A bumpy ride… it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 12th April 2019

Although it has been a fascinating glimpse into the turbulence which continues to buffet the retail channel, I do wonder whether we have given a disproportionate amount of coverage to Debenhams – in truth, not exactly the biggest player in the toy market. I’ll just round things off by saying that it is just as well that Mike Ashley is not a sore loser, or heaven knows what he might have come out with this week. It’s also interesting that the man being rumoured to head up the restructuring process at Debenhams – Alvarez and Marsals’ Stefaan Vansteenkiste – was previously interim CEO at Dutch toy retailer Intertoys, which has had its own tribulations over the past year. He’s clearly an expert at turning things round – a ‘specialist in failure’ you might even say. There have been suggestions that major changes aren’t likely to happen until next year, which provides brief respite for staff and customers, but the reality is that store closures and job losses are sadly inevitable.

In contrast, it’s good to be able to report some positive news: former Shop Direct buyer Neil Mitchell has been appointed as UK & Ireland area manager for KidKraft. It’s a newly-created role, as the company has previously managed the territory from Amsterdam – which suggests that not all international companies are avoiding investing in the UK until Brexit is resolved. That said, I do know of other instances where some overseas investors and toy companies are holding fire, so I hope that fortune favours the brave and rewards those companies which have not taken to hiding under a desk during these uncertain times (metaphorically, or quite possibly physically in some cases). Congratulations to Neil on his new role.

I’d also like to wish all the best from the Toy World team to Majen Immink, the BTHA’s director of fairs and special events, who headed off on maternity leave this week. Majen has timed it well (or badly, depending which way you look at it), as she’ll be returning in mid-October, just as planning for next year’s Toy Fair kicks up a gear or ten. In the meantime, exhibitors will be left in the very capable hands of Rebecca Deeming.

Tesco’s latest results were another bright spot this week – the retailer recorded its 13th consecutive quarter of like-for-like sales growth, with a 1.7% increase in the final quarter. Hopefully its toy aisles will enjoy a similar uplift this year: the grocery channel as a whole didn’t have its best year in toy terms in 2018, but the ongoing strong performance in Tesco’s core business may have a positive impact on its commitment to the toy market.

After a brief absence, Amazon makes a welcome return to the Blog this week – but sadly, in their case, I’m afraid absence hasn’t made the heart grow fonder. I can’t be too specific, as I wouldn’t want to implicate any particular sources, but it seems that some of the old tricks I’ve touched on before are still going on: significant sums of money being taken out of accounts without authorisation, huge increases in terms being requested for ‘services provided’ etc. There is an ongoing feeling amongst suppliers that Amazon is ‘encouraging’ them to switch to third-party vendor status through these and other actions. As an alternative, some toy suppliers have apparently bitten the bullet and paid hefty sums for an in-house manager at Amazon, which I guess reflects just how important it is to have someone on the inside who knows how to get the best out of the operation. It will be interesting to see if this proves to be a commercially viable long-term strategy for suppliers – it’s certainly a very different form of retail ‘contribution’.

Last week’s Blog referred to a potential merger in the licensing field – judging by the feedback, some people have heard similar rumours, although other names have also entered the frame in connection with a possible deal. Incidentally, I wasn’t referring to Warner Media integrating Cartoon Network and the other Turner networks into a single, combined business unit. While the company has denied that the move is a cost-cutting exercise, the precise structure of the new unit and the personnel involved haven’t yet been announced – although, as the move has been a couple of years in the making, you would think there would be news quite soon. Hence we chose to wait until the new structure is confirmed before running with the story – there are some good people at Turner, so hopefully they will be retained to help make the transition as seamless as possible. More news on this and the other ‘secret’ deal if/ when it transpires.

It seems that the EU has a far more developed sense of humour than our own government, after it agreed a Brexit extension that runs out on Halloween. It seems to me that there’s a certain irony about the timing: people already have to spend the evening being scared out of their wits by terrifying, hideous creatures of the night, now they have Halloween to worry about at the same time. I will be entering into the spirit of the occasion by dressing as Jacob Rees-Mogg to hand out sweets this year – if that doesn’t frighten the life out of everyone who knocks at the door, nothing will.

Finally, I’d just like to thank everyone for the kind messages after Watford reached the Cup Final last weekend. My phone started buzzing shortly after the final whistle signalled the end of an amazing game (apologies to anyone I spoke to on Monday if I sounded a little croaky). Now all I have to do is get hold of a ticket for the Final…and if we win that, I may well have to resort to sign language at the Toymaster show this year!