When Gary Grant opened the first store for The Entertainer in 1981 – with the help of his wife Catherine – he was just 22.
The business has since grown to become one of the UK’s biggest toy retailers. Grant left school at 17 to work full-time in a bicycle shop, and because of his early exposure to the trade, he believes he “always knew retailing”.
“I knew how to buy and sell in those days,” Grant told Retail Gazette.
“I got fired from the bicycle job because I was selling surplus skateboard stock following the skateboard boom alongside my day job.
“My wife and I then decided that we would try to sell toys.”
Grant said the secret to The Entertainer’s success over the years was down to a committed set of staff throughout the business.
“Over the last 10 years, the Grant family has made a decision to employ the best people we could attract to the board,” he said.
“Thankfully, the family haven’t really taken huge amounts of money out of the business, and therefore when the pandemic hit, and we’ve remained successful.”
The Entertainer had been opening 12 to 15 stores a year prior to the pandemic, according to Grant. And when Covid-19 struck, the retailer was in a “strong financial position”.
“We’re obviously weaker than before the pandemic, but the reality is we’re still financially strong and viable,” he said.
“The business has survived one of the worst shocks that commerce has experienced in far more than a decade. The last shock was the financial crisis of 2008. That rocked everything, but we quickly came out of it.
“That was just a financial crisis, it wasn’t necessarily a retail problem. What we’ve actually experienced now is something that’s touched and affected every aspect of our life, and not just the UK, but every country in the world.”
The Entertainer furloughed 1200 staff after the government’s job retention scheme was launched at the start of the pandemic in March last year. Stores were also closed for seven and a half months – thanks to three lockdowns – which Grant described as “severe”. Despite this, he still counts his blessings.
“The government has done an amazing job at helping so many businesses through the job retention scheme,” he said.
“We haven’t laid anybody off in the last 12 months. Now 95 per cent of our staff are back completely full time, while five per cent of our staff are back on a flexi-basis.”
Grant said The Entertainer has been working with its suppliers for 40 years and there was a “tremendous amount of trust and support”.
“The business runs on really strong values and one part of those values would be about our relationship with many of our suppliers,” he said.
He has also made no secret that The Entertainer’s business operates on strict Christian values.
“We’re Christians, and therefore it’s important for us that we live out our Christian faith,” Grant told Retail Gazette.
“It’s not like we’re Christians, and we go to church on Sunday, and then the rest of the week is knives out. It’s not like that.
“It’s asking ourselves, how are we living out our faith in our lives?”
Grant spends a “big proportion” of his life running the business, as do his two oldest sons and wife Catherine, while his daughter helps on the charitable foundation side of the business.
“One of the things that we’re known for is that we don’t work on Sundays. We made that choice back in 1995,” he said.
“When Sunday trading became lawful, that’s when the government allowed stores of our size to open six hours on a Sunday, but we felt that our staff should have a family day.
“We as a family of four and now with our seven grandchildren, know that the easiest day of the week to have a family meal together is Sundays.
“We employ lots of mums and dads, uncles, aunties, grandparents, and therefore if those people are working on a Sunday, then they don’t have a convenient day to be together as a family.
“We do it because we’re Christians, but also because we value family life.”
Grant’s religious beliefs are also the driving force The Entertainer’s stance on banning toys and games from the Harry Potter franchise.
“With regards to product selection, there are many types of toys, that because of their background, or their ethos, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable in selling them,” Grant explained.
“I don’t want to disadvantage Warner Brothers because they make films like Harry Potter.
“We’re endorsing what we sell in our stores, then we’re saying this is absolutely fine.
“If it’s not absolutely fine, then it’s in conflict with our beliefs. There’s many reasons why we don’t buy certain toys, we might think they’re overpriced, we might not like the quality of the toy.
“Now, my position is that I need to be at ease with all that I do. My role isn’t to be a champion or to be a campaigner.
“People might say you’re making a big stand on something, but nobody’s ever heard me say that we should ban Harry Potter and burn the balls and be like that.
“That isn’t my role I’ve chosen as a retailer. There are products that I just don’t feel at ease with, and Harry Potter is one of them.
“Even if you were standing in the street giving £10 notes away, somebody would find something to criticise you on,” Grant joked.
In order to keep up with what customers want, The Entertainer said it aims to seek toy trends happening both a national and international level. Because of this, Grant said Toy Story toys are a “backbone toy” and has been a “staple” for many years, while Star Wars toys are always in stock.
While The Entertainer faces competition from the likes of Amazon, Grant argued that its stores offer an experience that online retailers cannot replace.
“There’s always been competition in business,” he said.
“We’re weaker than before the pandemic, but the reality is we’re still alive”
“In the early years, Argos was our biggest competitor in the industry. And then in the mid-80s to late 80s, Toys R Us came to the UK with big competition.
“We’ve had our own active website now for over 20 years and we ship a huge amount of our toys online.
“Amazon might be the name that rolls off everybody’s tongues, but they’re not necessarily the cheapest.
“Our shops are experiences for children. You can’t deliver that dream and that memory and that sort of running around experience through the letterbox.
“I’m convinced that if you asked a child if they want £5 pocket money for the local toy shop or choose something from Amazon, most would pick bricks-and-mortar.
“The one thing we’ve done over the last five years is that we’ve developed more than an own brand range, we have manufactured products for The Entertainer but also for our partners around the world.
“These are products that you can only get from The Entertainer. These items set us apart because they’re not on Amazon. They’re outstanding quality toys, they’re outstanding value for the consumer, which is critical.”
Grant added that Toys R Us had 70 shops in the UK and when it collapsed in 2018, there was a reshuffle of where people bought their toys. The Entertainer had 42 shops at the time Woolworths entered administration in 2009, and 35 of those shops were within a 100 metres of a former Woolworths store.
“In 2009, as we were coming out of the financial crisis, we absolutely saw a significant large bounce in turnover,” Grant said.
“This was because Woolworths, which was the number one toys retailer in the UK at one point, had closed down.”
To work on accelerating its growth, The Entertainer partnered with Big 4 grocer Asda last year to turn the toy aisles of five Asda stores into branded concessions. As part of the partnership, The Entertainer has full responsibility for product range, pricing and merchandising. The partnership also came in response to consumers changing their shopping habits amid the pandemic, where more people are completing shopping “missions” in a single trip.
“People tend to buy more toys in supermarkets,” Grant said.
“The partnership was largely driven by a desire to work with industry specialists in different areas of their business.
“Toys was a category that Asda were already doing well in.”
However, Grant said a lot of the things that The Entertainer wanted to do have been put on the back burner because of Covid.
“We’re Christians, and it’s important for us to live out our Christian faith”
“We’re known for our character visits, people turning out looking like the children’s favourite characters,” he said.
“It’s about creating that excitement and activity and knowledge in the toy aisle.”
Separately, The Entertainer purchased the Early Learning Centre brand about two and a half years ago from Mothercare, and since then it partially relaunched the brand with Marks & Spencer online last September.
“We hope this will increase brand awareness for The Entertainer. M&S have substantially more customers than ours,” Grant said.
“One of the key reasons that we bought the Early Learning Centre is because it gives us a brand and a whole range of toys that are unique to The Entertainer.
“When we bought the Early Learning Centre, we acquired partners with 250 stores in 28 countries.”
The Entertainer opened its first store in Spain earlier this year, following a rebrand of a Poly store in Valencia. It came after The Entertainer acquired Poly in 2018.
“We have been operating in Spain through our Poly stores since 2018 and heavily investing into the Spanish market but now is the perfect time for us to introduce The Entertainer to the people of Spain,” Grant told Retail Gazette.
“We have 33 stores in Spain. What we launched in Spain, was the first Entertainer branded toy store.
“Our international stores look like they could easily be in the UK because of the quality of its layout and the graphics behind the tills.
“It looks and feels like an Entertainer store. It took us almost a year to decide whether to rebrand.
“Many companies have been bought by UK companies in the past around the world and they’ve gone in and really stamped their UK authority on it, and it’s been a disaster.
“We chose Spain because it was the country where our business was actually in distress.”