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Toy stores in Singapore thrive despite rise of online shopping

SINGAPORE – When it comes to buying toys, parents here say the ability to see and touch the product matters. Such a premium placed on quality and safety standards, which consumers say are difficult to ascertain online, has helped local brick-and-mortar toy shops to thrive, in spite of the rise in online shopping.

Ms Susan Tay, 53, owner of The Better Toy Store. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Ms Susan Tay, 53, owner of The Better Toy Store. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

SINGAPORE – When it comes to buying toys, parents here say the ability to see and touch the product matters. Such a premium placed on quality and safety standards, which consumers say are difficult to ascertain online, has helped local brick-and-mortar toy shops to thrive, in spite of the rise in online shopping.

The impact of Internet retailing on the traditional toy and game industry came into the spotlight recently, after Toys ‘R’ Us Inc, the leading toy and baby products retail giant in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and Canada last week.

Above: A general view of a Toys 'R' Us store at VivoCity. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

In Singapore, however, Toys 'R' Us – which belongs to an Asian arm that operates as a separate legal entity – is not just surviving. It is expanding.

In the last eight months, it opened three new stores in Parkway Parade, Waterway Point and Westgate malls, bringing its presence here to 11 stores, employing some 350 staff. And there are plans to "further expand" as it continues to look out for "new locations to provide convenience to our customers", said Mr Raymond Burt, the Singapore and Brunei manager.

Furthermore, three stores in Tampines Mall, United Square and VivoCity had been renovated in the past 12 months, and refurbishment plans are slated to continue next year, he added. It is also looking to hire another 150 people to gear up for the upcoming busy Christmas season.

Projections by research house Euromonitor International indicate the local market for traditional toys and games – worth S$279.6 million last year – will continue to grow. In its Toys and Games in Singapore report from June this year, Euromonitor projected that sales for traditional toys and games would climb another 2.3 per cent this year.

And Euromonitor research analyst Tan Jun Huang said: "Only a small portion of sales of traditional toys and games in Singapore are bought in online stores, while the majority of purchases still goes through brick-and-mortar stores."

So how does the Singapore market buck the trend?

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One key reason, toy retailers told TODAY, is that local consumers still prefer the tactile experience of in-store shopping.

“Many customers still like coming back to the shop,” said Ms Susan Tay, 53, owner of The Better Toy Store, whichstocks timeless toys. Regular activities such as storytelling, face-painting and craft-making – organised at public spaces including the concourse at Tanglin Mall, where she has a store – draw them back. 

Above: Interior of The Better Toy Store at The Centrepoint, shot on Sept 22, 2017. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

She also tries to make a visit to her stores a memorable one. At her store at The Centrepoint, a wooden sailboat rocks up and down the shopfront, a wall of puppets stands out behind the counter, and wooden toys line the shelves.

The experiential shopping experience is one strategy that Toys 'R' Us employs as well. For instance, its flagship store in VivoCity has four “larger than life-sized” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on display. Meet-and-greet sessions with iconic characters – including the likes of Transformers, Paw Patrol and Pikachu – and product launch events are regular affairs.

"Going to a Toys 'R' Us store is...not just about shopping for your favourite toys. It’s about spending time with your children, your nieces, your nephews, your best friend … It’s all about the experience and the memories you can get out of it," said Mr Burt.

And consumers like Ms Chen Shanshan agree. Ms Chen, a 26-year-old marketing assistant manager, said: "For me, nothing beats browsing in an actual toy shop where you can pick up and play with the toys for yourself. It's a much more joyful experience as a customer – seeing others playing with toys, seeing the elaborate toy displays and hearing the advertisement jingles – compared to say browsing through listings online."

The ability to physically assess the toys for safety is a plus point for public officer Lee Kai Ming who likes to pick out toys in stores. The 31-year-old said: “I prefer to feel the toy because I’m quite particular about the material. My boy (who’s 14-months-old) likes to put toys in his mouth."

And nothing beats seeing the real thing, said Mr Raven Heng, co-owner of Fat Toys Corner at China Square Central. As 42-year-old puts it: “Sometimes when you see a picture online, you don’t feel convinced to take out your wallet to buy. But if you see the actual product, you might have a change of heart."


Still, local toy retails cannot afford to ignore the clarion call of online shopping, which has made its impact felt.

Toys 'R' Us Singapore launched its own online store in 2015, and The Better Toy Store's Ms Tay said when online merchants start sprouting up years ago, she noticed a drop in sales.

So besides operating three stores at The Centrepoint, Paragon and Tanglin Mall shopping centres, she started an online store last year, and two months ago, she started partnering online grocer RedMart in stocking her toys and games on their platform.

“Even as we were reluctant to relinquish the ability to truly interact with our customers to make sure they get the right toy, we do understand the pressures of time for a young family,” she said.

“The wind is blowing in that direction. I can’t go against the trend. It’s another platform for me to do retail and reach out to customers,” said Mr Peter Ng, owner of Let’s Play at Bencoolen Street, which specialises in Tomica cars and Plarail train sets. The 39-year-old has set his sights on offering online shopping for his customers next year.

Above: Portrait of the owners of Toy Station at Thomson Plaza, Ricky Munir (left), 60, and his son Mohammad Munir, 28. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Having an internet presence might serve as advertising, said Toy Station owner Ricky Munir, 60. But it is not a sure-fire way to boost sales. His son Mohammad Munir said their overall sales have slid by 10 to 20 per cent over the same period over the past five years, around the time they started a web store.

To stay relevant, one must still pay close attention to market trends, said Mr Munir senior. For instance, slime-making kits and robot toys are all the rage now, he shared.

For 45-year-old Angela Lam, riding the internet wave was how she started out in the business a decade ago, selling her son's secondhand toys on online marketplace eBay.

She went on to set up online educational toy store Lamkins, before expanding to a physical store in Kovan. She moved on to opening two stores in Tai Seng and Seletar, after leaving Kovan. But in the coming months, Ms Lam intends to wind up her Seletar outlet as mall sales have plunged by 50 per cent over the past year.

“However, there’s still room to grow online,” she said. Next year, she will bring in educational toys in the form of robots to attract children in the upper primary levels.

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