I fought the law…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: April 7th, 2017

A trip to Solihull to the Independent Toy & Gift show provided another good opportunity to assess how people are feeling about trade.

Of course, the late Easter makes direct comparison with last year difficult; a clearer picture should emerge towards the end of April, when a combined tally of March / April numbers will offer a fairer yardstick against which to judge year-on-year trading. If the current spell of good weather continues, I am sure that will help. A health-conscious generation of parents might also be the industry’s friend; my parents had no qualms about me eating my own body weight in chocolate (actually twice my own body weight – I was a skinny kid), but perhaps some modern parents are more inclined to buy toys instead.

In terms of the show itself, visitor numbers seemed on a par with expectations: I’m told that more AIS members than ever turned up, while there was also a decent sprinkling of non-members present. While some trade shows have been finding things tough (I understand that the Harrogate Nursery Fair is said to be seriously considering its future), the AIS show remains a highly focused, productive event for toy suppliers.

There was a lot of excitement around the Fidget product category, products that some may be surprised to see in a toy shop. But I’m reliably informed by retailers who have their finger on the pulse that they’re selling extremely well. Indeed, one emailed me back in January to ask if I knew who was supplying the Fidget Cube and I had to admit I had no idea what on earth he was talking about. It’s a great category for the indies, very much playing to their strengths – I have to say, the spinners look particularly addictive.

Another talking point was the impending Argos / Sainsbury’s structural changes, which I am told should be announced by the end of the month. With two very different cultures, not to mention geographical locations, there will be implications whichever route they go. The broader grocer channel continues to be a conundrum for suppliers: there is no denying that grocers can shift huge volumes, yet people who know far more about these things than I have suggested that all the grocers appear to be cutting toy space back, as well as ‘cutting the tail’ (i.e. focusing on a tighter product range from less suppliers, with apparently greater emphasis on the big toy companies). One grocery account has been singled out as being particularly disappointing so far this year (all guesses welcome).

Plenty of people successfully guessed the mystery retailer who has made repeated appearances in the Blog in recent weeks, starting with its ‘skimming’ problem. This week, BBC Breakfast and Radio 5 both featured news items drawing attention to the practice, albeit focusing on the grocery market and food suppliers – so clearly we’re certainly not the only trade suffering. These news items also revealed the existence of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, a hitherto hermit-like person whose remit is incredibly broad (well worth looking up), yet whose success rate is – I would suspect – negligible: think HMRC with serial tax avoiders like Google and Amazon / Ofgem / other ‘Chocolate Fire Guard’ bodies. Rather like the earlier ‘tea money’ piece, it really is no great secret that these things go on. But how to stop them is another matter entirely.

By the way, on the tea money subject, if anyone thought it was just obscure local Chinese operations being implicated, the name that has been mentioned most frequently is arguably one of the world’s largest testing houses, and one with links to official toy industry bodies to boot. As is often the case, the biggest operators perhaps feel they are somehow ‘outside the law’ and can get away with it. Rest assured you can rely on the Blog to keep on the case (I would be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the role of Watchdog-style crusading journalist to the toy trade).

Finally, following my piece in last week’s Blog about people not returning phone calls, my thanks to Ian Downes for his suggestion that we should consider implementing Return Call Fridays. Any takers? Feel free to give me a call…

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