A Christmas miracle …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 4th December 2020

While ambiguity envelops the hospitality industry and arguments rage over ‘wet pubs’ (or, as we call them round our way, ‘pubs’), thankfully no such confusion is afflicting the retail channel. Since Wednesday, all retailers have been able to welcome shoppers back into stores: the countdown to Christmas has well and truly started – it’s a Christmas miracle and no mistaking. So far, the response in terms of footfall has been somewhat less than miraculous, but it is very early days to draw major conclusions. On Wednesday, analyst Springboard suggested that footfall was up 64.5% compared to last week, but crucially down by 24% compared to the same day last year.

Speaking to a selection of independent toy retailers over the past few days, the word ‘steady’ cropped up repeatedly – although hopefully we’re set for a big weekend coming up. I did get a more enthusiastic response from those retailers who are situated in smaller towns: the feeling is that perhaps the ‘shop local’ trend we saw developing very nicely over the summer is continuing into the festive season. I also hear there were massive tailbacks around Lakeside on Wednesday evening, which suggests that shopping malls which are accessible by car also remain popular. If any other retailers would like to share their experience from this week, my DMs are open (as trendy young journalists say – you can just call or email me if you prefer).

Maybe consumers first thought was to head to their nearest Debenhams in the hope of picking up a bargain? The sad news emerged this week that the department store appears to have run out of potential suitors – and road. Unless a real Christmas miracle happens (and this isn’t a dodgy Channel 5 Christmas movie, so I wouldn’t hold your breath), it appears likely that all remaining 124 stores will close in the not too distant future, with 12,000 jobs at risk. Terrible news at any time, yet alone just before Christmas during a global pandemic – you have to feel for the staff. But as one senior ex-employee pointed out on LinkedIn, this has not come as a huge surprise: “Gross underinvestment, ultra-high personal dividends and the onslaught of digital ecosystems, where profit is a tertiary requirement, have all taken their toll.” It’s hard to find fault with that perspective.

And for those who may be concerned about any potential impact on The Entertainer, which only recently signed a deal to run Debenhams’ toy departments, Gary told me at the time that he had factored the likelihood of this happening into the equation when he conducted negotiations. To be fair, he had prior experience through the Mothercare / ELC saga, so I am sure his team took the appropriate steps to safeguard their stock and financial position.

The other major retail news of the week focused on the return of business rate relief contributions to government coffers. Tesco started the ball rolling, announcing its intention to return £585m to The Treasury and the UK’s devolved administrations. Inevitably, this put huge pressure on rival supermarkets to do the same. Within 24 hours, Morrisons announced that it would be handing back £274m, while Sainsbury’s also joined in with the biggest ever grocery cash back scheme, to the tune of £450m. This left Asda with little choice but to join the party. Otherwise, its abiding image with consumers would be an Asda executive patting his back pocket with a smile on his face, like that gurning bloke on the Asda Christmas ad – and that wouldn’t have been a good look.

I did read a comment from one analyst who suggested that this was a cynical move by Tesco, to put moral pressure on its competitors, who have slimmer margins and would therefore be commercially compromised by the gesture. The same person suggested that the biggest winner from the mass rebate would be Amazon, as it still pays a fraction of the tax that the grocers collectively pay. While I have huge sympathy for that view, I can’t quite bring myself to feel sorry for Sainsbury’s or Asda – right now, the £1.65b is surely better in the public purse than supermarket shareholders’ pockets? Still, kudos to the grocers for their principled stance: wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon read the room too – or is that another ‘don’t hold your breath’ moment…

The December edition of Toy World landed on desks and doormats this week – or at least, on most desks, as the inevitable Christmas post-related delays were compounded by the huge number of parcel deliveries that the Royal Mail now handles over Black Friday week. Hopefully, issues are safely nestling in shops and homes by now, but you can catch up with the digital edition here. As ever, it’s packed full of great content, but don’t just take my word for it (after all, I may be slightly biased), this is what our new contributor Richard Derr from Learning Express had to say on LinkedIn: “I must say Toy World Magazine is a gold mine of information. Pull up a chair, maybe a beer or 2, and learn.” If we can elicit such glowing comments from someone so knowledgeable and heavily immersed in the world of toys, I guess we must be doing something right.

That was our final issue of the year – I am immensely proud of the team that we managed to publish all 12 planned issues on time in 2020, as well as delivering an email newsflash every single day. We were there for the toy community throughout this most unusual of years, and I promise we’ll be there all through next year too – our January issue is shaping up to start the year off with an almighty bang. Keep those small pets well away from the doormat in the first week of January.

Finally, you have to feel sorry for KAP Toys’ Nat Southworth. At the most intense and crazy time of the year for any toy supplier, Nat has had to contend with a second attempted break-in at his office / warehouse in the past month. Thankfully, on this occasion, Nat’s Ring doorbell alerted him to the miscreants, who were trying to ‘borrow’ racking from his yard (I am sure they were planning to bring it back after Christmas). As they pulled round the corner in their getaway vehicle (it sounds like a scene from The Sweeney – and I thought Harrogate was a nice area!), they were greeted by a thick blue line of waiting police vans, ready to apprehend them. So, all’s well that end’s well (apart from countless hours of writing statements for police at the busiest time of the year) – maybe Christmas miracles aren’t confined to cheesy festive movies after all? I wonder if Nat is currently negotiating who will play him in the movie adaptation…