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Paul Copeland, Managing Director of Mulberry Bush (©AAH/Alan Wright)

Published on 1st April 2022

Mulberry Bush sells traditional and innovative toys, gifts and games for children. The Slinfold-based business, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, has despatched more than two million toys across the years. While the business continues to expand by offering personalised products, the family-run firm has stayed true to its ethos. AAH met Managing Director Paul Copeland to find out more…  

When was the business founded?

My father Jonathan Copeland and stepmother Shirley founded Mulberry Bush in 1996. He had been made redundant by Sun Alliance and was considering his options. His cousin established a mail order company, so my father thought he could run a similar business focusing on toys. 

What kind of toys?

 From the outset, the focus has been on traditional toys, gifts and games. They wanted to sell the kind of toys they had played with as children. At the time, plastic toys and action figures were dominating the toy market at the expense of high quality, traditional wooden toys that have been around for generations. Mulberry Bush wasn’t interested in fads and that remains the case. We look for niche items that you might not find on the high street and that’s why we don’t sell Disney, Lego or comic book toys. They take up a big slice of the market but in doing so create opportunities for businesses like ours to operate. 

When did you join the business?

I came in 12 years ago, after working for ten years at Rolls Royce. When I left university, I must confess that I couldn’t see a future for a mail order toy business, but it continued to grow. I moved my family back to Horsham and by the time my father and stepmother retired, I had a good understanding of all aspects of the operation.

How do you choose your toys?

Most of the business relationships we have with suppliers have been established through trade shows. There are toy shows across the UK and a major show in Nuremberg which we attend. We look for toys for children up to the age of twelve, which meet our standards and ethos. Some are well known names like Melissa and Doug, while others are new companies looking for opportunities to promote their products. We work with Le Toy Van, which makes wooden toys and dolls houses, BigJigs Toys, which offers traditional wooden railways, puzzles and play sets, Great Gizmos, which makes dinosaur excavation kits and educational toys, and we even have great coding toys for older children.

There always used to be a toy that could define the year, be it Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Tamagotchi. Does that still happen? 

Absolutely. Fidget spinners and loom bands are recent examples and in the past year or so there’s been a strong demand for L.O.L Surprise! But fads come and go and we tend to avoid them. We don’t want to buy 5,000 items of something only to see it fall out of fashion overnight, as is what happened with loom bands!

What are your bestsellers?

It’s traditional items like baby walkers, as babies will always need to learn how to walk and how to pile up bricks. Often we find that these toys get passed down between siblings or cousins, and because they give value for money, the family return to us for other toys. Wooden farms, dolls houses, rocking horses and wooden railways are classics too. We are also seeing a resurgence in the popularity of occupational toys. Construction sites, workbenches and tools, vehicle garages and village shops, as well as dress-up costumes for fire chiefs, doctors and vets. Children are definitely more interested in space again too, especially since Tim Peake went to the International Space Station, with toy rockets and astronaut outfits selling well. 

How have toys changed over the years?

The most notable change is the improvement of safety standards. There are very strict levels of safety testing now and you don’t hear as many negative stories about dangerous products as you used to. Those you do hear about are usually items sold through auction sites, or cheap, unlicensed imitations of popular items. 

How has the growth of the internet impacted your mail order business?

Mail order remains a vital part of the business, but we do have to consider the volume of catalogues we print and distribute, as it’s expensive. We have loyal customers, often older people with grandchildren, who buy from us regularly as they like good, old-fashioned customer service. We also sell online and Google advertising is a key aspect of the business, as most younger people shop in this more price-driven way. The combination of the two methods works well for us.

You also sell a lot of personalised items...

We took over a company called Letterbox in 2013 and brought in their range of personalised items, such as pencils. Since then, we’ve expanded the personalised range to include designs from unicorns and flamingos to football and dinosaurs. We can print these on pencil cases, aprons, notebooks, soft toys, drinks bottles, ponchos, wallets, towels, backpacks, cups and placemats. They’re very good for children as they help identify their belongings at school or playschool. We have modern printing equipment which means we can personalise a much wider range of items. We even have hand-made Mason Pearson hairbrushes in pink or lilac lettering, each one painted by hand.  

Have you ever been tempted to open a traditional toy shop?

We used to have a small shop in a cabin at Newbridge Nurseries, but that was lost when the car park was extended to accommodate more customers. We would never say never when it comes to the shop idea, but with business rates being as high as they are and with our business going in a different direction online, we are further away from a Mulberry Bush store on the high street than we’ve ever been. For now, our plans are to continue doing what we always have: offering good quality toys that there will always be a demand for. 

Further information: (01403) 790796 or visit www.mulberrybush.co.uk