The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #21: Zodiac Toys

The place to go-go, back in 1985

The Ad of Christmas Past

Oh the colour, how much colour in this advert? A shame this was done in the pre-digital era, coming off a fuzzy VHS cassette. At first, we see seven children jumping out of jack-in-a-boxes with one letter spelling the name of the toy store. As well as looking like the after-effects of a young S.V. after too many Rainbow Drops, the tableau screams one thing: pester power.

The bright graphics, also screamed ‘child appeal’ and ‘excitement’ – a world away from the comparatively paternalistic Toymaster franchise. After the jack-in-the-box children we cut to the toys. The advertisement is probably from 1985 or 1986 going off the emphasis on Care Bears. Priced at £12.75 (13″) thirty years ago, the equivalent of £36.65 in today’s money. In the late 1980s, the same voiceover fellow would be the voice of Toys’R’Us’ UK adverts.

The Shop of Christmas Past

Zodiac Toys, unlike Toy and Hobby which we covered earlier, had a national presence. Before Toys ‘R’ Us ‘owned’ the UK toy retail scene from the 1990s onwards, they were part of the Maynards chain. With sales in confectionary going downwards they built on the strengths of its toy and pram business in London. In 1969, Zodiac Toys was born, with emphasis on good value for money.

The business peaked from the late 1970s to early 1980s. In 1986, they had 83 branches. Greater Manchester’s branches were in Altrincham (George Street), Manchester (Arndale Centre), Pendleton (Salford Shopping City), Rochdale (Market Way within the Rochdale Shopping Centre), Stockport (Deanery Way in Merseyway Shopping Centre), and Stretford (Arndale Centre). Rochdale’s and Altrincham’s branches were acquired by Zodiac Toys in 1981, following their purchase of the Youngsters Toys chain from English Stores Group Ltd.

Zodiac Toys’ crown as Britain’s largest chain of toy supermarkets was short lived. The company’s sale to entrepreneur Russell King saw the chain fold in 1989 – 90. Insurance fraud on a £600,000 Aston Martin (the CEO’s penchant for fast cars) was its downfall. Mr. King served a two-year prison sentence.

Today, a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us, Smyths or our favourite online retailer is a common port of call for many shoppers. The closest chain to Zodiac Toys in structure (though thankfully with Scalextric sets being the only fast cars involved) is The Entertainer. Their shopping experience is more akin to the 1980s toy shop. It is laid back and devoid of the brashness of its out of town brethren. Plus, they are all round good eggs for closing on Sunday, giving their a much deserved rest. Nice one guys!

S.V., 21 December 2015.

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