Reach for the stars

Hannah Booth gets caught up in toyland at Hamleys before meeting chairman Simon Burke, and ends up influencing the store’s soundtrack to Christmas

Three weeks before Christmas is the best time to visit Hamleys, and the best preparation for an interview with Simon Burke, the retailer’s exuberant chairman.

Its store front on London’s Regent Street explodes with stars, coloured illuminations, fairy lights and window displays with mechanical toys, fake snow and Christmassy je ne sais quoi. Inside, staff are demonstrating magic tricks, Harry Potter merchandise is doing a brisk trade (‘Not the vibrating broomsticks,’ a store assistant insists, which were ‘never stocked here’ and withdrawn after reports of girls using them for more stimulating purposes) and grown men are drooling over Hornby train sets.

This is Hamleys’ dichotomy. ‘It’s a store for adults. Or, more precisely, a store providing an adult’s view of what a child’s store should look like,’ says Burke. Yet it must appeal to children. The atmosphere is ‘like a carnival about t

o spill on to the street’, which probably appeals to both age groups.

Staff ‘ham it up’, there are shows on every floor, bubbles blown inside and out and liberal helpings of ‘pixie dust’ everywhere. ‘It may seem frivolous, but it’s a huge part of who we are,’ says Burke, who retains a soft Irish accent. Only the music lets the store down. It’s chart pap when, particularly now, it should be Bing Crosby. Burke agrees and, surprisingly, says he’ll sort it out immediately.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus. Before he joined, the store was a ‘run-down tourist trap with boring products, poor signage and an illogical layout’.

He appointed The Clinic and Watson Design, which improved circulation, made more room and gave everything a new lick of paint. Burke set out to ensure Hamleys stocked as many exclusive products as possible. The work isn’t over, it’s a gradual process of improvement, he says.

One thing became clear from the store refurbishment: Regent Street is the Hamleys brand. There are no plans for other standalone stores. ‘Outside the West End, the market is different. A store in, say, Birmingham would face stiffer competition from more commodity-driven stores,’ he says.

The brand has other faces, notably its own-brand products, but these are primarily to drive sales overseas – a huge market for Hamleys as its heritage and quality workmanship sells well abroad. The own-brand products have just been revamped by Ethos Brand Design (DW 7 November).

‘We’ve addressed the fundamental nature of own-brand products,’ Burke explains. ‘They must stand for something, and look and feel different to branded toys. There’s a bias toward traditional, quality products with own-brand.’

The packaging features clean product shots on unfussy red backgrounds with the Hamleys’ ‘quality seal’. Rather functional-looking, it is filtering into Regent Street as well as abroad. Early sales figures are good. ‘Of our 40 current best sellers, 14 are own-brand products,’ he says.

The identity was tweaked to achieve better stand-out on packs. On the subject of brand identities, Burke is refreshingly grounded. ‘We didn’t set out to redesign our logo. In fact, I’m aghast at the thought of companies spending £5m on a new logo. The existing logo was just poorly executed for use on packaging,’ he says.

As briefed, Ethos retained its handwritten feel, and also added a sprinkling of gold stars to inject some ‘zing’. ‘I hate it when designers work to their own agenda,’ Burke says, unprompted. ‘I’m happy for suggestions, but designers should stick to a given brief.’

His accountancy training early on in his career helps him with the ‘profit and loss’ side of his job, but is little help when discussing design, he says. ‘It can mean the first thing you ask is “What’s the cost?” when it should be “Great, nice idea”,’ he says.

Evidently, the London store is Hamleys’ raison d’être. ‘A brand cannot float around in the ether without being tethered,’ Burke says. ‘It needs an anchor, a physical presence, such as a store.’

But what of its future? Does Burke think children today are more into video games and mobile phones than traditional toys? In short, is there still a market for stores with giant teddy bears and steam trains?

‘I believe there’s a renewed interest in wooden toys. It’s a reaction to the mountain of film-related merchandise which offers poor value for money and low quality design.’ Burke is not a big fan of spin-off toys, but recognises its importance to his business. ‘These toys usually don’t “do” much, so the initial rush of excitement on Christmas Day wears off 12 hours later,’ he says. ‘I’m just glad we’re not forced to sell these toys alone.’

Instead, he’s a huge advocate of more traditional manufacturers, such as Lego. ‘They should be held up as shining examples. Lego is family run, high quality in terms of manufacture and design, and has a long-term view,’ he says.

Like Lego, Hamleys has tradition and quality on its side. Burke may not have a design or retail background, but has an intelligent eye and a passion for brands. ‘I have a feel for them – it must have come from Virgin. They often defy analysis. How, for example, can a brand like Virgin straddle cola, aeroplanes, music stores and trains?’ He shakes his head. ‘But a brand must be allowed to sing.’

Simon Burke’s CV

1958 Born in Dublin

1982 Joins Coopers & Lybrand, London, as chartered accountant specialising in corporate finance and business recovery

1987 Joins Virgin as corporate finance executive. Becomes managing director of Virgin Retail in 1988

1999 Joins Hamleys as chief executive, now chairman

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