Toy retailer finds success serving a loyal clientele

Postman Pat: Pat McNair has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Postman Pat: Pat McNair has no plans to retire anytime soon.

It's a real life toy story for Playways owner Pat McNair. Kashka Tunstall talks to her about more than 30 years in the business and how she keeps the fun going.

Lots of people want to own businesses, Pat McNair says as she shuffles her way around the tiny store she has called home for the past 25 years.

"Some people, they just want to own a business because they want a business and it doesn't even matter what it is.

"It could be a clothing shop, a fish-and-chip shop but it's what I'm selling that is important to me, that is what is satisfying."

McNair is the proprietor of Playways Toyshop and has been selling educational wares to the masses for more than 30 years.

With a background in early childhood education and strong product knowledge, McNair has created a niche for herself in the Waikato's toy sector.

She's set Playways apart from mainstream stores with a focus on education rather than high profile marketed toys.

McNair, 63, first dreamed of becoming a school teacher.

She studied at teacher training college in Hamilton in the late 1960s but soon after started a family.

While she never got to put her studies to work in a school, when her youngest child was a year old she decided to venture into the toy market and put her knowledge to use.

She began hosting toy parties selling educational toys in 1978, an untapped market at the time.

Travelling from Te Kauwhata to the Coromandel, across to Rotorua and down to Taupo, McNair soon started making a respectable living from her business.

"A lot of the farming communities loved me so I used to drive up farm tracks and try and find houses," she says.

"But I was exhausted, I thought all the travelling was crazy. I was doing three parties a day, packing, unpacking, packing again and talking to so many people . . . so I thought I'll put it on shelves and they could come to me."

So in 1986 McNair set up shop in a Claudelands store in Hamilton, using personal funds to set up.

She's never believed in financial risk, she says, and didn't want the store to be too big too soon. But because she had gained a reputation with the toy parties, the clientele was there from day one and the move from the business breaking even to turning a profit was swift.

Now, 31 years on, she says the secret to career longevity is having a point of difference and sticking to the basics.

"There have been so many toy shops that have come and gone in Hamilton, so many I've lost count.

"But none of them have done what I've done.

"I have the points of difference, which is having no violent toys and no licensed products."

You won't spot a single Teletubby, Ben 10 figurine, Dora the Explorer doll or any other licensed product banking on popular kids shows.

But you will find dress up boxes, building blocks and coloured windmills.

McNair's shop offers a range of locally-made products made from renewable resources rather than plastic and over the years the biggest sellers have remained the same.

Wooden building blocks, kites, bouncing balls, hoops, hammer and peg sets and baby carriages - customers are always looking for the basics, she says.

"They're hand crafted, they don't have plastic wheels and they don't have have things that need to be pressed or batteries or the jingly jangly bits. They're just ordinary basic things.

"Kids haven't changed, they want the same things. Advertisers are trying to change them but they really haven't.

"The products keep me satisfied, still continuing to provide what customers want and getting feedback that I'm doing the right thing."

A loyal customer basis has followed her through the years and she's even been given a nickname around the Claudelands' community.

Postman Pat, she's known as.

And she is a bit of a postman.

The Grey St store she has leased for the the last 25 years was once a post shop and she has continued to house some postage material under the shop's roof so the community has access to it.

She laughs about the nickname and says she doesn't mind the reference to the character, although she's quick to point out she doesn't sell any Postman Pat licensed products.

"I mean, we're not a post shop . . . but my name is Pat and I sell postage stamps so what can I say?"

Business is booming, despite the effects of the recession, she says.

"Things are a bit different and it's noticeable but my bottom line is still the same. I notice individual customers aren't spending as much each on average but I'm getting way more customers through the door so the bottom line is the same."

For McNair, it's more of the same for the foreseeable future - if the system isn't broken, there's no need to fix it.

Christmas is her busiest period understandably but throughout the year she's still under the hammer with large school orders.

She knows retirement is on the horizon but it won't be any time soon and already parties have approached her about buying the business once she does.

"I'll know when I'm ready and I certainly don't feel like that now."