A real life Toy Story at the Red Balloon in West Kirby
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 November 2013
Two mums from the Wirral wanted a business which fitted in with family life. So they opened a toy shop
If you believe the doomsayers, running a small toy shop these days is no fun at all.
There’s competition from big toy retailers, supermarkets and online sellers. And then there’s the much-vaunted death of the British high street.
Yet a few months after opening Red Balloon in West Kirby - the only independent toy shop in Wirral, they reckon - Louise Towers and Lisa Ellis-Jones have had a steady stream of customers and are gearing up for their first Christmas.
Isn’t the high street toy shop supposed to be an endangered species?
‘So I hear,’ says Lisa with a smile. ‘It’s not what it was ten years ago, but so far, so good. We appreciate we’re new, so people come in to see what we’re about, and may buy something while they’re here. It’s whether or not we can keep up that level of interest.’
A glance around the shelves of Red Balloon - which is in Station Parade, right next to West Kirby train station - reveals a toy shop with a whiff of the traditional about it. Yes, Lisa and Louise are selling on-off boom toy the Micro Scooter (even matching John Lewis on price). They also stock big-sellers by Playmobil and Lego - and the latter don’t let just anybody sell their stuff, apparently.
But they are not selling technology-driven toys, preferring more timeless products like a BigJigs wooden railway set, and Brio pull-along toys. There’s a charming sit-on Vilac racing car, which looks as if it has zoomed here in a time machine from the 1930s. And one of the shop’s real success stories has been the Danish-designed wooden Moover doll’s pram, for which demand was so great that customers were offering to pay in advance to be sure of getting one from the next consignment.
‘There’s lots to learn. It’s something new for both of us,’ says Lisa. ‘We did loads of research and spent months meeting up with sales reps and going to trade fairs.’
Both women came to the shop having devoted themselves to child care. Lisa, aged 40, has two daughters, Blaise, aged 19, and Willow, aged five, and had been working as a nanny then a teaching assistant in London before moving north with TV producer husband Simon, to take advantage of opportunities at MediaCity in Salford.
Louise, aged 42, is an accountant who has a six-year-old son, Patrick, and two-year-old daughter, Rowan.
Both women live in West Kirby, just a three-minute walk from their shop.
‘We were at a coffee morning one day and were discussing the need for a toy shop in West Kirby, because our children get invited to so many birthday parties and there’s nowhere to buy presents,’ says Lisa. ‘Most people were ordering online, and the downside to that is you can’t feel or see what you are buying, and you often gets things in crushed boxes.
‘Thirty children in a school class could equal 30 parties a year, and you can spend a lot of money at the £5 to £15 price point on birthday presents. There used to be a small toy shop in West Kirby when I first moved here, but that closed. There are a number of small gift shops around Wirral which have a range of toys, but there isn’t another independent toy shop in Wirral.’
While empty shops are a feature of so many towns and villages, West Kirby had no retail premises free when Lisa and Louise decided to open a shop. Eventually, they were able to take over the Station Parade shop from equestrian equipment seller Wind and Rein.
‘It is starting to thrive,’ Lisa says of her home town’s retail life. ‘There are a lot more independents popping up. There are two children’s clothes shops, for instance, and we thought we could complement them.’