I’ve been around the toy trade for a while. As, indeed, many of you have. I suspect we like to think that we have a reasonable grasp of the way the toy trade works by now. Yet, somehow, the delicious unpredictability of the toy market is never far away, just one of the reasons why it’s such a fascinating industry in which to ply one’s trade. All that we think we know can go out of the window in an instant.
Nine months ago, how many people would have predicted the seismic impact which spinners would have on first half trading? Fair enough, we’ve seen plenty of crazes come out of nowhere before, but rarely has something so left-field, so resolutely ‘non-toy’, become such a big seller through the mainstream toy channel.
On the other side of the coin, it would have been a brave person who would have predicted the lacklustre performance of merchandise associated with this summer’s movies, or that each of the ‘big 3’ toy companies would be tracking down at this stage of the year – even Lego, a company which has been on such as incredible run over the past decade that many people wondered whether it would ever end. They’ll bounce back, of course, as undoubtedly will Hasbro and Mattel – as will movie merchandise (eventually). When you’ve been in the trade for as long as I have, you’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth many times.
Equally counter-intuitive is the news that the outdoor category has under-performed in recent months. For once, we can’t blame that on the good old British climate! Admittedly, the best burst of weather came early, long before the kids broke up from school. Maybe parents were holding back potential purchases until the summer holidays, when the weather – while not atrocious – hasn’t quite lived up to its early season promise. Perhaps there was a post-election consumer wobble in July? Either way, the numbers don’t lie: the outdoor category is down 6% in value and 18% in volume year-to-date, equating to a £12m drop. With toy sales down £18m so far this year, two thirds of the decline has come from one sector, with action figures also contributing significantly to the drop (£11m down). Even though the overall toy market bounced back nicely in the first week of August (+5%), outdoor bucked the trend by dropping by 20%. Ouch.
Interestingly, one prominent specialist retailer flagged this trend up to me well over a month ago, observing that the initial burst of good weather hadn’t moved the dial on outdoor toys as he would usually expect. As, indeed, we would all expect.
And perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that profits at Toys R US’ UK arm jumped by a whopping 82% last year, despite its sales falling. A 10% profit on turnover is a pretty decent performance, whichever way you look at it. In fairness, I’ve had encouraging feedback from numerous suppliers about Toys R Us this year; with ‘traders’ (as opposed to ‘money men’) at the helm of both the UK and European operations, perhaps it is finally beginning to turn a corner.
As a journalist, these kinds of quirks and curveballs are a boon. A good magazine wants to be able to create content which challenges preconceptions: I won’t lie, my heart sinks when I read an article – whether in our magazine or a competitor’s – which states the bleeding obvious. Over the years, I have developed a severe allergy to ‘No sh*t sherlock’ copy. The way this year is going, expecting the unexpected is arguably the best position to adopt, and these trading anomalies are certainly giving us plenty to get our teeth into.
Another unexpected piece of news came from Vivid this week, where co-founder Paul Weston has stepped down from his role as chairman to set up his own consultancy, Press Play. There are very few people who come close to possessing Paul’s considerable industry knowledge, experience and contacts, so I’m sure he’ll continue to make a huge contribution to both Vivid and the wider toy community going forward.
Although, in a sea of unpredictability, it’s good to know that you can rely on some things: like a retailer putting Star Wars stock on shelf two weeks before the official embargo date. Every little helps…