Tier Four fears…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 16th October 2020

I was driving home from the office a couple of weeks ago when I said to my wife: “Gary Grant has been very quiet recently. I do hope The Entertainer is doing ok.” Based on the latest developments this week, The Entertainer is clearly doing more than OK. In hindsight, his temporary low profile was obviously a by-product of being rather busy, landing a couple of truly massive and ground-breaking partnership deals.

The first coup sees The Entertainer responsible for bringing toys back into Debenhams stores across the UK. The decision by Debenhams to close its toy departments, while at the same time making its entire toy buying team redundant, caused shock waves when we first broke the news in early February (back when the world was still almost normal). Indeed, this was arguably a portent of wider tribulations ahead for Debenhams, which has been teetering on the brink at certain points this year. So, when we received a press release on Monday announcing that new toy departments would be opening in 80 of its stores before Christmas, I was delighted, but also curious. Why the change of heart? Who had physically curated the range, when the toy buying team left the building a long time ago?

A bit of digging online and it soon became apparent who was behind the move – The Entertainer. It’s good to see Debenhams having a strong toy presence, and I am reliably informed that initial sales reads are highly encouraging, both in-store and online. And for anyone concerned about Debenhams’ prospects, The Entertainer has been here before with Mothercare, so I am confident that they know how to structure a deal to protect themselves should things take a wrong turn.

Arguably, the second Entertainer deal is even more intriguing – a trial partnership with Asda to run its toy aisles. The trial, which starts in February, will involve five stores, and is part of a wider initiative by Asda to involve specialist retail brands being given responsibility for key non-food departments. It will be fascinating to see whether the trial is successful, and if it leads to a more permanent arrangement. It would certainly represent a massive game-changer for the UK toy market, not to mention for The Entertainer. I remember interviewing Gary Grant a while back and asking him if they were close to reaching saturation point in terms of potential new locations to open new stores, and whether that would present a ceiling to growth in the UK. Gary told me that they weren’t remotely close to hitting that point, and that there were many other avenues which could offer tremendous growth potential for the company. These latest developments illustrate just how right he was, and how opportunities often come from way outside what people would consider to be ‘your lane’. Spare a thought for the Asda toy buying team though, who must be feeling a little apprehensive (all 16 of them) …

Elsewhere this week, another toy trade show hit the ‘postpone’ button – this time, it was the turn of the Hong Kong Toy Fair, which has moved from its traditional slot in early January to a potential new date at the end of April. On the one hand, it was a logical (unavoidable?) decision to give up on January, with the existing quarantine regulations making the trip all but impossible – unless you were prepared to travel before Christmas and spend the festive season on your own in a hotel room (and I couldn’t see too many takers for that). The proposed new date would see the show coincide with the Hong Kong Gifts & Premium Fair, which has a certain logic to it. Unfortunately, the dates (27-30 April) immediately precede the proposed new dates for the New York Toy Fair (1-4 May), which is less than ideal. Time will tell whether virus conditions allow either or both events to take place, and to what extent the consecutive dates would impact people’s ability to attend both shows.

Indeed, we have our own short-term virus-related concerns to worry about here in the UK, as the spectre of another – albeit temporary – national lockdown looms. For now, tiers 1-3 thankfully don’t mandate for non-essential stores to be closed, but if we were to return to a full-on national lockdown, that would be an entirely different – and far more troubling – scenario. The first lockdown was not great for bricks and mortar retailers, but at least it didn’t happen at a peak selling time for toys: the  two or three week ‘circuit breaker’ being proposed in some quarters for October half-term would arguably not come at a worse time for the toy community. I’m repeatedly being told that people are shopping earlier for Christmas this year: a three-week gap between the end of October and mid-November would have a seismic impact on the strong momentum the toy market is building up. Very much a case of ‘Tier Four fears’ as far as the toy community is concerned…

If the worst were to happen and shops were forced to close temporarily, it would undoubtedly hand a massive advantage to online retailers. Timely, then, that the BTHA reminded everyone this week that the problem we have seen with unsafe products being sold by third-party sellers on online platforms is not going away…in fact, evidence shows it is actually getting worse, which is hugely disappointing. Online platforms have played a pivotal role in keeping the toy market buoyant in this most unusual of years, so I can understand why some suppliers might be reluctant to be seen to be rocking the boat at the moment. But, come on – 60% of the toys tested by the BTHA had serious safety failures and 86% were illegal to sell in the UK. That is simply not good enough. Online platforms have had plenty of time to get their house in order, and despite the reassuring promises, it appears that little or no genuine action is being taken (or if it is being taken, it is largely proving ineffective). I genuinely hope that MPs aren’t too distracted with covid and Brexit to be able to introduce legislation which would help to tackle the problem. Time to earn your wage increase, MP chaps and chapesses…