“The writing was on the wall for Jenners toy shop” - Donald Nairn

As Jenners beloved toy shop closes its doors for good, one capital toy expert shares his view on what went wrong.

Thursday, 7th March 2019, 5:41 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th March 2019, 6:02 pm
Donald Nairn of Morningside's Toys Galore. Picture: Neil Hanna
Donald Nairn of Morningside's Toys Galore. Picture: Neil Hanna

Writing in a letter to the Evening News, Donald Nairn of Toys Galore in Morningside gave his perspective:

Many of your younger readers will wonder what the fuss is about, as it’s been a while since Jenner’s was the place to go for toys. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, no visit to Edinburgh would have been complete without a visit to Jenners and in particular the toy section.

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Jenners famous toy shop has closed for good

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Jenners was then an independent department store with a formidable reputation across all its departments. The food hall for example had exotic (and tasty) produce you wouldn’t find anywhere else. For me however, it was the toy department in the basement where I headed first. There was nowhere better in Scotland for toys at that time. There was the Jolly Giant toy superstore, but it just wasn’t as good.

What made Jenners special was its independence. Each department would have its own buying team with highly experienced and knowledgeable staff. The toy department was no exception. The head toy buyer when I took over Toys Galore in 2005 was called Ann and she had an assistant toy buyer too. Ann had been with Jenners for many years and knew the toy market back to front. Toys Galore staff would often meet Ann and her assistant at Toy Fair and other occasions and compare notes about what the in thing might be. This way of buying is a much more responsive way to run a toy store as you can react immediately to any new trend. Buying at such a local level also gave them an insight into what Jenners customers wanted.

Jenners was doing well, but in 2005 they sold the entire store to House of Fraser (HoF). This worked out okay to begin with. HoF promised there would be no substantial changes and there wasn’t to begin with. Things however started to change. In the past, Jenners would warehouse their stock in the Jenners depository on Balgreen Road. This meant that the shelves wouldn’t ever go empty as the stock was held 15 minutes away. It was decided however to warehouse centrally and this caused chaos. I remember hearing a story of how a shipment of Tamagochi’s (the hottest toy at the time) got lost in the centralised warehouse and only reappeared in January when the craze was over. More generally, there were issues with re-stocking items quickly, that led to empty shelves. Never a good look for a toy store.

Things returned to some semblance of normality, but the writing was on the wall. The House of Fraser management were favouring a concessions model of operating. Concessions work by letting operators take over a section of the department store and running a shop within a shop. HoF would take a cut of between 15-20% of the turnover and the operator would do everything else. The advantages for HoF is that it is an easy way to run a department store and carries less risk. The trouble is however that this model only works with upmarket, high margin brands. The toy market is fiercely competitive and the margins are much lower.

HoF decided in their wisdom to stop running its own Toy Department and give Hamleys the concession in September 2007. I remember visiting Hamleys in Jenners when it first opened and I knew straight away that they had made a big mistake. The store was essentially a stripped down version of what they offered in London. The super rich and tourists on Regent street might have been prepared to pay Hamleys prices, but the careful folk of Edinburgh were not. I suspect that HoF thought that it’s loyal customers would be so overwhelmed by the Hamleys name, they wouldn’t notice the prices. Hamleys lasted until 2009, but then they decided to call it a day.

By this point, damage had already been done, but worse was to come. The concession moved from Hamleys to a company called Toytown. They gave up after a few years. After that, came The Entertainer (although it wasn’t branded as such). Both of these companies are good at what they do, but they were not exactly a good fit for Jenners. Then lastly Hamleys made a triumphant return in April 2017, only to fail for exactly the same reasons as before.

The tragedy of all this is that HoF had a shop with an outstanding reputation. Making improvements to how Jenners was run could have been done without destroying what made it unique. I don’t think this should be written up as another example of how retail is failing, because Jenners as run by the Jenners family would have been fine.

The toy department of old was an exciting place to be, with only the best products available. They also had a train that ran around the roof area (Toys Galore have one too).

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