Consuming Issues: Toy shops face tough struggle for survival

Tiny tables and dressers for dolls, replica cowboy guns, plastic pirate eye-patches and blunt cutlasses, modelling clay, Hornby trains, seaside buckets and spades, day and eveningwear for Barbie ... despite the rise of the Xbox and Nintendo Wii, many children's playthings are surprisingly timeless.

This summer the explosion of colour and shapes at a toyshop in the town of Arboga, near Stockholm, Sweden, reminded a forty-something holidaymaker of his childhood. While some toys had been updated, they were essentially the same; the children's delight were the same too. What has changed is that in Britain, fewer and fewer 21st-century small eyes and hands experience an emporium devoted to their enjoyment and imagination. Independent toy shops are in decline.

Like all the specialist shops once common on the high street, fishmongers, butchers, bakers, they have been clobbered by supermarkets with smaller but cheaper ranges.

Figures from Verdict Research shows that specialist toy shops' share of the market shrank from 40 per cent in 1989 to 21 per cent last year. During that period the grocers' share has doubled, from 9 to 20 per cent.

The rest of the market – department stores John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams, Argos, and internet operators – has risen too, to 59 per cent.

Among the specialists, Toys R Us, with 78 stores, and the splendid Entertainer chain, with 52, are growing, suggesting that the independents have shrunk by more than half in two decades.

The Toy Retailers Association, which represents the £3.4bn-a-year trade, says the past few years have been particularly hard for independents: the recession and the collapse in 2008 of the Youngsters group in which they pooled their buying power has led to a "shakeout".

"What we have seen is a lot of slip at independents that have lost a lot of their share," says Neil Saunders, Verdict's consulting director. "The big challenge for anyone who is an independent is either to have sufficient volume to compete with the grocers or have a specialism such as selling wooden or educational toys."

Is the decline of toy shops bad for children and parents?

Supermarkets certainly offer good deals for the season's best-selling toys – Tesco is currently selling an Action Man for £5 and a Disney Princess and Horse set for £9.99 – and shoppers understandably take advantage of such half-price offers.

The value of toy shops can't be weighed in pounds or pence alone, though. They offer some tangible and intangible benefits. Tangibly, they have a wider range than a supermarket aisle or corner of a department store and tend to stock fewer electronics and more traditional playthings.

Intangibly, they offer entertainment and enchantment: wandering around one with a small child can briefly rival in excitement a visit to a theme park or the cinema. Cherished toys can also enter the heart.

In a survey by the Firebox website this year, 70 per cent of adults said they hankered for old-fashioned toys, from their youth. Adults unaccompanied by children are watching ToyShop3, Disney's summer's blockbuster featuring resolutely old-style soldiers, teddy bears and dolls.

I don't want to recreate a fictional 1950s Mary Poppins era or complain about electronic gadgets, or get overly sentimental – toy shops certainly don't eradicate arguments over how to spend Granny's holiday money – but losing them will diminish our shopping experience and the character of high streets. If you pass one, you might open the door and enter. The time-travel is free.

The best supermarket? You decide

Heroes: Supermarkets

Well, some supermarkets. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, the Co-operative and Waitrose have been shortlisted for the RSPCA's "People's Choice" award for animal welfare, run in conjunction with The Independent. You can scrutinise the stores' record and vote at Independent.co.uk. The winner will be announced in October.

Villain: Chris Huhne

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary is responsible for ensuring energy suppliers don't overcharge. So far he has announced a "review" of Ofgem, but his department has "no plans" to refer the industry to the Competition Commission, which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats called for in Opposition.

m.hickman@independent.co.uk

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