Active garden sets such as climbing frames and trampolines have surged in popularity as parents have been forced to find ways to keep children active at home thanks to lockdown restrictions and limited access to outdoor and indoor play areas.
One Lincolnshire-based family company says that the new-found popularity garden play sets has seen sales rocket in the last 12 months.
Plum Play, founded by Jonathan and Diane Schaffer in the late 1980s, is now run by son Paul, who is managing director.
He says: ‘There is an upward trend to looking after your garden and Covid has made people realise they need to be outdoors, active and entertained and we have products that fit that.’
Paul Schaffer (right) is managing director of Plum Play – a business his parents Jonathan (left) and Diane Schaffer (middle) founded
Paul admits that the industry the business operates in initially suffered a shock under the first lockdown, but after that things started to pick up and many lines were sold in record time and online.
He says: ‘People were stuck at home, they knew they had to keep their children active and our trampolines, climbing frames and tree houses were the perfect fit.’
In 2020, Plum Play trampolines sold out at a record rate and volume sales were 40 per cent up from 2019. Since then, trampoline sales have done even better.
Paul says: ‘Without getting into specific unit quantities we are over 300 per cent up year to date on trampolines versus the same period last year.’
Paul adds: ‘People typically want a trampoline – it’s popular and with us it ranges in price from £100 to £1,500. You can get cheaper ones that range from £80 to £100 and ours typically average £200.’
In 2020, Plum Play trampolines sold out at a record rate and volume sales increased 40 per cent from 2019
It’s not only trampolines that have boosted the business’ bottom line. Climbing frames, swings and slides outdoor and indoor toys have all seen a surge in sales.
For Plum Play in the UK, that meant an increase in revenue of 39 per cent from £14.4million in 2019 to £20million in 2020.
I went and did my time as chartered accountant much to the pleasure of my mother, but I think it helped me come in with new ideas as an outsider rather than growing up in the family business.
Paul Schaffer, managing director of Plum Play
While the business has been in operation for over 30 years, it wasn’t immune to challenges such as Brexit and customer demand.
Despite having successful sales in the first lockdown there was still room for improvement. ‘We sold out so quickly and had a limited warehouse with the Covid guidelines, it slowed everything down and some customers were upset that some orders were slow in getting out.’
Realising that the customer services team was under strain, Paul jumped in to help to help.
He says: ‘It was an emotionally draining time. One of the reasons I love Plum is that everyone jumps in to help, not just me. We have a great team mentality and will always look out for one another.’
Brexit itself is causing administrative and export headaches. Paul says: ‘The experts and the documentation required is difficult for a small company – we need to invest in lots of different people to do these jobs and that can be a bit of a pain.
‘We’re hoping it’s teething [problems] and not here to stay.’
Besides climbing frames and trampolines, Plum Play also sell wooden deckhouses
Investment from Santander
Such is the demand for outdoor play equipment within the UK and globally that Plum Play has sought investment to the tune of £4.2million to expand on its international portfolio of garden play sets and toys.
It obtained this funding at the end of last year through a corporate banking partnership with Santander.
Plum Play now operates in over 40 countries, but it only recently entered the US market and still has much to do in terms of expanding its product range in other markets.
Paul says: ‘This year it’s about pushing the brand with the consumer and full range of products in other countries. In the UK we have the full range, but internationally we don’t – it really depends on the market.’
So, the board is not just comprised of family and that’s important to ensure there’s a diversity of opinion
Keeping it in the family
Paul was exposed to the business from an early age.
He grew up watching his parents build it all from scratch and he even got stuck in picking screws, lifting, folding leaflets and packing boxes.
But after studying in Sydney, he didn’t join the business immediately.
Instead, he landed an executive role at Ernst & Young, but Paul admits the ambition was always to return to Plum Play at the right time.
In 2015 his returned as general manager, then moved to commercial director and finally took the helm as managing director in 2019.
Paul was exposed to the business from an early age. He grew up watching his parents build the business from scratch and even helped out
The business is now an international brand, while locally it has built up relationships with retailers like Tesco, Littlewoods, Amazon, Sainsbury’s and Dunelm among others.
Paul says: ‘The business started off in a flat in Twickenham – my parents are from South Africa.
‘They initially sold charcoal and then eventually moved on to play equipment. We actually still do sell some charcoal that we get from South Africa, just for a bit of nostalgia.
‘We have grown organically and most of the senior staff are all still family. We have four directors – my dad is chairman – and I’m managing director, but we have a financial manager, a sales director and a product director that are not from our family.
‘So, the board is not just comprised of family and that’s important to ensure there’s a diversity of opinion.’
While the business has been one to benefit from the pandemic Paul says it also presented many challenges both logistically and operationally.
Business meetings have been especially hard to organise with board members located on different continents.
A child skips towards a Plum Play Hideaway. It currently retails for £799.99
Paul explains: ‘My parents live in Australia and my other half of the family are in South Africa. Not being able to travel and see them in person is not a pleasant thing.’
While he could still travel and endure a quarantine it’s not a risk he’s willing to take. ‘Two weeks in quarantine is a long time away from the business.
‘Normally we would’ve visited each other or gone to the office in Hong Kong. Things have changed, but nothing quite beats face to face.’
Paul’s advice to other families considering the option of starting their own business is to be prepared for the good and the tough times ahead.
He points out that even if you’re close there’ll be times when you disagree.
‘I went and did my time as chartered accountant, much to the pleasure of my mother, but I think it helped me come in with new ideas as an outsider rather than growing up in the family business.
‘Being able to bring in extra skills is important for the family business as it gives you a different viewpoint and I’m pleased that I did it.’
How to choose the best play equipment for your children
Start with the child. Paul says: ‘A child’s interests will lead the decision making, whether that be bouncing on a trampoline, storytelling adventure play, or educational play through STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities; these different types of play will all benefit a child’s development.’
Utilise your space as best as possible. Paul says: ‘Equipment size will also be a deciding factor. A climbing frame with a slide and swing set is perfect for a bigger family with a bigger garden like the Plum Lookout Tower, however families with a smaller outdoor space, may choose to opt for a compact playcentre that’s packed full of play features, maximising play value in a small footprint, like the Plum My First Wooden Playcentre.
Maximise the lifetime of the product. Paul says: ‘After you have distinguished what category of play equipment your family wants, think about what will keep the kids most engaged in play for the lifetime of the product.’
Think about the environment. With landfills filling up and oceans polluted with plastics and other materials it’s important to buy eco-friendly playground equipment that can be recycled when children grow out of it.
Find out if the playground equipment supplier is FSC certified. FSC certification helps consumers to identify and purchase wood, paper and other products that are made from materials sourced from well-managed forests or recycled sources.
Paul says: ‘For us this is extremely important. At Plum, we sustainably source and ethically manufacture every product in our range.
‘Long before FSC certified wood was established my parents were actively involved with the ethical sourcing of wood products and we have been sustainably trading for over 30 years.’
Small Business Essentials
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