Essentially…. it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 13th November 2020

So, how was everyone’s first week back in lockdown? Somehow, it feels different this time round, and not just because schools and universities are still open, making it all feel a bit half-hearted. Meanwhile, as the government is busy playing ‘My Little Crony’ (seriously, Hasbro should sue…), retail businesses are left to squabble over the sheer inconsistency of it all. Indies are understandably grumbling that they have been forced to close, while the likes of Ryman’s and The Range are allowed to stay open to sell toys. Come on – if Ryman’s is ‘essential’, Donald Trump is a good loser.

It’s not just the indie retailers that are feeling fractious, as Nat Southworth eloquently pointed out on my LinkedIn feed this week: “Please also spare a thought for all the suppliers who committed to stock ahead of the lockdown and have containers arriving and warehouses full of product that should be flowing to stores and consumers. The shops are at the front end, but there are a lot of other businesses impacted through the supply chain. Let us all hope that we experience a MEGA December!” Indeed, I’m sure we’re all hoping for that.

I doubt it makes specialist toy retailers feel any better when they read that sales are soaring at B&M, another retailer which has escaped the lockdown regulations, while they can also go to their local supermarket and see aisles of toys packed with customers, buying the very products they could be selling themselves, if only they were open. What level playing field…?

And then there is the catch-22 of Amazon; many specialist retailers have sensibly turned to eCommerce during lockdowns, yet this week Amazon has been hit with anti-trust charges, after being accused of systematically collecting data from independent companies and vendors and using it to gain an edge over them. The only surprise is that it took EU regulators two years to come to this conclusion – I would have thought it fell under the ‘blindingly obvious’ category of things Amazon has been up to, although I should probably point out that Amazon has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that “no firm cares more for small businesses.” This comment prompted some choice replies on my LinkedIn feed – I particularly liked the observation about Amazon levying “baseless fines” on its vendors which have to be fought on an individual case-by-case basis (one small company owner claimed she had successfully won 50 cases in the last few weeks alone!). Not the way companies generally treat customers they “care” about, surely?

Talking to a few indies this week, consumers seem to be behaving a little differently during the latest lockdown: it appears that many of the enquiries they are receiving are for products which are proving difficult to track down in the retailers that remain open. Interestingly, one of the main lines being cited is the JJ doll from Cocomelon, which I don’t remember appearing on many of this year’s festive top toy lists. Some may wonder whether this suggests that these lists are more about eliciting marketing support from major suppliers or promoting toys that retailers have heavily stocked up on, rather than predicting top toys per se. Personally, I prefer to look at it as a perfect example of the delicious unpredictability of the toy market. After all, if this hot line passed all the main toy retailers by only a few short weeks ago, it shows just how difficult it is to accurately gauge the most sought-after toys, even when you are a bona fide toy ‘expert’. And as for the indie retailer who was asked if he had any ‘Roadblocks Lego’, full marks for tact and diplomacy in his reply (I wonder how many supermarket store assistants would have been able to work out what the customer was looking for…).

Two of our biggest stories of the week have featured The Entertainer, a retailer which has certainly not been resting on its laurels recently. Our article about The Entertainer’s spat with the Westfield shopping centres drew a huge audience – who knew that rental disputes were that fascinating to so many people? I understand that the two parties are now in conversation to resolve the issue – hopefully common sense will prevail.

The Entertainer’s other major news was its tie-up with M&S to supply toys via its online platform. The deal will see around 250 products available through the M&S website – mostly ELC lines, along with a sprinkling of branded and licensed items. So, the big question on everyone’s lips is whether this deal is ‘for life, or just for Christmas’? No official word from either side, but my guess is that both parties are assessing the performance over the festive period and seeing if the partnership offers a good foundation to build on for the future. Who knows, the relationship may even migrate from the online realm to the physical stores – stranger things have certainly happened. Either way, it opens another avenue for selling toys which has recently been closed off, so that can only be a good thing for the toy market.

Right now, I suspect most of us are doing our best to look ahead. No doubt the tantalizing announcement of an imminent vaccine has us all excited – providing, of course, the government doesn’t mess this one up too (so basically, I look forward to catching up with you all again in 2025). Despicable Dom and his Minions are leaving Downing Street (seriously, Universal should sue…). Suppliers and retailers are looking forward to a strong festive period, then finding a way to navigate Toy Fair Season when there won’t actually be any Toy Fairs. Hopefully, we can play our part in supporting the industry in that respect – the Toy World team is spending most of its working (and waking) hours on our essential January issue right now. It’s hard enough to pull a gargantuan beast like that together at the best of times – and this is hardly the best of times. I’m sure we’re all experiencing the joys of making decisions and finalizing activity when our teams are spread far and wide. So, thank you to all those companies which have helped us enormously by confirming their participation so that we can plan ahead – and hopefully there are plenty more to come on board yet. We’ve hit record readership and engagement levels this year, and January is always our most-read issue of the year – and next year, with buyers not spending a fortnight in Hong Kong or having to prep for London and Nuremberg, they’ll have even more time to digest our ‘bumper’ issue. Toy Fairs may not be taking place, but buyers still need to buy – and we will make sure they can read about all the important new 2021 launches in this issue. To paraphrase one of the stars of Lockdown 1, all the cool cats and kittens will be in there – as they say in all corny sales pitches, “don’t miss out.”