Show Down … it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 23rd October 2020

The worst-kept secret in the UK toy community is finally out: it has officially been confirmed that next year’s London Toy Fair has been cancelled. It has been widely known for weeks that the show wouldn’t be able to take place in 2021, but complex negotiations between the BTHA and Olympia had to be successfully concluded before the news could be made public. Of course, it is a massive shame for the BTHA: I genuinely feel for them, but realistically it was the only logical course of action. Both our daughters live in London and right now, if we wanted to see them, our only option would be to walk around a park with them. Unless we all fancy setting up trestle tables in Kensington Gardens, I’m afraid running a conventional trade fair is just not feasible. There is the slimmest of chances that things may be better by January, but a far greater possibility that London could be in Tier Three, or that the whole of the England could be in a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown by then (better then than November or December, that’s for sure).

It’s not nice to announce a show cancellation, but never more so than when it’s the main event for the UK toy community. I attended my first London Toy Fair in 1981. I have attended every day of every show since then – well over six months of my life has been spent at the show (I can’t be precise about the number of days, because I forget when it went from five days to four, then from four days to three). I have made and cemented countless business relationships and friendships over the years, and seen thousands of amazing products. I went on my first date with my wife during Toy Fair, and we got engaged during the show a year later. I even once turned down the chance to spend an evening in a Bushey wine bar with George Michael, when he was going to give me some tips about how to make it in the music business….because it was Toy Fair and that was more important (my bandmate went instead, and look where we ended up). The show has been cancelled outright, not postponed, so it’s a case of roll on 2022 – that will be one amazing show. I also wholeheartedly agree with the BTHA’s decision not to offer a digital alternative – more on that in next week’s Blog.

Of course, I am hugely fond of all the international trade shows too: the wonderful cities of Hong Kong, Nuremberg and New York are like second homes to me. My first ever time on a plane was my flight to Nuremberg in 1982 – the furthest I had travelled before that was the Isle of Wight. January and February will be very different next year, that’s for sure.  I love visiting all the shows and I find them hugely valuable. But the toy business must go on, even if trade shows can’t. Retailers still need to buy, and suppliers need to get their new products in front of them – and we will play our part in helping to do that.

Preparations are already well underway to utilise the channels which remain open: one retailer we spoke to this week described his office as being like a parcel depot, as samples have already begun to arrive from across the world, while he also admitted that his buying team is setting up Zoom and Teams meetings around the clock. Toy companies will be exploring their options too – in Germany, it appears that key suppliers will be coordinating the opening of their showrooms in January and February, in a similar vein to the way West Coast US suppliers operate in LA in September. Watch this space for more news on that initiative in the coming weeks.

Back in the UK, it turns out that last week’s Blog ‘Tier Four Fears’ headline was mildly prophetic (it’s almost as if I put some thought into these things…), as national news this week has been dominated by the lockdown tier system. Wales and Ireland have both introduced ‘firebreak’ lockdowns – Wales has introduced a total lockdown for two weeks, while Ireland has moved beyond Tier Four (thus totally ruining last week’s carefully constructed pun) into Tier Five, with measures set to last for up to six weeks until 2nd December. From a toy industry perspective, this could potentially have been disastrous – however, the Irish government has thankfully been persuaded that toy stores should be allowed to remain open for click and collect orders and home deliveries, while other non-essential retailers have been forced to close. Whoever in the Irish toy community has the ear of the Taoiseach and / or influence in the Irish corridors of power, fair play to them.

Meanwhile, UK cities continue to negotiate their upgrades / downgrades into Tiers Two and Three, attempting to navigate a government financial support system which seems haphazard at best. You may be thinking ‘why is he banging on about this’, but it matters: footfall in Liverpool slipped back to July levels this week, after being placed in Tier Three. In general, major cities have been struggling with footfall throughout the pandemic, as tourists and office workers have largely been absent. Hamleys has made a quarter of the staff in its Regent Street branch redundant, as there is no sign of a resurgence in visitors to the capital. And don’t forget, London is only in Tier Two, not Tier Three – for retailers, as we have seen with Liverpool, the increase in a Tier level can have a significant impact.

Before the news about Toy Fair broke, I had plenty more puns up my sleeve for the Blog headline this week: ‘Tiers of a Clown’ was my first thought (for obvious reasons). I could have gone with ‘Tiers are not enough’, although that would have implied I feel they should go further, and with my toy trade hat on, I couldn’t countenance that with the festive season looming. I am probably more in the ‘No more Tiers (enough is enough)’ camp right now – bricks and mortar retail needs all the help and support it can get, and we all know how important the last 4-6 weeks of trading are to the toy industry. Yes, online retailers (and those physical retailers with a strong online presence) would have a field day if England joined Wales and Ireland in a circuit breaker lockdown, but how long would it take before the logistics and delivery system became totally overwhelmed (rhetorical question – the answer is ‘not long at all’). Let’s hope that can be avoided this side of Christmas.

Finally, I was very sad to hear that Ian Cuthbert passed away earlier this week. The warm tributes we received from his many industry friends and colleagues show just how well loved and respected he was – a sad loss. No doubt we’ll raise a glass to his memory when we can all meet again.