Wow! Stuff has enjoyed a strong first half of the year, with a raft of new appointments under its belt, multiple new licences signed, and all-encompassing marketing plans that will see more consumers than ever before discovering the ‘Wow!’ behind the company’s toys. Rachael Simpson- Jones spoke to CEO Richard North about the company’s plans for the second half of 2021, and his often unorthodox approach to business.
As a company that doesn’t have a presence in any of the toy categories that benefited from the multiple national lockdowns, Wow! Stuff isn’t sad that the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us. And having ended 2020 in what was a respectable position despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, the company has gone from strength to strength in recent months.
“I don’t want to jinx things, but it’s going to be a very good year for Wow! Stuff,” Richard tells me. “Our performance across the North American and UK markets so far this year has been really pleasing, and we’re opening up new territories too; only the other day I was telling someone that we’re now exploring the market in countries I’d never even heard of. Brexit has made this a pain in the neck though. Before Brexit and the pandemic, we didn’t keep any stock within the business; we were FOB only, limiting our potential sales by around 50%. This changed last year when we opened our own warehousing facility to offer domestic supply, and we’re now opening a warehouse in Germany too. I’m especially pleased that we can support the indies for the first time in 10 years. There’s an underlying buzz across the whole toy industry now, and we’re pleased to be feeling that too after what has been a testing year.”
Testament to its current position and plans for further expansion, Wow! Stuff recently announced five appointments in one fell swoop. Four of the new hires - Ross Coffield, Teddy Edwards, Steve Carpenter and Chris Jobson – will bolster the design side of the business, while Manmit Bansal joins as a sales operation support officer. The five hires bring the Wow! Stuff European team to a total of 34. The Hong Kong team currently numbers 17, and in the USA there are three employees, plus multiple sales reps and, of course, warehouse and distribution operatives.
Wow! Stuff operates an open-door policy, and welcomes all interest from prospective candidates, but while it’s pleasing that people want to be a part of the team, ensuring hires are a good match is much more important. A lack of shared values and mutual respect creates a fundamental imbalance that Richard says will come back to haunt a company, meaning that a desire to work for Wow! Stuff isn’t enough – you have to be a ‘Wow! Stuff’er’ at heart. That’s not to say Wow! Stuff is hiring carbon copies of existing employees. The team is as diverse as it gets, from backgrounds and hobbies to gender and ethnicity, but each individual shares common values such as integrity, loyalty and a strong work ethic – and they want to make toys that make kids say ‘wow’. “If a person genuinely wants to help create that moment with us, it’s a big thing,” Richard says.
As well as having a strong connection with the team creating Wow! Stuff products, connecting with Wow! Stuff consumers is also vital to Richard. If you don’t, he explains, companies can miss feedback and reviews that could be used to address issues, improve existing products, or help develop new ones. As businesses who forge direct relationships with consumers will be aware, those consumers speak their minds and tell the truth - sometimes to a fault. Taking the time to read comments on Facebook or reviews on the Smyths Toys and Amazon websites offers insight all too easy to miss if you’re squirrelled away behind the scenes.
“I spend loads of time - maybe too much time - reading feedback,” Richard explains. “This approach has led to the development of our weekly Customer Service Meetings, in which representatives from different departments across Wow! Stuff get together to look at the latest reviews and see what we can glean from them. Maybe there’s a tiny issue with a product we hadn’t spotted - but you can be sure the customer will. Engaging in this way, and being open to feedback and constructive criticism, is one measure of our service.”
One of Richard’s mantras is ‘We do wow, or not at all’, and it’s against this backdrop that product development is set. Wow! Stuff is renowned for its innovative, interactive, technologically-driven products, with launch after launch demonstrating the company’s all or nothing approach to making toys. When holding oneself to such lofty standards failure is to be expected, and Richard candidly admits that Wow! Stuff doesn’t always get things 100% right. Trying and failing is part of the process, and a blameless culture is vital to ensuring the creativity and imagination found within Wow! Stuff’s design and development teams are never stifled. If a new toy doesn’t quite hit the mark, new lessons have been learned and the team moves on. Simple.
For Richard, the ‘wow’ comes just as much sometimes from without as from within, via third party marketing agencies such as KidsKnowBest. He says: “KidsKnowBest is a bunch of young, dynamic, go-getting individuals, very open minded and very creative too. On any project it’s working on for us, the team quickly drills down to the ‘wow’ elements in a way others might not. It’s important your partners ‘get’ you and what you’re trying to achieve.”
There’s a pause here, as Richard ponders his answer to my question regarding Wow! Stuff’s retail partnerships. While there are plenty of people within the toy industry who understand the meaning of the word partners in its truest sense, Richard evidently feels that many, suppliers and retailers alike, could up their game. Wow! Stuff has worked diligently and faithfully for years to build strong retail partnerships. One of Richard’s first retail partners in the toy business, Debenhams, gave Wow! Stuff opportunities within its gifting department that resulted in the company selling ’more product per square foot than probably any other retailer’. Smyths Toys Superstores is highlighted as a leading partner in the present day. According to Richard, the retailer is receptive to ideas on creatives and activations, and is supportive of its suppliers while they bed in. “Sometimes the first year is a lose-lose situation, but the second year is a huge turnaround,” he notes. “When retailers back you, really get behind you and give you what you need in terms of support and marketing, you can plough that back into supporting them and watch things take off.”
Wow! Stuff’s anticipated success this year has given the company the confidence to do more consumer marketing than ever before, with campaigns running across PR, TV and social media. All marketing efforts will be focused on driving traffic to the retailers that stock Wow! Stuff’s brands, be that instore or online, while major experiential activations are also in development – which Richard unfortunately can’t tell me any more about just yet. More will be revealed in due course.
One of Wow! Stuff’s most exciting upcoming launches will be its master toy range for Julia Donaldson’s best-selling book, The Gruffalo. The Gruffalo Talking Figures are part of an array of Wow’s master toy innovations across The Gruffalo, Zog and Room on the Broom for 2021. YouTube behemoth CoComelon also joins the company’s slate of Tier 1 licensed brands, increasing Wow! Stuff’s presence in the Pre-School category, which is first started exploring with Peppa Pig. Peppa Pig’s Clever Car, which launched in September 2020, will this year be joined by Grandpa Pig’s Clever Train, one of three toddler-tech innovations lined up for the porcine pre-school favourite. The CoComelon range is slanted more towards education, with nine ELAs set to launch into a market still seeing ever increasing demand for CoComelon toys. As an online property, the CoComelon range will be heavily marketed using social media campaigns that will show off the cause-and-effect elements of the toys to their fullest – and demonstrate the ‘wow’ that each, of course, offers.
Wow! Pods are also continuing for this year. New Marvel and Harry Potter chase versions are on the way, while other new signings include Sonic the Hedgehog, gaming sensation Fall Guys, and more. Harry Potter continues to perform well for Wow! Stuff and with 40 new products rolling out in toys and gifts over the next 24 months, the momentum looks set to continue. Universal’s Jurassic World is also making its presence felt within Wow! Stuff’s portfolio and lends itself well to the innovation the company prides itself on.
“It’s a full slate this year, with lots of licensed brands, but I think there is a huge growth opportunity we are missing,” notes Richard. “We produce every single item we sell, and with our sales and marketing structure we could distribute complementary products and do like for like deals with international partners. I think that will be a great opportunity for the business. And we can’t forget Chibies either, our first own brand. One of the developers is my daughter, Josie, who along with her childhood best friend Victoria Brown created what I think is a great new line. Chibies is being referred to as ‘the TikTok toy’ and was called out specifically by the Toy Industry Association of America recently as a toy it believes will be hot and on trend. It’s aimed at young teen girls, but I expect we’re going to see buy-in from a very broad age range, both from the core 4-7s and the tweens too. There really is a lot of excitement on the way for this year.”
It’s a very different outlook than that of a year ago for Richard, who notes that his bigger and better team is now so good, he could easily take three days off a week. “I think the team would like that,” he adds with a smile. Challenges remain, of course. As widely reported by Toy World, freight remains at the mercy of major price increases, and cost pricing is going up too. Richard notes that the latter is going to see the aforementioned retail-supplier partnerships tested, with both parties needing to show willingness to ‘take a hit’ if needs be. Wow! Stuff will look to absorb a lot of the increases itself, and will work closely with its retailers on managing the rest. Inflation, meanwhile, is the elephant in the room, and the word no one wants to mention. “It’s on its way, absolutely,” says Richard
“We’re now a medium sized toy company, which means we can take on bigger projects and master toy deals,” he adds. “This is going to be a year of proving to people that Wow! Stuff doesn’t just revolve around three or four halo products per brand. From focusing on just a few standout toys developed for each licence, we’re now in a position to innovate right across the sector and numerous toy categories. We’re agnostic on category and brand – if it’s a strong brand, we can bring a quality ‘wow’ to it.”
As interviewees go, Richard ranks among those we could safely class as unfailingly frank. He’s not one to shy away from tricky questions and will freely admit to things ninety per cent of CEO’s arguably wouldn’t. We discussed how the pandemic hit him mentally much harder than he expected, and that, a year down the line, it’s only just becoming apparent to him what a challenge the situation was. The good news, though, is that he can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and has developed a newfound appreciation of the possibilities that are out there for him, his business and his team, which he says stepped up and rallied round when he needed it most.
“It’s easy to think you’re all alone when you’re running a company, but you’re not, and I’ll happily talk to anyone at any level who feels they need help,” he says. “We need to talk more openly and honestly about things that bother us; maybe more of us should take off our business hats and just be ourselves instead – warts and all.”
Toy World June 2021