Monday, 21 November 2011

Dream Toys 2011 - The Cottontails Alternatives

Every year the Toy Retailers Association publish a list of 'dream toys' for Christmas and I have just been looking over the list for 2011. A world away from what I do here at Cottontails, it is a list rich in plastic and electronics - in at number one is 'Doggie Doo', a pooing plastic dog.

But I'm not too worried about this - after all I am not trying to compete with Argos or Toys r Us - what I try to do is offer an alternative to the mainstream - and thank goodness - I have just returned from a shopping trip to the dreaded Tesco where children's toys are piled high as you walk in. It's a relief not to be going head to head with that.

However, I'm not completely out of touch and I know that lots of children will really love a pooing dog or Full-auto Long Range Nerf-Disc Blaster (yes, really). These toys are bright, active, instant. The have big box packaging appeal and are doubtlessly being promoted all over children's tv.

But maybe there is room in the stocking for something a bit more traditional too? And, with this in mind, I have put together some alternatives. Here are five toys from the original list along with some rather more traditional, quirky and charming alternatives...

1. Doggie Doo vs Philbert the velvet sausage dog

Doggie Doo (£34.99) - the aforementioned plastic pooch produces his own poo. Philbert (£19.99) is a velvet sausage dog who lives in his own little cardboard kennel. He has Liberty print ears and he does not poo. (This is a good thing, right?)

2. Fijit Friends vs Bunny & Mouse Little Wardrobe

A 'Fijit Friend' (£55) is a funny dancing robot doll billed as "your interactive BFF". As an alternative I have selected a couple of more traditional 'best friends'... The Bunny and Mouse Little Wardrobe (£55) play set includes two little soft toys in their own carry case (wardrobe) along with a whole host of outfits - perfect for plenty of 'interactive' playing.

3. Milky Bunny vs oooh too many to choose from!

Milky Bunny (£59.99) is from the 'Emotion Pets' series and has batteries so she moves, snores and makes little noises. Scary eyes though. We have so many alternatives at Cottontails, where rabbits are our forte, that I couldn't choose just one. A few favourites though include the lovely French bunnies Lola, Sylvain or Jeanette who comes in her own a sturdy gift box. Or for something more interactive how about a handmade wooden hutch from Ostheimer with some wooden bunnies and a bag of hay.

4. Moshi Monsters Moshlings Treehouse vs Maileg Mouse House

The Moshi Monsters Moshlings Treehouse (£20) is a plastic moulded tree which opens up to reveal a place to play with and store your Moshlings (small plastic collectible things, I think). Maileg make two homes for mice. There is a wooden home (£35) fashioned on a cheese which also includes some furnishings and a little bell on the doorway*, or there is a much larger sturdy cardboard home based on a milk carton (£43). It might be nice to buy some mice to live in the house too - how about these little babies that come in their own matchbox bed with blanket? (£20)

(*Sorry I have sold out of wooden mouse houses.)

5. Let's Rock Elmo vs Moulin Roty Orchestra in a Bag

'Rock out' with Let's Rock Elmo (£69.99) - a plush toy who sings and comes with his own plastic drums and tambourine, or play percussion with Moulin Roty's Orchestra in a Bag (£73) - a cloth carry case full of eight traditional wooden instruments including xylophone, tambourine, bells, and whistle. Either way, it's not going to be a peaceful Christmas!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The ducks are famous!

Wonderful news - my runner ducks are on a Christmas card!

Catherine over at Bumpkin Bears has featured them on one of her lovely hand made Christmas cards.

I feel like a proud mum and have treated the famous trio to fresh tomato, peas and a lovely deep layer of hay in the duck house.

Well done ducks! (And thank you Catherine.)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Once upon a time there was a mouse...

Those of you who read our Facebook page will have already heard about this - we have had an adventure with a real life mouse!

(This is not the Real Life Mouse, this is an actor)

Friday afternoon, and my other half turned up in the office doorway with a tiny, drenched, barely moving baby mouse he had rescued from the cat. It didn't look too hopeful, but I popped the little chap into a box with some of Humphrey's hay and placed it next to the heater under the desk. He was so, so tiny. Half the size of my little finger.

Over the next few of hours the little mouse brightened up considerably! He dried out and started to move around in his box. He had a bit of a problem with a back leg, but otherwise seemed pretty fast and agile. It was hard to catch him, even in the little box. I was delighted - it looked like he was going to make it!

I toyed with letting him out into the garden that night, but it was torrential rain and pretty cold. I decided to keep him in his box over night and release him the next morning. I added a handful of rabbit food, a bit of chocolate, some leaves, a cotton reel table and a tea set water bowl to his box. (I admit I also dreamed about keeping him as a Cottontails pet, but knew this wouldn't be a happy life for a wild mouse, so the next morning was to be 'release day'.)

The next morning. I gingerly poked about in the hay looking for the little chap but there was no movement or scrabbling. My heart sank when I thought he might have died, but I couldn't find him anywhere. And then I spotted a tiny round hole in the corner of the box. HE HAD ESCAPED!

(Angel Mouse could barely fit her nose through the escape hole)

I was happy he was clearly alive and well and full of beans if he had managed to stage an escape, but not so happy at the thought that somewhere in my office, rammed to rafters with expensive toys, lived a tiny nibbling creature.

Not long afterwards I noticed the phone wasn't working. The cable had been chewed. Oh dear.

Well... I don't really have a conclusion to this story as to be honest I don't know if he is still here or not. I spent the whole day spring cleaning and emptying every little cubby hole in the office. A couple of times I thought I heard a scrabbling sound under the packing table over by the door (when Humphrey - the usual creator of scrabbles - was asleep at the other end of the office) and I had the door open all day. I am hoping he has made his way back into the big wide world.

But I don't know. After all, if I was a mouse who happened up this office, complete with Mouse Houses, mouse furniture, mouse beds and a ready supply of fresh bunny food throughout the day, well I might be tempted to stay....!

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Grand Family grand day out

Last week we had an afternoon out at Westonbirt Arboretum (where they are filming this season's Autumnwatch). Just for once I took pity on my long suffering other half and didn't take along any fabric animals, but I did take lots of pictures and had a play on Photoshop at the weekend.

So this is the day out we would have had, had I been able to sneak the entire Moulin Roty Grand Family range into my handbag....

The Cottontails Grand Family Grand Day Out
An afternoon at Westonbirt

Philemon Pig, Jeanne Goose and Perlette frog love the autumn leaves and colours

Arsene the squirrel in his element - so many trees to scamper up!

Igor and Albert prove that a wolf and a lamb can play nicely together

Apolline mole wore her pretty but impractical summer dress

Nini and I have a little sit down...

...while some of the others are more energetic!

"No Amedee, you must NOT waddle off without permission."

Carrot cake for afternoon tea!

The perfect family day out.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Competition - Name that Biscuit!

(3rd November update: And the winner is....... Sharon Peters! Well done Sharon, I will email you now...)

I think it's about time for another Cottontails competition, and this is a fun one - to take part all you have to do is identify some classic British biscuits!

The prize is a lovely children's apron kindly donated by Caron at English Eclectics (a new brand at Cottontails) and a coordinating Moulin Roty soft toy - the winner will be able to choose from a pretty duck egg blue apron and a 20cm Jeanne Goose or a natural doggy print apron with a 20cm Julius dog - total prize value £39!

Have a look at the five yummy biscuits pictured below and see if you can work out what the biscuits are - they are all well known family favourites - then simply send me an email to with your list of biscuits.

Number 1 - a creamy sandwich biscuit

Number 2 - mmmm, chocolate!

Number 3 - quite a mouthful

Number 4 - a simple biscuit, and my favourite

Number 5 - an absolute classic

All the correct answers will go into a hat and I'll pick a winner on the 31st October.

We have a selection of Caron's lovely children's baking accessories on the website here, or you can visit her own website for mummy sized aprons and home accessories too.

Please do tell your friends about the competition, it would be nice to have a lot of people playing Name That Biscuit!

And finally, it would be nice if you would like to leave a comment to say you've taken part, but please don't give away the biscuit names in your comment.


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Me, a bit of history and how (not to) open a shop

I get asked quite a lot about how Cottontails 'came to be', so I thought I'd write a little bit about my story...

I have worked in retail since I left college, never anything managerial or anything just normal shop work. To be honest it was the only thing I knew to do. I had a degree in Sociology but that didn't exactly lead to an obvious career, and I didn't have much confidence. Besides, I always liked working in shops and was quite good at it, 'good with people' as they say.

(In fact maybe the story goes back even further - as a little girl my favourite games always involved playing shops. I am an only child and my long suffering mother must have spent years being my only customer!)

I worked in a few shops but my favourite shop was definitely Waterstones where I worked for a few years as a bookseller. I ran the children's department at Stratford upon Avon for quite a while and loved that.

But about 10 years ago I started to get itchy feet and wanted to try something else. I tried a few office things but wasn't happy. I despaired of myself at the time, but looking back now maybe some of it did have a purpose - for example I worked part time at a little design agency and also spent 12 months teaching myself web design - both of those things are really useful today.

Around the same time someone I knew opened a little shop selling second hand films and music. Not my kind of thing at all but I helped out there some times, and I guess more than anything it made me realise that opening a shop was possible.

In 2002, feeling more lost than ever, I decided to give it a go. I had about £1000 in savings and put together a business plan to get a bank loan for the rest. My full start up budget was £10,000. (I extended the loan a couple of years later and am still paying the damn thing off today...)

At first I was going to open a nice bedding and bathing gift shop with a nursery section and looked for premises in lots of small market towns, but when I eventually found a nice empty shop in Pershore there were too many 'general' gift shops already there. As such I amended my plans - took the nursery element of the original plan and added baby and children's clothes.

We opened in 2003, but to be honest I had a pretty appalling first year. The relationship I was in broke up, I was a mess and not really coping. I didn't know if the shop was a blessing or a curse but at least it kept me going.

For the next six years Cottontails traded at 60, High Street, Pershore. My mum worked in the shop with me (often more than me!) and we sold mainly baby clothes and some gifts and toys. I started selling surplus stock on eBay and in 2005 I launched the website to sit along side the high street shop.

And it's about here that Cottontails started to look more like the business it is today. The toys sold really well on the website - much better than the clothes. I was selling a lot of Moulin Roty toys - remember this was only 2005, the internet was a lot less saturated.

Over the next few years it became clear that the shop was barely supporting itself / losing money whereas the website was (a bit) more successful. Early in 2009 I took the decision to close the shop and focus my energies online. At the same time I took a p/t evening job as a receptionist to help pay off a massive VAT bill (a nightmare story - guess who crossed the threshold without realising and had two years of back pay to find) and bring in a little extra cash.

For a short while I worked from my home in Pershore, then in Summer 2009 moved over to Herefordshire to move in with my partner Mike. He works from home too (he is a cider maker - and didn't really fancy sharing a working space with me (not to mention my enormous stock of soft toys), so the office in the garden was built and that is where I work today.

I don't have any storage facilities apart from the office which is packed to rafters with toys, and some space in the garage for the big items, and I don't have an IT department or a marketing department or anything like that. Oh what a dream that would be! But it is a lovely space, and although it has its challenges and I miss people, it's nice to work from home. Also I am able to 'use' the garden and the surrounding countryside for inspiration. Since moving here, Cottontails has become a lot more interested in nature!

I work on my own apart from Humphrey. He is my rabbit, who I have had since 2004 and who I love to bits. He is a house rabbit but I carry him over to the office every morning and he mainly hangs out under the desk. Every so often he hops out to try and nibble something. He is also a huge inspiration. Rabbits have been a passion of mine all my life and I think that is obvious in Cottontails.

There are some people who support me though and who are a big part of Cottontails:

My mum, who was there from the beginning, picking up the pieces when I was falling apart during the first year of Cottontails and quickly pretty much managing the shop, even though just weeks beforehand she had been terrified of using the till. What a star. These days she still helps out in the busy few weeks before Christmas.

Tamsin - who has been my web designer since day one. I knew her as the woman behind Rabbit Rehome - a website she had set up to help rescue rabbits - and emailed to see if she would help with Cottontails. We have never met! We do everything by email and she is amazing for general technical support too.

And, more recently, Kaitie at Leaff Design, who has just worked with me on my first catalogue for Cottontails. She has been lovely to work with, has really 'got' the Cottontails brand and it has been an absolute pleasure to have help with something. I am so used to having to do everything myself - it has been such a novelty to have someone quietly getting on with something in the background.

As for the future, well sales are growing steadily each year which is something given the current economic climate (although believe me, it continues to be a bit of a struggle financially) and my plans for the future definitely include more handmade and ethically produced toys. I dream of making some toys of my own too... it might happen.

Finally, I get asked a lot specifically how I set up the website, how I find stock, how I manage the marketing. Well I don't want to give all my secrets away and obviously things have evolved for me over nearly 10 years, but here is a quick general guide - and honestly, anyone can do this.

1. Probably do not open a high street shop!
2. Look at other websites / shops for brands you like
3. Work up a brand and proposition for yourself - a name, look, feel, make a mood board, logo. put a little creative proposition together to take to potential suppliers
4. Contact the manufacturers directly - ask if they supply wholesale
5. Also go to trade fairs to source stock from bigger suppliers - they are free to attend if you register as a potential business. Top Drawer is my favourite.
6. Start selling on market places like eBay - save any email addresses of your customers to make a database
7. Based on your eBay sales decide on one or two areas or brands to do really well - to be really good at - it could be a brand (like Moulin Roty) or an area (like toy rabbits!)
8. Get your own website designed - I can't recommend Tamsin enough for this, she is friendly and reasonable
9. Email your database to promote your website
8. Use Google adwords to drive traffic to your website for the specific things you do well in
9. Use Twitter, Facebook and a Blog to promote
10. And, well, that's it really!

Of course there are hundreds of details to think about, but this is the essence of it really.

If anyone has any questions, do email me - I am no super businesswoman and will never be a millionaire but somehow, amid the personal crises and mistakes, I seem to have created something that just about works and I am happy to share any experiences and help anyone.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Amedee and the Runner Ducks

We have recently acquired three runner ducklings. Well, I say ducklings, they are eight weeks old now and pretty much fully grown. They are beautiful.

They live at the farm we are moving to and we go down twice a day to feed, water and visit them.

We will be digging them a pond soon, but for now they are splashing around in washing up bowls. Apparently this is all they need, but having seen how much they love to play in the water (not to mention the dreadful mess they make!) a pond is now a must.

Of course they are not my first ducks. Amedee duck has been here at Cottontails for many years now. And last week I decided it was time for him to meet his feathered family...

The runner ducks were a little unsure of Amedee - I don't think they have seen a duck in dungarees before? But I will take him down for regular visits and I'm sure they will all be splashing around together very soon.

So watch this space for many more duck stories..........

Thursday, 25 August 2011

One summer evening

The wheat has been harvested from the meadow behind the garden and the trees are heavy with apples. So last night I took Amedee duck and Jeanne goose outside to enjoy a lazy end of summer evening...


("Hurry up Jeanne, my legs are going...")