware of Amazon’s ethics (or lack thereof) more and more. From allegations of tax wrangling, to price wars, to their apparent reluctance to police their growing catalogue of ‘merchant’ stores, there are more and more factors that are putting me off Amazon.

According to 'The Selling Family' Matt C received this counterfeit Frozen Playset directly from Amazon a few days before the big announcement.

According to ‘The Selling Family‘ this is one of the counterfeit Frozen sets

The ‘merchant’ stores in particular are a sticky issue for me, it’s getting harder to tell whether you’re buying from Amazon or from some third party merchant and the problem with third parties who can remain fairly anonymous, is that it’s easier for them to do less than honourable things. Recently there was a bit of controversy when Amazon’s top selling toy actually turned out to be a counterfeit Frozen play set (basically sub-standard tat with ‘Frozen’ written on it), you can find out more about it in John Baulch’s article here. Amazon has since ‘frozen’ third-party sales of Frozen toys but to be honest the damage is already done.

Put on top of this the fact that they price out basically any brick and mortar store, and the fact that even distributors are starting to have problems supplying the retail behemoth, and I’m starting to like them even less. Their only redeeming feature in my eyes is their digital content and the ease of use people can have in accessing the music, videos, and ebooks that they’ve purchased from Amazon.

Unlike purchases from itunes I’ve found Amazon’s attitude to digital content to be surprisingly relaxed; you buy it and then you decide how I want to use it. However, this doesn’t really undo the fact that they don’t pay taxes in the same way that traditional retailers do, nor does it counteract any of the issues addressed above, so despite the fact that I’ve still got a small portion of Amazon fandom I’ve got to admit to a growing dislike for the company.

Sorry for falling a little off the typical toys topic but after reading the articles I’ve linked to above I felt pretty miffed at a company who always used to have a lot of support from me. As I said, I was a full Amazon advocate, trying to persuade friends and relatives alike to buy from them, I don’t do that any more and that’s a sad thing to realise, it’s never good to see a company you trust and admire drop so drastically in your estimation.

Am I the only one with this peculiar sense of loss in regards to Amazon? Do you feel like you’re mourning what Amazon was/could have been or do you still hold them high in your estimations? As always any comments are more than welcome and thanks for stopping by, feel free to have a wander through my other posts, and you can catch me over on Twitter, Cheers, John

How many people do you buy for at Christmas?

Found this picture over at 'Buried in Bricks'

Found this picture over at ‘Buried in Bricks

I can safely guess that most people probably buy for their kids and for their other halves but other than that there seems to be a lot of variation between people. Some buy for friends and their kids but miss out cousins and other extended family, whilst others seem to keep it all in the family spreading their spends sometimes very far.

I recently found myself on a netmums message board (sorry that’s probably some kind of mumsnet blogger sin I just committed) after a google search and was quite surprised at how much people’s gift buying varied.

It wasn’t just the cost (as you can imagine there was a lot of variation there as well), to be honest the thing that struck me the most was the differences in how people look at gift buying.

Most seemed to say that Christmas is a time for being with family and friends and enjoying their company but that’s where the unified voice ended. There were people spending a bucket load on their kids and then not really buying for anyone but one or two close friends and immediate family, then there were people who were very reserved with spending on their kids and themselves but who seemed to buy gifts for extended family and a host of friends.

In our house we buy for family we see a lot: grannies and grampas, great grannies and our siblings (and their partners and kids), we buy some bits and pieces for friends we’ll be meeting near Christmas, and obviously we buy for the boys, and my wife and I buy gifts for each other.

As something a bit different I thought I’d pop a survey in this post (it’s up top) as I thought it’d be interesting to see what different people do when it comes to Christmas shopping. What do you think, should people keep their spending close to home or should they spread their gifts far and wide? As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Winnie the Pooh day

180120141680Happy ‘Winnie the Pooh Day’! These kinds of holidays often seem to be plucked out of thin air but this one is actually due to the fact that today is AA Milne’s birthday. Because of this I don’t feel quite as bad about making a post out of what, at first, appears to be yet another nonsense ‘holiday’. Winnie the Pooh spans generations and thanks to Disney’s long running depiction we’re now at a stage where Grandparents, Parents and Children alike all typically picture the little yellow guy, we see in the picture above, when they’re asked to think of Winnie The Pooh. (Remember, if you fancy trying your hand at some character voices from the hundred acre voices you can pop along to my post here for some pointers.)

from collectingcollectables.comOne of my mum’s favourite toys as a child was her Winnie the Pooh slide projector, which she passed on to me when I was old enough to use it. Simple as it was, it was a great and diverting wee toy which projected scenes from Disney’s original  Winnie The Pooh movies onto the wall with captions so that you could follow the story. I’ve a feeling that it was sadly lost in a house move when I was about 7 but I still remember it as being brilliant fun. It was apparently very durable to, aside from Lego, Playmobil, and perhaps a handful of other brands, plastic toys don’t often last long enough to pass on to the next generation.

Both of my kids were dressed in the ever-present sets of Winnie The Pooh baby clothes when they were babies (in fact both of them came home from the hospital wearing a Winnie The Pooh character). Some might see this as over-commercialisation of a beloved character but I love the characters and their underlying notion that, despite vastly different personality types, a group of individuals can still find a way to get on with one another.

We see the gruff and bossy rabbit clash with the mellow ‘laissez faire’ attitude of Pooh bear, or piglet’s crippling fearfulness juxtaposed with Tigger’s excitement, flamboyancy and zest for life. Not to mention the bookish, rambling, often wildly uninformed, ‘expertise’ of Owl and the lovable sad-sack Eeyore. Joined later on by Kanga and Roo, a single mother and her child adopted into the wider family of the hundred acre wood.

the real winnie the pooh

These are the ‘real’ Winnie the Pooh and his friends, owned by Christopher Robin Milne. For the origins of these characters follow this link

Disney’s depiction of these characters is often critically compared with the original but when you look at some of the original stories you see that some less-than-lovable traits have been edited out by Disney. For a good example lets look at chapter 7 of ‘Winnie The Pooh’ (Milne’s first book dedicated to the hundred acre wood), which is sub-titled ‘…in which Kanga and Baby Roo come to the forest, and Piglet has a bath’. Frightened at the prospect of newcomers to the wood, Pooh and the gang formulate a plan to scare Kanga and Roo off by kidnapping Roo and replacing him with piglet in order to bribe Kanga into agreeing to leave. “We’ll tell you where Baby Roo is, if you promise to go away from the Forest and never come back.” (really friendly huh?!)

The story has a happy ending (of sorts) with Kanga treating Piglet as though he’s Roo, until Christopher Robin turns up and mistakes the uncharacteristically clean Piglet for a newcomer to the woods. The general gist of the ending is that everything gets sorted out, Roo gets back to his mum and they’re all friends in the end. If you compare it to some of Disney’s own stories, you start to see that, in terms of the overall message, not much has been lost from the original apart from some slightly less savoury behaviours from the gang. (NB Disney has made at least a couple of versions of this story which was shown, amongst other places, in their ‘Mini adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ series, but the kidnapping plot absent, instead replaced by the gang helping Roo to avoid bath time, and the emphasis was on the humour of Piglet’s bath). At the bottom of this post you’ll find two versions I’ve tracked down on youtube:

Which version of Winnie the Pooh do you have the most fond memories of? Do you think Pooh bear and his friends have become over commercialised or do you like them just the way they are? As always I welcome comments both here in the comments box below and over on twitter. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John


A bit of shameless self promotion

An investigation into the good life and how e might achieve it

Apologies for the long absence, I’ve recently been using up all my spare time finishing writing up a book. As some of my readers may know my background is in both toys and in Philosophy, this blog has always been and will continue to be about the toy side of my knowledge base. However, I can’t help spilling into a bit of philosophical discussion every now and then; typically when I look at society’s values or things like the self-image of children. In this post I’m jumping all the way over to the philosophy side.

First off, this book isn’t a mammoth read, I tried to keep things as neat and concise as I could. It could be an interesting alternative to an introduction to philosophy book as it looks at both ancient and very modern positions in philosophy, providing people with a breadth of philosophical history. It doesn’t address every important philosophical question ever posed, but it does cover one or two of the ‘big questions’ as it takes the reader through it’s main topic. The book is about what it is to have a good life, and what kind of activities we might have to participate in in order to achieve this. When I started writing this book I wanted to make sure that the vast array of human capacities and capabilities are at least acknowledged, if not addressed head on. Because of this topics including the nature of mental disability and how it impacts on notions of merit and blame grew to become a steady thread throughout the book.

I like to think that it addresses these issues in the lightest possible manner whilst taking them seriously but I’ll leave it up to readers to decide. It’s available (in English only) in the UK, the USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, India, Canada and Brazil. If you choose to get yourself a copy (or even just read a sample) I hope you enjoy it and I hope you take the time to tell me what you think.

Getting back to the topic of toys (ish), I’m considering writing a book for next summer about the way philosophers talk about children (or in many cases, don’t talk about them at all) and also about the kinds of views of the world that children have (what we could probably call the philosophy of children). For the secondary topic of this new book I’d welcome any anecdotes about things kids say about the world and what they think about it, so please pop your stories here in the comments section (you can remain anonymous in the book, or get credit for the story, it’s up to you).

As always, thanks for reading and I promise to get some more toy talk back on here as soon as I can, Cheers, John

The cost of toys, is this the end of ‘pocket money toys’?

are pocket money toys on their way to becoming a thing of the past?According to Dominic Sacco over at Toy News Online Tesco has decided to downsize their toy section (along with many other ‘non-food’ sections). The reason they give is high cost and low margin and I expect that this won’t be the last we hear of this kind of thing. The truth is it’s getting trickier to get toys made cheaply in China because two things are happening at once. The first, and most obvious, change is that the cost of living (and the expectation) of life in China is changing and this is resulting in an increase in the price of getting something manufactured there. To be honest this first change has been a long time coming and we can hardly be surprised that China’s expectations for standard of living have risen along with their position in the world.

selection of traditional and new pocket money toysThe second change is one that is effecting the lowest priced items the most (though the effects ; CE certification (health and safety checks) used to be based on the assessment of a product in it’s first run at a factory, after that point the company could continue to manufacture that product with minor amendments (colour etc.) for years. However, a new move has now been introduced which, on the face of it, is supposed to avoid the risk standards slipping over time: basically checks are now performed at regular intervals and every test costs money. The tests appear to cost a flat rate and so the result of this is that the effect this has on high priced items will be minimal with the test amounting to a small fraction of the cost per item. However for toys at the budget/ pocket money end where margins are already kept pretty tight there’s less room for them to take this kind of cost and still come in as something you could market as a ‘pocket money’ item.

great wee construction sets at pocket money pricesI can imagine that this situation will only become more pronounced over time and so the question we’re left with is what does this mean for pocket money toys? My feelings about the value of pocket money toys have been made clear in a previous post but it’s worth making them known again here: they’re a simple, inexpensive play item which can nonetheless become a staple part of your child’s play (that is if they’re built to last). What’s more, pocket money toys provide a surprising wealth of play experience, allowing children to encounter very different types of toys (and play) without having to sacrifice a Christmas or Birthday present to test out a new type of toy.

cheap and cheerful and lots of fun, a great way to introduce children to scienceWith this in mind the effect on the way children play will likely be complex but I do expect less pocket money toys to produce an initial lessening in the range of play which kids engage in. This may produce something of a polarising effect in the toy market as children stick to tried and tested toys and become less willing to venture into different camps. Of course many pocket money toys can be described as ‘cheap tat’ but this often misses the point: buying oner of these cheaper toys lets you know if your child will be likely to play with their more expensive counterparts.

Take one very simple example taken from my life. As you can see in my old pocket money post Logan gained some favourite toys in the form a small set of pocket money animals he got when he was two. We now have two toy drawers at home stuffed full of animal and dinosaur figures, most of them are schleich figures which are far from being the cheapest toy figures on the market but they’re far more detailed and generally really robust so we felt it was worth the extra cost. As far as toy animals are concerned I’m not sure if we would have stepped up our spending to this degree if we hadn’t been sure that Logan would play with them and the pocket money animal set he got was a big part of that decision-making process.

So basically I’m trying to point out that pocket money toys are going to start costing more whilst other toys may not increase to the same degree but I don’t think this should put us off buying them. These kinds of toy can be a vital research tool for parents, allowing them to gauge their child’s response to play formats they may not have been exposed to yet. In short, if we lose pocket money the whole industry could change, but more than this (and much worse) children are likely to polarise towards the kinds of play that are most familiar to them, as they become less and less exposed to things that lie outside their comfort zone. We may need to start limiting buying pocket money toys to once a fortnight or once a month or risk a massive rise on our toy spending as parents, but I don’t think we should stop buying them. We should stick to pocket money toys as they teach our children not simply to treat themselves every now and then but also pocket money toys show them new worlds of play and I for one am comfortable with spending a bit more (maybe less often) to continue to make this happen.

One year of John the toy shop guy

Pirate cakes

I nabbed this picture from a local cake maker’s facebook page, you can find them here

This week marks the one year anniversary of this blog (you can find my first wee post here). I have to admit that for the first few months (maybe as much as the first 6) it felt like a hard slog with little to no reward in terms of readership. However I knew that my subject matter was so specific that I’d need a bunch of posts under my belt before I started to gain any google hits. As I expected it’s been a slow start but it’s getting there, I no longer suffer readerless days, I’m now part of the mumsnet bloggers network, I write a guest blog for parents space, I write a monthly toy column for the Strathallan Times and I was recently asked by Richard Gottlieb if he could repost the reply to his article which I wrote last week on his toy news site ‘Global Toy News’.

This is just a short post, simply intended to point out this blog’s wee anniversary but I thought I might throw in a few general hints for people just starting their blogging journey:

1) Stay on topic from one post to the next, I’ve been tempted to drift off a number of times onto topics which might catch more readership but I started this blog for a reason; to talk about toys and encourage people to check out Fun Junction (the toy shop where I work). Of course this advice only applies if you want to maintain a faithful subscriber list, if you want a vast random set of readers coming by your blog through search engines then variety will be your friend.

2) As much as possible use original images in your posts and then tag them like crazy: image description, alternative title etc. etc. Google image search brings me a whole heap of traffic this way and I only started doing this about 4 or 5 months ago.

3) Don’t feel guilty if you only blog once or twice a week. Some of my favourite blog writers only post once a week, unless you have something new to say every day, don’t spread yourself too thin.

Lastly:

4) Read lots of other people’s blogs and venture into topics outwith your own area. This can be enlightening and can also help you to figure out ways in which you might improve your own blog.

Many apologies to my regular readers and subscribers for falling so far from the topic of toys in this post. I hope my wee bits of advice help some new blogger out there. As always many thanks for reading and a big thank you to those of you who have been reading my posts for a while, for giving me the support and incentive I needed to reach this milestone. If anyone would like to subscribe to future posts and receive a wee e-mail about twice a week (when I publish a new post) there’s a box over to the right where you can enter your e-mail address and get added to the list (neither I nor wordpress will pass your address on to third parties, for starters I wouldn’t know how). Anyway thanks again for reading, hope you pop by again soon, Cheers, John