How can this possibly be my first time inside Hamleys? This is evidence of a worryingly provincial childhood. Where are all my memories of Christmas shopping in Harrods, of the lights on Oxford Street and of asking the Hamleys Father Christmas for a Meccano set? Clearly in someone else’s background, but all that is about to change. This year, I’ve been despatched to document the frenzy of consumerism that is the world’s most famous toyshop at Christmas. I step into the store to see things before the Christmas tree is erected. Santa’s Grotto invades the ground floor. Even though it is only early November, and Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night are the shop’s main themes, Christmas is most definitely coming. You can almost feel the panic levels rise as people mentally calculate the shopping days left.
Everywhere I look, literally hundreds of children are picking things up, trying things out, banging things, bouncing things and firing things at each other. The whole place is the exact opposite of the sign in my local newsagents: “This is not a library – Please don’t read the magazines.” At Hamleys, trying before buying is actively encouraged. In fact, small crowds gather around the demonstrators’ booths and listen attentively to the sales spiel.
I choose the scarily named Ghost Stairs, rather than the escalators, to reach the rest of the shop, and am disappointed to find that, but for a few cobwebs and a soundtrack of clanking chains, the Ghost Stairs are little more than a dark fire exit. Never mind, I think, silence the internal cynic; this is Hamleys, home of the world’s finest toys and Mecca to wide-eyed kiddywinks everywhere. I refuse to be sceptical about the motivation behind fulfilling so many young dreams . . . My God, they sell five-foot teddy bears dressed as Santa!
To find my bearings around the store, I check out some of the top attractions. In the Bear Factory, I watch an eight-year-old girl take an empty bearskin, stuff it, dress it, name it and sign its birth certificate. Elsewhere, a competition rages between electronic games for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link (Anne Robinson is way ahead – Chris Tarrant is so last year). I visit a floor devoted to Lego, replete with life-sized Lego children, and a somewhat empty jigsaw department. Such tranquil pastimes suffer heavily up against the goodies in the Cyberzone, 500-piece images of Trafalgar Square faring poorly against Lara Croft. Valiantly, however, Hamleys still stocks these throwbacks to a more innocent, Enid Blyton Christmas list – jigsaws, tin soldiers and peanut brittle – but the smart money is on PlayStation 2.
The very military-sounding “chief operating officer” at Hamleys, John Watkinson, is a man with a dream: “Magic for kids, magic for adults” is his mantra, and the Hamleys ethos. It sounds more like an epitaph for Paul Daniels than the motto of someone who has declared war on parsimony, but then retail is a canny business.
“I realise the advantages we’ve got over our competitors by being, for want of a better phrase, a national institution,” he says. One of Watkinson’s main hopes for Hamleys is that “a family without a lot of cash can still have a great time”, so I took it upon myself to potter around among the hordes of people and ask the occasional brazen question about their budgets. A recent retail survey by Deloitte & Touche found that, on average, everyone in Britain will spend £460 on presents this Christmas. That’s two Sony PlayStations each at Hamleys, give or take the odd tenner. I spoke to Andrew and Jenny, a wealthy couple from the Home Counties who have been making the trip to Hamleys for the Regent Street lights for the past 20-odd years, because “it always marks the start of our Christmas”. Their own spree was pretty commonplace, and many customers revealed that their annual outlay on Christmas ran into the thousands.
But at the other end of the spending scale was Hayley, a stressed-looking young mother, with the full range of children from pushchair toddler to angst-ridden teen. Her spending was limited to a fiver on Wall-bugs (cool, sticky, bug-like things that you chuck against the wall and watch creep down) – a far cry from the national average. At the same time, a guy of a similar age nonchalantly whacked £600 on his Gold Card in the Cyberzone, blowing far more than his allotted £460 in one fell swoop.
It stands to reason, really. The Christmas clientele at Hamleys is a complete cross-section of the British socioeconomic spectrum, so for every parent in there bargain-hunting for £2.50 stocking-fillers, there will always be some loaded spendthrift, who’s short on time, buying interactive pets and games consoles.
In Christmas week alone, roughly half a million customers will pass through the front doors of Hamleys, at least a quarter of a million of whom will be putting their hard-earned dosh into the tills. If they buy just two packets of Wall-bugs each, Hamleys can expect record profits – up on last year’s ambiguous haul of “something over £1.5m”. But whatever conclusion one reaches about the Hamleys corporate money machine, the shop’s romanticised image or the affluence of “a typical customer”, it cannot be denied that the shop holds a special place in the national psyche, reserved for only the most sentimental of cultural symbols. And the false innocence and brand-name fun of it all is pretty contagious, even if the sheer volume of people inside the shop is becoming intolerable.
For me, the sentiment of the evening was summed up by a balding, middle-aged man accompanied by his three children: “It’s a laugh for the kids, innit? Plus I can get them something from in here tonight, even if it isn’t the flashest toy of the lot.” Then he said, with a mischievous grin: “Thing is, I’m gonna find more or less what they want in Hamleys, but if it’s too expensive in here, I’ve got this mate with a lock-up . . .”
John Watkinson told me: “The key is not the magic for kids – you’re always going to have that with seven floors full of toys – the hard part is the magic for adults. I want a visit to Hamleys to be an enjoyable experience, with or without children.” Being firmly in the “without children” category for the foreseeable future, I decide to test this particular theory on Hamleys’s biggest day of the year – the unveiling of the shop’s Christmas window, timed to tie in with the switching on of the Regent Street lights by the Irish wit Henry Kelly.
So as carols played throughout the store, hundreds of customers gathered for the revelation of the festive display, opened this year by the unknown boy band 3SL, whose name, short for the “Three Scott-Lees”, is apparently an obscure reference to their famous sister. Famous sister? Yes, you know, the Scott-Lees, as in Lisa Scott-Lee, linchpin member of the equally dubious pop group Steps . . . never mind. Dodgy C-list celebs aside, the end result was an unmitigated success: the window looked fantastic. It runs around a Rudolph theme – Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys – again in association with a big corporate venture, another film on general release.
It also achieved the desired effect with the little ‘uns: “It’s lovely, really pretty,” breathed one awestruck little girl. “And really Christmassy,” confirmed her brother. As for the older generations, their approval was also resounding. Andrew and Jenny gave the window the thumbs-up, although Rudolf and his Misfit Toys meant absolutely nothing to them. As for 3SL, well, Cliff’s “Mistletoe and Wine” was more their thing.
The store began to do a roaring trade as people made their first preparations for the 25th, before Kelly arrived to do his thing. Andrew and Jenny confessed to parting with the best part of £300 in gifts for their four grandchildren, although they seemed happy enough at the prices for what was their “only big shopping trip this Christmas”.
Then the focus moved outside, as the London Community Gospel Choir led us in rousing choruses of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The crowd had now swelled to a throng, and before I knew it I was surrounded by people of every age, class, colour and creed, harmoniously singing “White Christmas”. It was quite a scene, very Tiny Tim. I half expected someone to proclaim: “God bless us, every one.” It lacked lashings of mulled wine but, apart from that, it was a picture of peace on earth.
A class of angelic primary schoolchildren walked on to the stage and Kelly camped up the main event. Russell Watson, “the Voice, the People’s Tenor”, sang a hymn, ably backed by Brambleside Primary School, and then they turned on the lights. There was a big cheer and we drifted away to the strains of Russell’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma”. I heard a passer-by comment that it “wasn’t as spectacular as Hamleys”, but the general mood was upbeat – just the sort to make you part with your cash – and the stores along Regent Street and Oxford Street stayed open for the first of many late nights of shopping.
By now, Father Christmas was firmly ensconced on the first floor of the shop. I considered going to see him, purely in the interests of journalistic research, but decided that boyish good looks alone wouldn’t convince Saint Nick that I’ve “been a good lad all year”, and thus eligible for his freebies. As for the claim that you don’t need money to enjoy Hamleys, well, I don’t have much cash (in fact, I’m flat broke), but you’ll definitely find me in there, hunting out appropriate pressies for my wee cousins during the last-minute Christmas dash.