Katharine Butler - What it's like selling toys in Prague, including a certain Czech mole


Yes, the holiday season is upon us! My guest in this edition of One on One is Katharine Butler, the charming founder of Sparkys toy emporium here in Prague. In the interview we discuss favourite Czech toys, what it was like to start a business on the Czech market and what ultimately brought Mrs Butler to Prague in the early 1990s.

"I came here because of my brother - he came in 1990, right after the Velvet Revolution - and he was an investment banker in London looking for something more exciting to do. He chose the Czech Republic because he thought it had the best history, it was furthest west, it was 15 million people. In fact, it wasn't the Czech Republic it was Czechoslovakia then {laughs}... and he thought it had the most potential after going around all the eastern European countries."

And, your first impressions?

"It was extremely beautiful and, um, I think that the 'dilapidation' at the time was very attractive and fired your imagination. And almost now when so many buildings are reconstructed and all pink and yellow and pastel colours, there's almost no room left for the imagination. But I was very excited by it."

You would eventually go into business, did you have a business background?

"Not at all. I had been working in London for a year after leaving university in Edinburgh where I did History of Art. I wasn't exactly well-informed in business!"

When you made the decision to open a store, did you investigate, do market research, that kind of thing?

"Uh, yes and no. I think there was a limited amount of market research to do, really. I already knew what was on the market. I was aware that I didn't really know about toy retailing but I must say that my experience till then in this country had been pretty much starting something and seeing how it ran - without any deep and complex business plans. Of course I wouldn't do it today because the market is much, much more competitive and probably wouldn't do it because I would be more risk averse than I was at the time. But I hired a consultant from England who was the buyer at Harrod's toy dept. in London, who knew a lot about toys. Which, to a certain extent, was not applicable to the Czech market. On his advice we ended up buying a car that was pretty much the size of a Skoda and I think it was for sale at 1.2 million crowns. So, when we opened up and people came in and saw a car that was more expensive than a real car they could actually buy - this was a car for children - they weren't that impressed. This of course had been a big hit in Harrod's, this product. So, we made some mistakes with his advice. But, basically, he gave us the confidence to do business."

Tell me a little bit about the building - perfect for a toy store - why?

"I think it's location, um, in the centre of Prague, in the pedestrian zone, it's on four floors, a thousand square metres, which is a traditional department store..."

In the past, toy stores here were rather small affairs, and they were also the type of stores where you would come in and most of the stuff would be behind the counter. You'd have to ask the salesperson to actually let you see things. In your store, the sheer size must have been kind of a dream come true for many Czech kids...

"That's what we tried to do, I mean, the idea of it and the way it looks is to make it a real fun destination and not just a shop that's a commercial operation. That's why put in a huge great rocket with a slide coming out of it and we had different Czech illustrators and artists painting each floor. We wanted to make it a place that kids would really want to come to and even not necessarily buy anything, although once the kid's in there he hardly lets his parents out without acquiring something!"

Which is the point, isn't it!

"When we were opening the shop, before the shop was open, sometimes you would see children coming along on the street. They weren't allowed in yet and they were yelling and screaming {laughs}, they wouldn't let their parents pass. But, they couldn't actually walk into the shop - they were furious!"

You began doing business here but what about learning Czech, getting to know the language and the mentality?

"When I came here I of course didn't speak any Czech. I had the example of my brother ahead of me, who's an incredible linguist. He'd been here about six months and was chatting away happily in Czech and had done no lessons. So, I thought I would just follow suit. After six months I found that that hadn't worked and I started buying text books. I would buy more and more 'How to Speak Czech' textbooks and sort of feel that just having them around me might have an osmotic effect! That I would wake up in the morning speaking Czech! And, it wasn't really till after about three years of living here that I realised that I still didn't speak the language properly. I had employed a young Dutch girl who had just arrived in the country and spoke five other languages, and I knew that in six months she would be speaking perfect Czech and that I would look pretty stupid in front of my employees to have someone who'd just arrived speaking better than their boss, who'd been here for three years. Then I started really making an effort."

What kind of planning, strategy, goes into the window displays? I know for a long time you had the traditional bears that appear in your shop's logos.

"We try and improve our windows all the time and I must say it's something which I feel most sensitive about, because this is your window, this is the thing that people are judging you by. We try of course to put best-sellers, we agree with our suppliers that they fill the window with products. I'm trying to get the windows much better, I'm not happy with them at the moment. When I think of the windows in the toy stores in London and New York, which are just a total dream with everything dancing and moving and lights flashing, then I think our windows are too static. But we of course put best-sellers in there. Things that are TV advertised, that people are looking for, or novelties."

How much do you try to support the local toy market, local toy manufacturers? Let's discuss some of the examples that you like. Czech toys.

"I've been trying to improve - in our main Sparkys - our wooden toys, because they're very attractive, the Czech wooden toys. There's quite a solid market for them of parents who played with them when they were young and they therefore believe that they have some better value than all this commercial stuff that's coming out nowadays. And I think they're very nice. But, recently I travelled to a lot of Czech wooden toy factories and I was quite saddened by what I found there, because there isn't much innovation and they're struggling like anything against Chinese wooden products, which I have to say are now beginning to be quite good quality and good designs. The Czech factories are not moving fast enough to confront that and not innovating and I think that's a real big pity because their products look old-fashioned. Which has a certain market, and will always have a certain market, but, it's a small one. I think they're losing the chance to expand further."

What toys are doing well?

"The thing that has survived most strongest and will always have it's position is Krtek - the little mole. He's the creation of the Czech Walt Disney, a man called Zdenek Miller. He is so popular because parents were used to reading his books. All the products connected with him will sell and are extremely strong sellers."

How did you come up with the name "Sparkys"?

"Well, the name was a very difficult one; I think it's always hard to create a new trademark. At the moment you're creating it, it's not known obviously enough and you can't imagine whether that word, in a few years' time, will be one that people will think is absolutely fantastic. We had a lot of trouble finding a name. We had decided to put a rocket up in the centre of the shop and so we got into the whole theme of outer space and, you know, stars and galaxies, so we were on that and we got to rocket and sparks - for about a week it was 'Sparks'. Until it began to remind me of electrical problems and I came up with 'Sparkys' instead. We wanted a word that would be pronounceable in Czech, but would look foreign. It's a complete invention."