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The Licensing Lookout: Wimbledon wins

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes finds whether it’s game, set and match for licensing in SW19.

After three weeks of trade shows I thought I should get back on the pavement and take a shopping trip. I went on a scouting mission to Wimbledon. When I told a few friends I was doing this they were a little confused. Millwall are playing AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup on Saturday and a few people thought I was actually going on a football spying mission. It was strictly shopping.

I strolled along Wimbledon Broadway and took in a few shops – my mission being to see how different types of retailers in the same area are featuring licensing at the moment. Also having seen three weeks worth of trade shows, which naturally feature perfectly ordered and presented products, I was also keen to get back in touch with retail in the raw.

Wimbledon is a very mixed area in retail terms and the mix includes a traditional department store Ely’s. Ely’s has been in Wimbledon since 1876 – I took this quote from its website because it tells the Ely’s story really well and I love the market research method the founder undertook – there is a lesson in this for lots of today’s budding retailers…

“Founder, Joseph Ely, had left Essex aged 16 to walk to London in search of prosperity and opened the store after gaining experience in the retail trade. After testing the potential for custom by counting the number of people who passed the corner each hour, Joseph decided to build on Alexandra Road at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill, certain that the shop’s position would bring business. After 10 years of successful trading as Wimbledon’s first department store, Joseph moved to larger premises across the road to the corner of Worple Road, where the store still stands today.”

Joseph would probably still be happy with the number of people passing the corner, but maybe disappointed to see so many of them in their cars or on buses. However Ely’s location is still a prime one and at the centre of a busy thoroughfare.

It is also located near a golden Pillar Box – a legacy of London 2012 – it is good to see that Royal Mail has kept these unique tributes to gold medal winning athletes in place. I will donate £20 to The Light Fund Rowing Challenge in the name of the first person who emails me with the name of the Olympian the pillar box celebrates.

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Ely’s is a department store that hasn’t stood still working on the store layout, marketing and presentation in an ongoing fashion. It certainly feels like a contemporary store with a good mix of products and departments including two cafes.

I focused my research on the gift/kitchenware department. The department featured an Ellen Degeneres china range ‘crafted’ by Royal Doulton. The range was prominently displayed and looked good on shelf. It majored on positive slogans and messages such as Joy, Love, Smile and Kindness. Ely’s seems to like backing ranges that are developed with brands or personalities. My hunch is that these fit its customer profile but they are also relatively ‘safe bets’ as they bring a certain amount of pre-sale awareness with them.

A range like the Ellen Degeneres’ one will rely on PR and Ellen’s profile. This might be more of a challenge for a US-based personality in the context of the UK market. Ely’s also supports categories of products on a seasonal basis with an eye on seasonal opportunities. At the moment it is pushing a lot of gardening gifting products. Ranges on sale include a Royal Botanic Gardens Kew range of mugs and gift sets from Creative Tops. These are sold alongside a RHS range by Burgon & Ball. Both ranges have made good use of botanical prints.

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Backing brands is not a tactic confined to the gift department in Ely’s. In the bedding department, it features branded ranges including FatFace, Scion and Joules. The latter two collections are particularly well presented in-store with made up beds featuring the product.

Obviously department stores have the space, but this was a good reminder that display is a key seller at retail. Ely’s seems to work hard on developing eyecatching displays and making sure customers get to see products in inspirational settings.

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As I bowled along the Broadway I was also reminded of the tough times faced on the high street by retailers. I spotted a typed notice in the window of the HMV store announcing ‘HMV is now closed’. Hopefully this is a temporary closure and this HMV branch will reopen. It is a central location in Wimbledon and based on Joseph Ely’s test it should be busy. It has a high footfall passing by and is co-located with a cinema. I am guessing the all-new HMV may feature a different mix of products and, perhaps taking a leaf out of Ely’s book, it may look at engaging displays.

I am old enough to remember ‘record shops’ with listening booths – you could listen to records before buying them. Sounds very old school but it was part of the experience of buying a record. This might be something HMV could look at with the rise in popularity of vinyl and record collecting – linking the stores to local bands, live music and music merchandise in general terms. My trip to Spring Fair reminded me how popular music merchandise seems to be at the moment – suppliers like GB eye and Nemesis making good use of band brands.

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Wimbledon Broadway has a very successful branch of The Entertainer.  This is definitely a retailer that gets licensing and is one that works closely with the licensing industry to ensure the stores reflect on -trend opportunities, new product ranges and they are alert to the ‘added value’ licensing can bring. The current window display featured The LEGO Movie.

In-store the commitment to being on or ahead of trend was demonstrated by a great display of Baby Shark products and also a range of Fortnite toys from Funko.

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The Entertainer has really bought into the vinyl collectables movement and had a wall of vinyl. A great example of using a product and its design qualities to sell itself. The store was well stocked, well laid out and had a comprehensive range of products. I could see the appeal to children while also being a store adults could shop easily.

The Entertainer seems to have a lot of floating spaces as well for ‘crazes’ which allow it I presume to swap products in and out quickly to respond to new crazes. It also carries products such as greeting cards and Fruit Shoot – I think this reflects the location near two cinemas and a raft of family restaurants. It is good to see a retailer responding to local opportunities and reflecting that stores need to think local even if they are part of a bigger group.

I popped into Morrison’s. I would say Morrison’s is a retailer that doesn’t actively use licensing and licensed products, but does understand that a well developed licensed product can add something to their offer. Licensed products appeared in a number of categories being blended into own brand and FMCG branded ranges. For example there were a couple of licensed product ranges in the cake mix section – a Minions one and the other a Justice League product. Easter Eggs were in-store, but the only licensed one I saw was Despicable Me/Minions Kinder. Again this might reflect that Morrisons takes a cautious approach to licensing.

Likewise in a licensing friendly category like celebration cakes, licensed products were very much the minority offer. There was a PJ Masks product and also a Swizzels Matlow Loadsa Sweets Party Cake. The latter a further reminder that FMCG brands have a role to play in the food licensing category. Other categories that featured a lot of licensing included the comics and magazines section. One observation here is that, despite the efforts of publishers to create well designed covers and invest in covermounts, retailers seem unable to keep the magazine displays tidy. This misses a chance to optimise the good design work that publishers undertake.

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My Broadway tour concluded in a really smart branch of Waterstones. As previously reported, Waterstones supports licensing and licensed products in lots of ways – many books are licensed titles. Waterstones sells lots of cards, calendars, toys and gifts. It seems committed to grouping products together and backing ‘spin off’ products from well-established publishing brands and characters. A sensible strategy. Another recurring theme in terms of non-book products is that Waterstones features a lot of products drawn from the heritage category with brands like the V&A and The RHS being particularly strong. This is a reflection I guess of Waterstones’ consumers and the insight Waterstones has into popular subjects – it can track book sales by subject or theme plus they are aware of what new titles are on the horizon.

All in all it was good to get back on the shopping trail and a welcome break from wandering the exhibition hall trail. It was good to see products and suppliers ‘in-store’ that I had last seen ‘in hall’ – my trip to Wimbledon also reminded me how competitive retailing is and how different retailers have to live cheek by jowl with competitors. It is tough to find a point of difference, but I do think the retailers who seek to understand their location and the make-up of their customer base will be at an advantage. I also think those that work on display and the ‘shopping experience’ will prosper.

Returning to the football. I actually scouted Millwall on Tuesday night. I can reassure the AFC Wimbledon supporting community in licensing – Jason Easy and Jon Gibson – you don’t have much to worry about. I think AFC Wimbledon might be celebrating on Saturday night…

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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