A better class of problem …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 30th October 2020

I called a client in Italy earlier this week and asked him how things were there – his reply was short and to the point: “It’s a giant mess.” To be fair, he was laughing when he said it and I doubt he is alone in his assessment of the ongoing handling of the pandemic, and in thinking it’s good to try to retain a modicum of humour about the whole sh*tshow.

France and Germany have just gone back into lockdown (with French toy stores now closed until the start of December), while clamour is growing here in England for the government to follow Wales and Ireland into some form of ‘circuit breaker’ scenario. With only eight weeks to Christmas, it is not just UK toy retailers who will be watching the situation nervously; so many businesses depend on the festive trading period.

No surprise then that in addition to bringing the annual DreamToys media event forward by two weeks, chairman of the DreamToys committee Gary Grant was keen to push the ‘buy early for Christmas” message to the media. He’s not wrong either: it was no marketing ploy or the voice of someone crying wolf – consumers would certainly do well to heed his sage advice.

The toy industry has often been accused by the media of artificially creating stock shortages to drive demand, something I have robustly denied whenever interviewed on the subject. Why would a toy company deliberately set itself up to sell less than it could? This year’s conditions have provided a perfect storm: when lockdown first hit the UK in March, many retailers cancelled or deferred orders, unsure of what the coming months would bring. Production was lost across the globe – and indeed, I have been hearing rumours coming out of China that there are still major capacity challenges, as a result of staffing issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And the toy trade has performed far better during and post-lockdown than we could ever have hoped, putting even further pressure on stock of in-demand items. Of course, the fact that toy sales – and many toy retailers – are absolutely flying at the moment can very much be filed under ‘a better class of problem’, but you can see why retailers are urging consumers to buy early to avoid disappointment.

Furthermore, should we be forced into a new national lockdown, the idea that shoppers will just be able to turn to online delivery is rather optimistic – the delivery system is already struggling to cope, despite considerable resources being added, and a further surge in demand beyond what is already anticipated would surely be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We’ve already seen strong Q3 performances – Mattel, Hasbro and Hornby all released positive trading updates this week. Companies are also continuing to expand their portfolios – the acquisition of the Rubik’s brand by Spin Master this week being a prime example of a company pushing forward rather than playing it safe. September and October have been good months for the toy market, so let’s hope that consumers are paying attention and we see strong sales in November too – ‘a bird in the hand’ and all that.

Elsewhere, global toy show organisers have started to firm up dates for postponed 2021 events as well as 2022 shows. Both Nuremberg and New York will be returning to their traditional January / February slots in 2022, although there is a potential twist with Nuremberg – as exclusively revealed by Toy World earlier this week – with the organiser seriously considering moving the show forward a day, so that it will run from Tuesday – Saturday rather than Wednesday-Sunday. Assuming the proposed change is approved by the regulatory board, I suspect it will find favour with the majority of UK and international exhibitors and visitors.

Meanwhile, the postponed 2021 Nuremberg Toy Fair has been pencilled in for 20th-24th July. There has been plenty of lively debate about the new date on our social media feeds – inevitably, some people are in favour, while some are not. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out with each of the postponed events (quick recap – Hong Kong Toy Fair has moved to the end of April and New York to the start of May). Naturally, the first major hurdle is whether the prevailing virus situation allows any of the events to go ahead – should that hurdle be cleared, we can debate the respective merits of the new timeslots to our hearts’ content.

By contrast, the London Toy Fair has joined the Australian Toy Fair in skipping a year and going straight to 2022. In the case of the BTHA, it has also declined to organise a digital event to compensate. There has been a bit of low-level grumbling about that, but as I hinted last week, I can completely see why the BTHA has chosen that course. We’re all replacing physical meetings with digital ones, but what is the role of a toy association or exhibition organiser in facilitating these meetings…can’t they just as easily be arranged directly between buyers and sellers? Setting up a brand new digital event would presumably involve considerable investment in cash and peoplepower terms, and there is no way to amortise the investment – money, time or resources – across multiple events, as Festival of Licensing organizer Informa has done (with four events in the past month alone). In my very humble opinion, the BTHA has done the sensible thing and left it to suppliers to sort out their own retail zoom meetings. Admittedly, I feel for new or smaller players which don’t necessarily have the same established retail relationships – the shows offer them a valuable platform, and they may potentially find it harder to secure digital meetings. But on balance, I believe the BTHA is right to focus on what it does best.

Finally, a few people got very excited this week when a random tweet suggested that Woolworths might be making a comeback. Quite a few media operations got taken in – perhaps because it wasn’t April 1st, it didn’t occur to them that the whole thing might be one giant hoax? To be fair, the signs were there for all to see: Very owns the Woolworths name, why on earth would it license it out to a business it had no control over, yet alone one which was proposing opening only “2 or 3 stores.” Perhaps the clincher was that the post misspelt the Woolworths name – not once, but twice in a single tweet. I appreciate that people are keen to read some good news at the moment, and there is an abiding fondness for Woolworths – even after all these years, it still has a place in the nation’s heart. But the world has moved on, perhaps we should celebrate what we have – there are many fine toy retailers which the kids of today will reminisce about in decades to come. Anyway, you wouldn’t even want to nick the pic’n’mix at the moment, when you have no idea who has been diving in before you. Let it go people…