Rolling up our sleeves …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 11th December 2020

It all appears to be going to plan. We saw a steady few days’ trading after shops re-opened in the middle of last week  – not so much ‘Wild Wednesday’ as ‘Solid but not spectacular Wednesday’, although that is neither alliterative nor a phrase which is likely to catch on. However, the weekend was – by all accounts – an absolute belter, with sales dwarfing Black Friday numbers to become the biggest shopping event of 2020. So far, so good.

Encouragingly, shoppers also seem to have received the ‘shop early for Christmas’ message loud and clear. According to NPD, November UK toy sales rose by a healthy 11%, to take the year to date increase to 8%. Given everything that has happened, that is a truly remarkable performance. Of course, we still have two crucial weeks’ trading before the Big Day, which could ultimately impact where that number finally ends up…

So, now the fun really starts. The Entertainer’s Gary Grant has popped up frequently on TV and radio this week, explaining why the toy industry – along with many other retail markets – is facing unavoidable product shortages. His message was loud and clear: shoppers should make every effort to finalise their festive purchases before stock runs out (if it hasn’t already done so). Gary even made the BBC six o’clock news on Wednesday, so he was certainly doing his best to spread the word far and wide. I did my bit by getting up early to appear on the Radio Solent Breakfast Show, just to really hammer home the message to Hampshire and Dorset-based consumers.

For once, it was very easy to explain why toy stores are facing a sell-out across so many lines. The supply chain has faced a perfect storm in recent months: many orders were deferred or cancelled when the first lockdown was introduced back in March. By the time they were reinstated, a backlog was already building up at production facilities, exacerbated by labour shortages in China, an inevitable consequence of the pandemic. Even when product was shipped, it faced a monumental challenge to get into docks in the UK, which were flooded with PPE stocks (probably ordered by someone a government MP once met in a pub), causing some ships to divert to Rotterdam or some other distant European port. No wonder many of this year’s hottest toy lines are in desperately short supply.

We’ve also seen a major increase in the cost of shipping from China, which has left many suppliers horrified. Prices have risen from £2100 for a 40ft container in October to around £6400 currently. It has been estimated that the rate could rise as high as £10,000 in January, and stay sky high until after Chinese New Year – and possibly even for a while beyond that. It’s a nightmare for suppliers, who have to decide whether to attempt to pass on the increased cost to retailers or try to swallow it – very much a lose / lose choice. And then, of course, we have the spectre of Brexit looming over us – a subject I will no doubt return to in future Blogs. Thank goodness that the toy industry is facing these challenges against a backdrop of having had a good year – not all retail markets have enjoyed the kind of year we have, so we should probably count our blessings in that respect.

Gary Grant wasn’t the only member of the toy community to have appeared on TV this week – a veritable cavalcade of toy industry luminaries popped up on The Toys That Made Christmas Great, a toy-focused nostalgia-fest which was broadcast on Channel 5 last Sunday evening. Among the great, good and distinctly average (I’m mostly referring to the z list celebrities and ‘comedians’ there), myself and Rachael were delighted to fly the flag for Toy World and the toy industry, which was flaunting its lockdown haircuts and ‘garden working’ tans for all the world to see. Like all TV programmes of this nature, there was occasionally an uneasy balance between business-focused contributors and the aforementioned comedians, who are there to bring a bit of levity and frivolity to proceedings, even if they had only seen the toy they were talking for the first time two minutes before recording their piece to camera. But despite this, I thought the show turned out well, bringing back those warm and fuzzy memories which toys are so good at evoking. If the show helped consumers feel happy and positive about toys in general, our work here is done – unlike toy retailers, who have the two biggest weeks of the year ahead of them.

Actually, as tortuous as that metaphor is, it’s not entirely accurate – we have nine working days left to finalise our bumper January issue, so our challenge is probably on a par with yours, without the screaming children (although, come to think of it…). But like you, we’ll be rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it. Then, come the New Year, I’ll hopefully be rolling up my sleeves for an entirely different reason – to get the vaccine.

Let’s face it, January is going to be very strange next year. Normally, just as my New Year’s Eve hangover is subsiding, I am heading to Heathrow to board a plane for Hong Kong, the start of a whirlwind six weeks which traditionally also takes in Olympia, Nuremberg and New York. This year, we will all get to experience January in the same way the majority of the population does. I’ll have to help take the Christmas decorations down, for once.

But with a vaccine rollout promised for the early part of 2021, we can certainly start to look beyond that, in the hope that a semblance of normality is on the horizon. Quite how far away is unfortunately still unclear: if you’re looking for clues, the fact that the world’s largest trade show organiser Informa has chosen to push its two leading licensing shows back – Vegas moves from May to August and BLE from October to November – suggests that while there is a realistic chance of trade fairs returning next year, it’s still unclear when that will be. Could the AIS show (April), Toymaster, Distoy or New York (May) or even Nuremberg (July) be the first toy event to take place in 2021? Like many of you, I am very much looking forward to meeting up with industry friends and colleagues again as soon as it is feasible – and safe – to do so. Until then, the Toy World team will carry on hammering Zoom, Teams, emails and good old-fashioned phone calls to stay in touch with as many of you as possible over the coming weeks. Let’s hope they’re truly wild weeks, not tame ones.

And tune in next week for the final Blog of the year, when I’ll be revealing who has made it on to my naughty and nice lists for 2020 …