The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Anna Lucia
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Wyon Stansfeld, owner of Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts, a toy retailer based in Cork, Ireland. Wyon was open about the obvious challenges that his small, family-run toy store has faced as he was forced to shut for long periods during 2020. Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts was forced to move their business totally online for much of the year, and Wyon faced the challenge of creating a website that tried to retain the personal feel that customers valued in the physical store. To do this, Wyon and his team focused on creating beautiful images and detailed descriptions of their products in order to transport clients from all over the world into their small toy store in Cork. Wyon also realised the importance of building a social media presence and has focused on using platforms such as Instagram to increase their visibility in the local area but also worldwide. Moving forward, Wyon hopes he will be able to welcome customers back to his store once the lockdown in Ireland is lifted, but in the meantime, he will continue to develop his web-store and increase his online presence to ensure his client base is retained. The key message of this interview was to shop locally in order to save small retailers that are at the heart of local communities.
Today our guest is Wyon Stansfeld, owner of Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts, a toy store based in Cork, Ireland. Wyon it’s really great to speak to you today. How are you?
Wyon: I’m good. Thanks Rosie.
I’m really interested to hear your insights because you’re the first person I’ve spoken to in retail and I know how badly retail has been hit. So, before we start, tell us a little bit about your toy store in Cork.
Wyon: We’ve been around since 1983. We’re totally independent and family-owned. We are actually the 3rd people who have owned the shop, although we have owned it the longest. We’ve owned the store since 1991.
We specialise in traditional toys for want of a better description, mainly made of wood. Mostly, as much as we can, they are European-made, eco-friendly and ethically sourced. These days it’s harder and harder to track, but we try to buy from ethical sources and decent people, so you will generally end up with ethically made toys.
We use mostly European (mainly a lot of French, but also some German) companies. We also try to give as personal a service as possible and we’ve tried to continue to do that during the lockdown.
Am I right to assume that you have an online store as well as a physical store there in Ireland?
Wyon: Yes. That’s probably the biggest single change made because of the lockdown. We had been planning to set up the online store, for maybe 3 years. I’m not the greatest fan of online business — I like the physical store. I like the fact that we can meet and interact with people face-to-face. But obviously, that’s more of a challenge these days.
The online store had been set up last year, in 2019. But it wasn’t up and running because it was set up close to Christmas and Christmas is critical for us.
Once we locked down the first time, we immediately started uploading. We had it up and running within about 2 to 3 weeks. It’s also probably the biggest challenge for a small store like us because it’s us doing all of it and there’s only effectively 3 of us, or two and one employee.
So that is a huge challenge for a small store because managing stock and having to integrate everything individually takes far longer than people think. You can’t just flick a switch and up it comes… It doesn’t!
How did you overcome this challenge? I don’t know if you have ever had experience with creating an online platform like this before, but as you said, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. How did you educate yourself to overcome this problem?
Wyon: I think we were lucky in a way because the people who built the website, created a system that is very intuitive. Almost of it can be done from our phones. And it is genuinely intuitive.
Each time we’ve had to explain it to somebody, it’s been very easy, the point of view of physically knowing how to do it. But just like anything, it’s time-consuming; It takes 15 minutes to half an hour to put up a single item, by the time you’ve researched the photographs, taken the photographs, chosen which ones you’re are going to use, then written the description.
We want to give the same feeling on the website that you would get if you walked through the front door of the shop. We want people to have that same slightly wondrous feeling. You really need to see the shop to understand that, but if you see people walking in and they have a kind of open-mouthed look. It’s that kind of shop, you want to be able to search around and find things.
We don’t lay the shop out like a supermarket, so it’s not like Smith’s toys or Tesco’s. Things are not always lined up. They’re designed on the shelves to make it look more almost casual, but not really… it’s made to look casual.
With your shop, you mentioned that you really focus on the quality of the words, of the materials are used to make the toys. So I guess the shopping experience for many of your clients is quite tactile and that they want to actually touch and see the objects. What kind of feedback did you get from people that were using your online store?
Wyon: Mostly they were very impressed with our descriptions because we try to give descriptions that give as much of a feeling for the thing that is in front of you as you would have if you had in front of you.
Obviously in the shop, we have a lot of open boxes. Almost everything that you can actually feel is out on the shelves, to feel. But while we were open, and during the complete lockdown, that’s not an option. We tried to say to people, ‘Try not to fiddle with everything. Obviously, we want you to touch it and handle it, but try to limit the touching and handling. Don’t be picking up half the shop and putting it down again, because that’s just not a good thing at the moment.’
But online, we’ve tried to give as good a description as we would if you were standing in front of us in the shop. And really that’s all we can do, add good photographs and hope that they will like it.
We did make the point with the online shop to make sure that people immediately know that we are a real shop, not a warehouse. It is a physical piece of bricks and mortar and if you have a problem, you could drive to Cork and walk through the front door and talk to us. I think that’s really important for a small independent retailer that customers realise who the people are behind it all and the family element of it.
I think that’s great advice for anyone listening who might be thinking of building an online shop — Try to make it as personal as possible, have great descriptions. This means that people can be transported into your shop in Cork, even when they can’t be.
People will probably know that it isn’t the best situation in the UK and Ireland right now. Tell us a little bit about the current situation with your business.
Wyon: Currently we are closed officially until the end of January. But we can still run the online business. We are not allowed to click and collect, so it all needs to be shipped.
In Ireland, the single biggest problem when it comes to shipping is that for us it’s easy enough to ship within Ireland, but the cost of shipping outside of Ireland is generally excessive. And for a shop like ours, where the size of the product can vary from 6 inches to a big doll’s house, it’s not actually practical to ship outside. We have shipped into the UK, although that was before Brexit. But that’s different now. So that’s probably the biggest challenge — the cost of shipping is enormous once you ship outside.
Therefore, we’re very limited to the 5 million (or 6 million, including Northern Ireland) for the most part. That’s a very finite number.
Do you know anything about your competition in this period, from other toy stores? Have they been experiencing similar challenges to you?
Because we’re a specialist, there’s not many of us doing this sort of thing in Ireland so our biggest competition has always been online competition. Which generally is warehousing and what have you. So there’s not that same level of personal interaction with that as it would be with us. That’s been the same for the last 3 to 5 years, the biggest competition has always been from online retailers.
And also — Brexit does have one positive — we were hugely affected by the fact that UK businesses could send stuff into Ireland relatively cheaply, because of volume, and quite often for free, which we could never compete with. So that has changed at the moment with Brexit. Although who knows what will happen in the future.
But now the website is set up, we feel that we are in some way able to compete with them. I don’t personally believe we could ever completely compete on price. In the bricks and mortar stores, there is a roughly 20% cost for physically standing on the floor, in addition to the guy who has a warehouse. That’s just reality.
So unless you’ve got 20 stores and you’re in the volume business, it’s not that possible for us to compete. Therefore, we have to compete on this level of personal interaction with people, whether online or in-store.
That’s great advice. I think for people who are looking to buy toys if they come to you, they get a personal service. Obviously, if they go to Amazon, it’s a very different story.
You’ve spoken a lot about the challenges and the things you’ve done to overcome them with your shop and it’s obviously difficult to plan in this current climate. But what’s your outlook for the coming few months? Do you have anything planned?
Wyon: I think we will have to slowly expand the volume we do online.
In the run-up to Christmas, we had about 900 items online. But in the shop on average in the run-up to Christmas, we have somewhere near 3,500 separate skews. So the time it would take to put that up and the difficulty in managing that stock control point of you for a small retailer would be huge.
We use an Epos system, but our Epos system is about 15 years old. There is no way it’s going to integrate with any modern online system. So we’ll either have to invest in completely changing that, or we keep it the same and try to manage the stock with some other ‘genius’ system. That’s probably the biggest challenge in the near the future. But equally, that makes it interesting because it’s something new.
It’s like with social media — that has hugely improved for us in the last 12 months and I’ve become a master on Instagram and Facebook. That’s the other way of immediately interacting with people. If you’re a small retailer, you really have to use social media. Even if it feels bizarre, and you need to ask answer a question at 10 o’clock at night — just quickly answer the question.
But for the next 12 months, I think we’ll be okay for Ireland if it [the pandemic] starts to get under control again, which I think it will. I think it’s like everywhere there’s this slight refusal to understand it, almost a kind of fightback. For the first few lockdowns, everyone was quite happy to sit there, but now people are more like ‘Oh not again.’ But it’s no joke when they say that we’re all in it together, everyone.
I guess once positive to come out of this pandemic is that you have been forced to push yourself online and with social media as well. Could you explain what you’ve been doing on social media, for anybody watching who maybe wants to increase their social media presence?
Wyon: Facebook and Instagram are quite useful. You have to study things like the times to post. Instagram is very graphic and your photos really matter.
With Facebook you can kind of get away with any old images, it doesn’t make a big difference (although our accounts are linked anyway). But in general, it doesn’t have to be particularly fancy, it’s just someone scrolling through someone else’s feed that sees it.
But on Instagram because of the way it searches, you need to be able to make sure that your photographs are actually genuinely going to make people stop and click on them. Even if they’re following you, the same rule still applies. To get them to click, you need to make it interesting enough for them to click. I found that certain things have far more appeal than others.
Static photographs don’t necessarily work. Except when they include Pinocchio — We have a giant Pinocchio that stands outside the front of the shop, and when we include him in the photos (no matter what he’s doing) it somehow makes them more popular.
Getting hashtags right is also very important. For us in Ireland and particularly in Cork, there is a hashtag for Cork that is #shopcorkonline. That’s been quite successful for many Cork retailers, not just for us. It’s very important to keep pushing the local thing. People must realise that you should shop local.
And by local, I don’t even mean in your immediate area but in your country, in the greater area around you. It’s going to be so important for economies to recover, that people try to support their next-door neighbours. They’re the ones who are living next door to you, they’re buying whatever it is you’re working at and they’re also your consumers. So if everyone does that, we all have a good chance of getting out.
Because you’re right, retail in general — here and in most countries — is under serious pressure. In Ireland, it was because of rising rents over a period of time. In the UK, it’s been under constant pressure because of online retail. And in the UK, there’s been catalogues for 50–60 years. The stretch from going to buy from a catalogue to buying online is non-existent. It’s exactly the same thing except for the pictures being on a screen in front of you.
That was less of a problem in Ireland. Most of the online catalogues here would have been UK catalogues, so retail in general has been stronger here. Retail in Ireland has been more affected by UK retail chains here going kaput, than by Irish retail chains going kaput.
That being said, it’s all pressure on the city centres. That’s a difficult one, but people need to support local and those hashtags are so important.
And in general, trying to find the right hashtags is difficult. Sometimes you post something and you see one with 5000, and you see one of them has a million, but you’ll get lost in a million. Hashtags are really important.
I guess it’s a bit of trial and error in that way. But that’s the most important message -shop local as much as you can, to help the small independent businesses like yourself get through these very difficult months of the pandemic.
You’ve spoken about many challenges and given very valuable insights into your industry and how you’ve overcome the challenges of the pandemic, in certain ways. But as always with a small independent business, there are things that you need help with. So just to finish off our interview today, could you make name three things you and Pinocchio’s Toys and gifts need help with at the moment?
Wyon: The biggest help is help would be with online stuff in general, that learning curve. I have gone to the trouble of trying to learn it, but I also had help and haven’t done it completely on my own.
I think that’s the biggest thing that people in general and small businesses need help with. Most of the day to day stuff is the same — if you’ve been running a small business for 20 or 30 years, then most the day-to-day stuff, you already know.
But it’s the new stuff, the new ‘moving out of your comfort zone’ stuff, learning about the packing, the simple things like how to box stuff — Like realising that some stuff just needs to be boxed better. I think that the sort of thing that people will have to spend a bit of time learning.
As I say, the day-to-day stuff of running a business is running a business, whether it’s online or offline, doesn’t make any difference. It’s the kind of additional bits that you suddenly realise you don’t know how to do and you’ve never done it before. You’ve never had to get a shipper to ship 30 boxes a day. And you’re trying to find the right one that suits you and has the right setup. That’s something you just have to ask people about. You have to do your research and talk to your fellow businesses.
Because there’s no way that you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Not generally. There’s always someone you could ask.
Within Cork, there’s a huge positivity across all businesses, amongst a huge cross-section of all retail, hospitality etc., this feeling that everyone needs a bit of a boost. If I tweet something from my own account, lots of other businesses will retweet that and show their support. That again is something that people have to learn. You have to talk to people. We still need to go out and interact with people. And if there’s one thing people can learn it’s that they need to go out and talk to people.
That’s another piece of great advice. The help is out there. Everyone is in the same situation, so ask for it. Hopefully, we can all help each other through these difficult times.
Thank you very much Wyon for your insights. It’s been really great to hear from a business in retail finding resolutions to this very difficult period.
I’m going to link below this video some of the links to your social media accounts and also your website. So I recommend that people check them out. And I invite you to like this video and subscribe to the Alter Contacts YouTube channel because, in the coming weeks, we are going to have many more small business owners sharing their insights with you.
Wyon thanks a lot, I think some really brilliant insights there. Do you have anything to say to anybody that may be watching, any final words?
Wyon: Support your local businesses. Support your neighbours. Your friends and neighbours are the ones who keep going. Don’t be afraid to do it, it’s not a bad thing. You might or might not pay more you thought you’re going to pay, but the value within your local economy is vastly more than as you say Amazon. So that’s my advice.
About the Guest
Since 1983 Pinocchio’s on Paul Street has been family-run and specialises in traditional, mostly wooden, toys of a slightly more alternative type. They keep as wide a variety as possible to suit all ages from the very newest baby to the very mature child that is in all of us. Education and play are combined in Wyon’s store in the best quality toys from all over the world and Ireland.