Imagine the toy shop of your childhood - or any rate, the one you think you remember, where you could run amok in the aisles, pick up toys to play with and no-one minded. That’s the idealistic vision that UK retailer The Entertainer has, with a mission to be “the best little toy store, one child, one community at a time'.
With 170 physical stores in the UK and 50 in Spain, where The Entertainer owns the Addo brand, the retailer has also invested heavily in scalable infrastructure to support its online needs, including a commitment to a 30 minute click-and-collect service. The firm uses SAP Commerce Cloud to achieve this. For the seven years in which it has worked with SAP, e-commerce has been on an upward trajectory across The Entertainer group, bolstered inevitably this past year by the impact of the COVID pandemic.
According to Rob Wood, Head of Online, The Entertainer, 2020 was “a topsy turvy year” for the retailer:
There were long periods where we had our last doors closed. For a group with many hundred pieces of physical retail space, that was a huge challenge. But every time that we saw the retail business affected by closures, we saw an immediate rocketing in demand for online and for click-and-collect.
A common theme emerging from the retail sector in recent months is that those firms that had invested in omni-channel capabilities pre-pandemic were the best suited to ride out the enforced closure of stores. That was the case with The Entertainer, although the sudden uptick in online activity still posed its own challenges, recalls Wood:
The initial challenge we had with that rocketing in e-commerce traffic was actually trying to keep up with fulfilment. The stores in the UK closed at the end of March. We had an incredible period in April, where we were essentially doing a week's [worth of] sales every day, so we had about a seven times uplift for those first two or three weeks of lockdown. The challenge we had from an e-com point of view was we just physically couldn't get the parcels through the warehouse and out the door quickly enough.
The solution was to convert the existing distribution center which serviced physical stores to act as an e-commerce fulfilment hub. This proved useful in November when the UK entered a second lockdown. Having made the conversion during the first lockdown, The Entertainer found itself better positioned pre-Christmas than some of its competitors.
Summer of 2020 saw a number of other technology investments, including a new CRM system, which has helped pull together customer information across the different brands, including The Early Learning Center, which was acquired by the group in late 2019. The Klarna ‘buy now, pay later’ solution was another addition, which proved very popular in Europe.
There was also a move to partner with several large fashion brands in order to build new online reach. These included the likes of Marks & Spencer, Matalan and Debenhams, all of which had little or no history of selling toys, notes Wood:
We opened online concessions on their websites. That allowed us to put all our toys and our products and our great deals in front of a new group of customers, but it also meant that we didn't have to worry about the operations side of it because once we put our stock in the Marks & Spencer warehouse, it's them doing the fulfilment, rather than us.
At time of writing, the UK is in the grip of its third lockdown, with all non-essential retail shuttered again. This time around, there’s even talk of clamping down on click-and-collect services for retailers other than groceries and other essentials, with Scotland taking a lead here. That said, vaccine programs have gotten off to a promising start, with the prospect of a gradual return to some form of normality beginning to kick in from March.
With that in mind, The Entertainer, in common with other retailers, can begin to look ahead and plan priorities for 2021, although Woods is candid on that front:
What we've learned from  is that we can't predict what's going to happen. Our forecasting throughout 2020 was wrong all the time, but not just a little bit wrong - it was wrong by absolutely miles. Whenever we thought one particular thing was going to happen, it actually turned out that something different would happen. We'd go through a period where we thought click-and-collect would absolutely go through the roof and it didn't. There were times when we thought click-and-collect would be dead because no-one wants to go to the high street and actually we had huge demand for it.
Despite such volatility and uncertainty, The Entertainer did manage to weather the storm and emerge in a reasonably fit state, particularly compared to many other retailers. The key to that was operational agility and flexibility, says Wood:
That's going to continue to be our guiding principle over the next 18 months, because we can't afford to commit all our eggs into one basket and go completely down one route, because we're just not sure if that's the right route at the moment. So that flexibility and agility is going to be absolutely key.
Having said that, investing in our e-commerce was hugely fruitful in the back end of 2020 and absolutely we're going to carry on doing that again this year. Payment is hugely important in the UK e-commerce landscape at the moment. What we're seeing is consumers almost expecting a menu of choices now for buy now, pay later, so we're definitely going to be looking at that.
As for click-and-collect - assuming it survives government regulation - the expectation is that this will become an ever more prominent part of the e-commerce journey, continuing to evolve over time. Wood argues:
In 2019, the way the journey worked was that you went to a website, picked your products, got to the basket and then thought click-and-collect would be the most convenient way to go and collect the items. I think now the journey is almost, ‘I need to go to a physical store to pick up some toys. What I need to do first is go online and check those items are there and purchase them so I've got that confidence that, when I'm going into the shop, it's not going to be a wasted trip’. So we've kind of flipped that customer journey on its head. Making sure that our journey around click-and-collect is as clear and as easy and as hassle free as it can be, that’s absolutely vital this year.
But with the COVID crisis still far from over and the potential for surprises ahead on the road to recovery, the main focus remains agility and being able to ‘roll with the punches’ depending on what happens in the market. Wood concludes:
That is the most important thing that we're going to be focusing on this year. It's going to be absolutely key to success this year, to be able to react to what's happening in the market, react to the changes in consumer behavior.