Tea and sympathy…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: March 24th, 2017

It’s good to see that Toy Fair has already received a healthy number of applications for next year’s show – around two thirds of this year’s exhibitors have already applied for space at the 2018 event, which is a very encouraging level for this stage of the year. Those who have not quite got around to filling the form in need to do so by the end of March to qualify for the early booking discount. You can submit your application here.

It’s nice to see Neil Bandtock return to the toy world, having taken over as managing director at Epoch Making Toys. Neil joins Epoch at a great time: not only is it the 30th anniversary of Sylvanian Families this year, but there are also several exciting new developments which will be announced shortly. We wish him all the best in his new role and look forward to bringing you more information on the new initiatives in the coming months.

I was sad to hear that the Toy Box in Godalming is to close. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-familiar tale: declining footfall, more consumers shopping online, parking problems, high rent and business rates – the perfect storm for independent retailers. Throw in the fact that consumers are spending more of their discretionary income on experiences and leisure pursuits than on consumer goods; the rise in the living wage and the whole currency rollercoaster and it’s fair to say that, while conditions are challenging for every kind of retailer, 2017 could turn out to be a real watershed year for many independents across the country.

Of course, it isn’t just toy shops that are facing these huge challenges: Godalming has apparently lost eight independent shops already this year (and I can’t believe it had a ridiculous number to begin with). There is a lovely little tea-shop in my own village of Croxley Green which recently put up a heartfelt post on Facebook, detailing the difficulties it faces as an independent business. It was a brutally honest, eye-opening piece, deconstructing its economic tribulations in minute detail. It was particularly interesting to note that the Groupon deal which brings the shop its largest volume of customers may have to be discontinued, because the shop is perilously close to losing money on each customer which purchases it. There were echoes of the pain felt by toy independents last Christmas at the height of the majors’ discounting dogfight.

This part of the post caught my eye: “The shortfall is not due to lack of customers or dissatisfaction with the product. Maybe it comes down to the question of whether our pricing structure is correct? Everyone loves a bargain, but perhaps it simply isn’t possible to offer a reduction when our margins are already slim? Perhaps the time has come for us to pull back on some of these deals and discounts. It may mean a little less busy-ness, but the alternative will surely be us going out of business.”

Whether you’re a toy retailer or a tea-shop, the conundrum is the same: is it ever viable to make a sale which generates little or no profit, even if it is keeping the customer happy? I won’t pretend there is an easy answer to these challenges. I make it my personal mission not to buy from Amazon if at all possible, but an awful lot of people would have to take a similar stance to make a real difference.

I go back to Peter Brown’s seminal comments, made at a Toy of the Year award ceremony many years ago, when he suggested positive discrimination in favour of specialist toy retailers was the only way they could survive. After the event, I remember speaking to many suppliers who were sceptical about the idea, suggesting that there was no way they could justify such an approach internally, yet alone explain it their major customers. And yet, all these years on, I can’t help thinking that – no matter how difficult it would be to implement in practice – Peter was essentially right. This might be the year for suppliers to look through their ranges and try to find a way to give specialists some weapons to at least make a decent fight of It – otherwise High Streets across the land will just end up full of charity shops, bookmakers and pound shops. And no -one wants every High Street to end up looking like Luton, do they?





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