I go to a lot of soft play centres. A soft play centre is a place where children can play indoors. My son has a lot of energy so we go out a lot.
Recently we went to a soft play I’d been looking forward to trying ever since we were buying our home 18 months ago. That made the reality even worse.
The first problem we had was the business wasn’t mapped correctly on Apple Maps and the sat nav took us to a nearby dead-end road that ended with an 8-foot brick wall and ended with me having a panic attack that we’d driven for an hour with our babies and the place wasn’t findable. Luckily my husband was with me otherwise I would have just turned around and gone to the local outdoor play park.
Customers who weren’t local to the area weren’t finding this place.
When we found it, parking wasn’t very child-friendly. There was a car repair place using the same parking area and it wasn’t safe for my prone-to-running toddler to walk in so he had to be carried. If I had been on my own we wouldn’t have been able to go in because I also had my newborn in her car seat.
The first impression was it stank of deep fat fryers. Not a great way to greet your customers. Second, you entered into a gloomy, badly-lit corridor to actually pay and get in.
On the door the woman asked if I wanted 60 or 90 minutes of play. That was confusing. I had never been before and had no idea how big it was or how much stuff there was for my toddler to do, so I didn’t know how long we would want to stay. It felt like a barrier instead of being able to just pay and go in. Already the products available were over-complicated compared to other nearby businesses offering the same thing.
We went inside and I decided to order food. The menu was ginormous. That was confusing. I just wanted 6-8 adult options and 2-4 kid options.
Sitting at the damaged table, it was clear someone had put a huge amount of effort into designing and decorating the place… maybe 20 years ago. That was really sad because you could tell the owners really loved the place and that radiated from every careworn inch. It was quite upsetting that such a well-loved business was totally empty.
I know there’s a market for soft play in Donegal, Derry, and the surrounding counties. I know it because the soft plays who aren’t confusing their customers are busy. The ones with clean, well-repaired equipment and great food are even busier. This was the Easter holidays and every other soft play we went to in a 50km radius THAT WEEK was absolutely crammed (did I mention we go to a lot of soft plays?).
If your business is in a busy niche and you’re seeing tumbleweed, the first thing to look at is whether your offer is clear.
This place had all sorts of different printed-out black-and-white A4 posters all over the place with different party offers and information on them. It was an overload. It wasn’t neurodiverse-friendly. And it wasn’t necessary. For a lot of it, a simple “ask about our parties” would suffice, then give people a leaflet.
I’m not going to talk about the poor food quality because it would be fixed with a simpler menu, except to say if you’re making ALCAFE decaf (Aldi own brand instant cheapest “coffee”) the same price as a real Americano, you have issues.
They need to get more soft play customers. Every visit sells the next one to repeat customers.
To fix this business, they need to:
- Check their online location and directions on Google and Apple Maps actually bring customers to their destination.
- Have a really clear sign on entry with their offer. Something like, “soft play: age 2 and under £2.50 per session, age 3-12 £4 per session, babies go free”. Make a session last 90 mins if necessary. They aren’t busy enough to need to time people’s entry and exit and are confusing people by trying. Don’t try to appeal to whiners who say “ooh 90 minutes is too much don’t you have a shorter ticket?” because that devalues your business and makes them think they can negotiate. Just have one offer and let it bring you quality customers. No other business is doing time options, people buy one ticket for the child’s age and they go in.
- Make basic repairs such as tables and chairs, so people aren’t confused about whether this is a high-quality establishment.
- Simplify the menu. Don’t keep adding something onto the menu every time one customer (or their Mother-In-Law) suggests it.
- Put extra info (e.g. for parties) in a leaflet and come up with a single catchy hook to attract customers to it, such as “Ask about our spellbinding Disney parties” or “Ask about our parties with magical surprises”. That way you’re not revealing to the children the thing that will make the party special. Don’t just hand them the leaflet, either. Talk to customers with a brief rundown of the key points.
These simple changes are inexpensive but would have transformed this business into a thriving one instead of a dying one. It all boils down to one thing:
Don’t confuse your customers!