Children’s toy store owners in regional SA say they cannot compete with the rise of international ecommerce websites, which often sell items made with single-use plastics, and may support suppliers who use “modern-day slavery”.

A report from Roy Morgan this year found that Australians were spending $8 billion a year on online retailers Amazon, Shein and Temu.

Maryann Murphy has owned Port Lincoln shop Scallywags Toys & Nursery for 15 years.

 Scallywags Toys & Nursery owner Maryann Murphy.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Adam Sheldon )

Ms Murphy said although she had loyal customers who enjoyed the personal service she offered, most people preferred to shop online, due to convenience and price.

“It hasn’t been as lucrative as it was years ago,” she said.

“We used to get a lot of country customers. Now they buy online because it’s easier.”

She said the store had struggled since it opened.

“We just received stock from our major toy supplier for the second time in six months – normally we would have 10 shipments by now,” Ms Murphy said.

She added it was impossible to compete with ecommerce websites’ seemingly endless product lists.

“Before online shopping was around … we would choose the toys we thought would sell. Now all toys go up online … it’s hard for us to gauge what we should sell,” she said.

It’s a similar story for Sara Hetzel, who owns From Baby to Kids, Port Lincoln’s other children’s shop.

From Baby to Kids owner Sara Hetzel says she “can’t compete” with ecommerce.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Adam Sheldon)

Ms Hetzel said while she previously sold a variety of wooden toys, she’s had to reduce her stock as online stores are able to beat her on price.

“I can’t compete,” Ms Hetzel said.

She said children’s brick and mortar stores are a “dying breed”, and “slowly getting edged out of the market” by consumers’ preference for online retailers.

“In the last few years my sales have gone down,” she said.

“I have had to adapt my store and it’s only open one day a week now, the rest I am online and delivering.”

Cheap items could have hidden costs

While around 2 million Australians shop with Chinese-owned companies Temu and Shein alone every month, concerns have been raised that the cheap prices offered by them may often be too good to be true.

Last year, US lawmakers found there was a high chance some items sold on Temu were made in China with forced labour, while Temu said it was not responsible for third-party sellers on its platform.

UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology director Veena Sahajwalla said any cheap items sold online often had a hidden meaning.

Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at UNSW, Professor Veena Sahajwalla.(Supplied: Anna Kucera)

“We need to ask ourselves, why did this item come to me so cheap?” Professor Sahajwalla said.

“It costs a lot of money to have these materials — that means somewhere in there, there’s got to be questionable practices.”

“Maybe there were unethical practices like modern-day slavery or unsafe standard where things were being manufactured.”

Another cost, she added, was that the same websites often sold items made with single-use plastic, which had a short lifespan, and ultimately ended up in landfill.

“What we are doing is creating microplastics, it’s just a matter of time before something breaks and ends up in landfill,” she said.

Professor Sahajwalla said the new “throwaway culture” of consumers meant toys were rarely handed down, and that the sentimental value behind goods had been lost.

Metal toys last 100 years

In SA’s mid-north, the Wilmington Toy Museum is evidence of an era when items had sentimental value.

David Christie, who has owned the museum for 30 years, said his store is a “step back in time” and features items that are 100 years old.

David Christie with a Hornby locomotives dating back to the beginning of World War II. (Supplied: David Christie)

“I don’t know what the museum will look like in 100 years, but everything that is in there today will still be there,” he said.

Mr Christie said his oldest items were all made out of metal, and that he doesn’t bother collecting plastic toys, as they break too easily.

“Even the new Tonka toys, most are plastic. We used to sit on them and drive them around and play with them but now they do not last,” he said.

“The old metal ones, people collect them and restore them for grandkids and great-grandkids, it’s still around, they have survived, because they are metal.”

He said toy and hobby shops in the area are “dwindling”. 

“We used to have Toy World in Port Pirie and Port Augusta, but they are gone,” Mr Christie said. 

Winners and losers need to be reviewed 

University of Melbourne economics professor David Byrne said ecommerce “wasn’t going anywhere”, and it was important to assess any winners and losers from the changing economic environment.

“People feel bad it impacts a local economy. But these are the same folk that go out and say, ‘I really liked the low prices that these big companies can bring to us’, because they have economies of scale,” he said.

“The tricky thing to navigate with these large platforms are the winners and losers, and balancing cheap prices with losing local stores, which is hard.”