What significance does the opening of London toy shop Hamleys in Glasgow have for the city?
WITH its twinkling lights, breathtaking window displays and floor upon floor of take-me-home goodies, Hamleys Toy Shop has conjured up all the wonder of Christmas for generations of Santa-hungry children. Those who walk through the doors of the Regent Street store on a cold December afternoon are greeted by a mind-boggling array of teddies and trains, and games, gadgets and gizmos, and instantly transported into another world – one populated by princesses, pirates and magicians.
Now, at the height of the recession, the exclusive London shop is hoping to work its magic on a benighted corner of Glasgow. This morning, the company will open the doors on a 30,000 square-foot flagship outlet in the St Enoch Centre, kicking off the first phase of a much-vaunted 100 million extension and redevelopment.
Situated on Argyle Street, the St Enoch Centre has long been regarded as tatty and downmarket. Where the Buchanan Galleries had John Lewis and Next, and Princes Square has Whistles and Jo Malone, it had BHS, Burtons and Quiz. With the infamous St Enoch Hotel/hostel and a mishmash of pubs and kebab shops next door, and the riverfront a stone's throw away, it was as remarkable for the number of trouble-makers that congregated on its steps as it was for the retail experience it provided.
But, at a time when out-of-town shopping centres are threatening our high streets, the centre's owners, Ivanhoe Cambridge, are confident the 250,000sq ft extension will transform it into an upmarket retail haven and help keep Glasgow's status as the second shopping city of the empire intact. As part of this, an iconic new entrance has been built on the site of the old Clydesdale Bank building at the corner of Argyle and Buchanan streets to pull in Buchanan Street shoppers.
An artist's impression of the new Hamley's store in Glasgow's St Enoch's centre
Securing the only UK Hamleys store outside London was a major coup, which provided a much-needed morale boost after plans for a massive Selfridges on the Trongate further along Argyle Street fell by the wayside. Better still, the store agreed to take most of the top floor – the part of a shopping centre which is, traditionally, the most difficult to let.
Hamleys' attractions, over and above its own toys, include Tantrum, a nail, hair and beauty bar for girls, the gadget shop Red 5, Game and the Hamleys Sweet Shop. There will also be a room for themed birthday parties. Children who turn up today will find themselves in an enchanted emporium, with stiltwalkers, face-painters, a human statue, and, of course, Santa on hand to create a festive atmosphere. "We are not just bringing London to Scotland," says Hamleys' Glasgow events and marketing co-ordinator Grant Yuill. "Everything inside the store is bespoke to the city. The Hamleys Bear, for example, has been kitted out with a red mac because it rains so much here. And above all the shelves, there is a cartoon mural of the Glasgow city skyline, with the science centre and the Kelvingrove, and the arms of the shelves are shaped like the armadillo.
"We have tried to get every toy in and to cater for every demographic, but what makes us different from, say, Toys R Us, is that children can come in and play with the toys. We have demonstrators throughout the store. And while toys are, of course, our bread and butter, we are about so much more. We want people to come and experience all the theatre and the fun."
Where the world's most famous toy shop has led, other high-end names are inevitably following: Lambretta's concept design store, the Formula One team clothing store Wheels of Sport, the music-inspired clothing and accessories shop Pulp, and jeweller Folli Follie will all be opening in the St Enoch Centre over the next few weeks.
Hamley's London store
Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow's Chamber of Commerce, believes investing in the city centre's shopping centre is crucial at a time when important office developments are being put on hold. "It's great to see a prominent name at the top part of this development," he says. "It shows it isn't just a refurbishment, with the existing names. It has a top-class brand it hasn't had before – a brand that creates a real buzz. Together with the other high-end shops, it will certainly change people's preconceptions of what St Enoch has to offer."
While Glasgow celebrates, Edinburgh has been left out in the cold, as Hamleys has shut all its House of Frasers concessions, including the one in Jenners on Princes Street (although it has kept those on airport concourses, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester). Jenners, however, remains upbeat, insisting its toy department still has plenty to offer young shoppers. "There is a 40ft tree in the grand hall and this weekend our Santa's grotto will open," says a House of Fraser spokeswoman. "There will be visits from Disney characters, including (Toy Story's] Woody and Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and interactive toy demonstrations, as well as many other events in the run-up to Christmas."
Still, with other major cities casting envious glances towards the St Enoch Centre, the question of how Cambridge Ivanhoe managed to fend off its rivals to win the store has been much-debated. In fact, their success seems to have come down to good timing, with Hamleys overhauling its development strategy just as Glasgow was looking to regenerate that part of the city.
Over the past year, Hamleys – which has been a famous name in London ever since Cornishman William Hamley opened a toy shop, Noah's Ark, for the wealthy merchants of Holborn in 1760 – decided to focus on building the big standalone shops it believes give it the scale it needs to create its special atmosphere. It already has stores in Dundrum in Dublin, Dubai, Jordan and Denmark. "We came to Glasgow primarily because we felt what was missing from the city was a real destination toy shop," says Yuill.
At the same time, Glasgow City Council was looking at ways of luring shoppers back from out-of-town shopping centres such as Silverburn, Braehead and The Fort. Earlier this year it launched the Style Mile, a two-year plan to expand and strengthen the role of the city centre as the UK's premier shopping destination outside the West End of London. It pledged to spend around 4m from its Better Glasgow Fund on making the city centre more attractive.
Amidst the widespread celebration of the St Enoch Centre regeneration, there is still some carping.
Critics point out the many empty shopfronts further along Argyle Street and suggest the shopping centre is sucking the lifeblood from the high street. "In the long term, our aim is to attract new shops to Argyle Street, too. TK Maxx is opening in the old Tesco store, for example," says Jane Harrison, the recently appointed city centre initiatives manager. "While the St Enoch Centre is a key part of the Style Mile, cities also need a vibrant and competitive high streets."
Harrison remains optimistic that other stores will follow. In the meantime, however, artists have created vinyls on many of empty shop windows to combat any sense of dereliction.
An equally pernicious problem facing the council is how to tackle the problems with anti-social behaviour which centre on a block of buildings on the south end of St Enoch's Square.
"There is a limit to what we can do because the premises are operating within the law," says Harrison. "If we become aware of breaches of environmental health, we respond to these. But the problem is we cannot hold one particular establishment responsible for the undesirables the areas sometimes attracts."
In an attempt to mitigate safety concerns, the council has already introduced CCTV cameras. It has lobbied for high visibility policing and encourages retailers to make a complaint whenever problems occur. "We hope that the opening of Hamleys and the St Enoch's extension will have a ripple effect, improving the whole area," Harrison says.
Such gripes are, in any case, unlikely to do anything to dampen spirits as Hamleys fever grips the St Enoch Centre today. For Stuart Patrick, the buzz reflects a wider optimism in a city which, despite the credit crunch, saw the exclusive Blythswood Hotel in Blythswood Square open earlier this month, and expects the newly-refurbished Grand Central and new Jumeirah hotels to open within the next two years. "It would be great if Hamleys and the 100m extension led to the pulling on of investments in other areas," he says.
"The idea of being able to walk all the way down Buchanan Street to the waterfront, and then being able to connect with developments at Custom House Quay is amazing. I think the regeneration of the St Enoch Centre makes it far more likely this vision will be realised when the upturn begins."
TOP TEN LUXURY GIFTS FROM HAMLEYS
1 Can't afford to give a proper sports car? What about slipping a limited edition crystal-encrusted model Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 under the tree. The ultimate in bling.
2 Rocky the Robot truck talks, tells jokes and dances. And there's no respite for parents even when he sleeps because he snores too.
3 Hamley's Little Pink House comes with a family and 15 pieces of furniture. An asset to any property portfolio.
4 At 170cm tall, the Large Silverback Gorilla is a scary-looking, life-size replica of the largest living primate in the world.
5 Miniature Nigellas or Jamies can practise cooking up a storm in the Hamleys kitchen. There's a sink for washing up, too, but this might be a bit optimistic.
6 A fixture of upmarket nurseries across the country, the Hamleys Standing Horse neighs when you press its right ear.
7 Like the gorilla, the Baby Giraffe is likely to be a hit with any wildlife lover (with a seriously big bedroom). It's 160cm tall and very lifelike.
8 Every self-respecting girl needs a buggy to walk her doll in and the Silver Cross Oberan Pram – with its sprung chassis and chrome finish – is to-die-for.
9 A dog is for life not just for Christmas. Luckily, FurReal Friends' Biscuit dog – a life-size Golden Retriever puppy – is low maintenance. He will sit up and beg and doesn't require house-training.
10 With a name befitting his social standing, George William Frederick Bear is a limited-edition teddy with Hamleys embroidered on one footpad. Fully-jointed, he is made from golden mohair.