Toy Story

Meet the man behind the multi-million pound Entertainer toy shops

Christmas Eve is the busiest day of the year for most toy shops. But this year staff won’t be working in one of Britain’s most successful high street toy shop chains. They’ve a day off work to prepare for Christmas with their own families.

Why? Because Christmas Eve 2017 falls on a Sunday and The Entertainer toy shops don’t open on any Sunday – even when it’s the busiest trading day of the toy shop’s year.

It’s a decision that some see as commercial madness, but for Gary Grant, who started The Entertainer toy shops, Sundays are special. He would rather his staff had time off to spend with their families.

The way Gary Grant runs his family business doesn’t always seem to make commercial sense. He gives away 10% of profits to charity. When rival store Woolworths, who had 14% of the toy trade, was forced to close, Gary invited his senior staff to pray with him for Woolworths’ staff, for their own business weathering the recession, and for the government as it sought to steer the economy away from crisis.

His Christian faith, common sense and hard work are key factors undergirding Gary Grant’s business, which has grown from one shop in Amersham to 140 stores employing 2,000 people in store and online.

Born in Wembley, his parents divorced when he was just three. It wasn’t easy for his mum to make ends meet, so Gary earned his pocket money sweeping neighbours’ leaves, clearing snow, or washing cars. He worked in a sweet shop, a bike shop and on a milk float before he left school with one O-level in maths. ‘That has served me really well,’ he says. ‘I work out discounts while other people are still playing with their calculators.’

The bike shop gave him a job when he left school. It was the mid 1970s and there was a skateboard boom. When the market slumped, Gary bought up the surplus stock and started his own business on the side selling skateboard parts. The conflict of interests got him the sack. By then, he had been married for two years to Catherine, a nurse. He tried to find a bike shop to start his own business, but an estate agent friend suggested a toy shop. Four months later, in May 1981, Gary opened his first shop.

‘We knew nothing about toys,’ Gary says. They named it The Entertainer, which gave them the flexibility to change focus if selling toys didn’t work out. Now, 36 years later, they have 140 stores and handle 7-8% of the UK toy trade.

‘The first 10 years we made money however we could,’ he says. Then in 1991 he had what he calls ‘a life changing experience’. His wife had been going to church for years, and bought him a ticket for a men’s breakfast at her church.

‘I went along and heard a preacher talk about a relationship he had with Jesus; how the Holy Spirit can influence our lives; guide us; turn things around. I’d done RE at school, but the whole religious thing was very remote. It wasn’t a living thing, just something you learned. No one had ever told me that Jesus overwhelmingly, unconditionally loved me.’

The next day, a Sunday, Gary decided to go back to church to find the preacher.

He sat in the back row but soon found himself crying. He doesn’t really know why.

‘An hour later I was still crying but something had dramatically changed. I walked out of church that night realising that God really, really loved me. He didn’t like everything I did, but he loved me. God doesn’t say “If you change what you do, I’ll love you.” He says, “I love you unconditionally.”’

It prompted Gary to re-think everything he did. He had three shops at the time and Sunday trading was still illegal. When the law changed, Gary prayed about what to do and decided not to open the shops on Sundays.

‘I value families. Did I really want all of my staff working on a Sunday when it’s often the only day of the week to have a family meal together?’

Even in the 2008-2009 recession when the bank manager said ‘You’re going to have to give up this Sunday stuff’, Gary stuck to his principles. ‘I do what’s right in bad times and good times.’

Since then countless staff have told him, ‘I took a job here because I could be with my family on Sundays.’ And his landlords tell him he does more trade in six days than competitors do in seven.

He also decided not to stock some toys, including Harry Potter and Hallowe’en merchandise. ‘I have to feel comfortable with what we sell’ Gary says. On The Entertainer’s website, the ‘Playground Rules’ set out the company vision and values: ‘We want all our products to inspire and delight children. If we wouldn’t be happy for our own children to play with a product, then you won’t find it on our shelves.’

A verse in the Bible says ‘avoid every appearance of evil’. Gary says, ‘I know I can trust God with the money. I have to do what I feel comfortable doing because I am accountable for my life.’

As well as giving away 10% of profits, The Entertainer staff are encouraged to join a payroll giving scheme to give to a charity of their choice. Also, the company’s Pennies scheme means customers can round up their purchase price to give to charity. Last year The Entertainer staff and customers donated £1.6 million to children’s charities.

‘My Christian faith is not a rule book forced upon me. It’s all about choices,’ he says.

‘Faith is a living, daily thing. Considering “What does God want me to do?” is as important Monday to Friday as on a Sunday.’

Looking back to when he became a Christian at 33, Gary says, ‘Why didn’t somebody tell me about Jesus earlier?’

Now he recommends the Alpha course, which gives people space to ask questions about the Christian faith. ‘Many of us spend more time thinking about our pension that we do about eternity,’ he says. ‘Give 10 evenings of your life to consider what Christianity has to say. Find an Alpha course near you.’