A traveller’s tale.…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 23rd February 2018

I have never availed myself of the opportunity to use wi-fi on a plane before. I have always seen flights as the perfect chance to relax, watch a movie or two, listen to music and generally have some ‘me time.’ Last week’s trip to New York saw me break the habit – and now I fear I’ve crossed the Rubicon and may never go back. As it turned out, I am glad I was contactable, as two major stories broke while I was mid-Atlantic; the first concerned further twists in the ongoing Toys R Us saga, the second was the ‘shock’ news that Saban had decided to move the Power Rangers licence over to Hasbro after it had spent the past 25 years with Bandai. So, while attempting to watch Despicable Me 3, I found myself sending and receiving a volley of emails in an attempt to get to the bottom of both stories.

The Toys R Us saga remains ongoing: while there have been potentially significant developments in both the UK and US this week, a definitive resolution is yet to be reached in either territory. As far as the UK goes, a £15m VAT bill hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the retailer; the fact it needs to be settled by the end of the month has led observers to suggest that any potential acquisition deal will need to be finalised by then. Sky News threw The Entertainer’s hat into the ring briefly, prompting Gary Grant to email me with a firm denial – which, to be fair, I was completely unsurprised to receive. So, we revert back to waiting for either Hilco or Alteri – the two restructuring specialists – to decide whether they’re going to a) make a bid, b) wait until the chain falls into administration and see what they can pick up, or c) walk away. As for the US, reports by credible media outlets suggest that a further 200 stores may have to be closed if lenders are to be convinced that TRU has more chance of paying back its debts by continuing to trade, rather than liquidating and selling its assets. If they go ahead, these closures would be in addition to the 180 already announced, which would reduce the US store count to just over half the number it was before bankruptcy proceedings were initiated.

As for Power Rangers, according to my sources, there was a hard-fought, four-way battle to secure the brand, with Hasbro emerging victorious, even though only a few weeks ago, another company was believed to be in pole position. In the end, the decision seems to have been driven by Haim Saban personally, with his desire to ultimately sell the brand a few years down the line likely to have been a key factor. Equally, Hasbro’s desire to increase its IP ownership will have made Power Rangers an enticing proposition. Much has been made of the strong relationship between Haim Saban and Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner, who ran Bandai Namco in the US back in the 90’s; while I have no doubt that played a crucial part in proceedings, I think it is fair to say that the size of the cheque would also have been an important consideration. Bandai will look after the brand for the next 14 months, so we’ll have to wait until next year to see what Hasbro will do with their new acquisition.

As for the New York Toy Fair (to which I was headed amidst all this breaking news), the show – like the US toy market – has definitely got its mojo back. With established US and Canadian companies such as Spin Master, MGA, WowWee and upcoming operations like Wicked Cool, Basic Fun and Play Monster all growing nicely last year, there was a real buzz that largely over-rode any negativity surrounding Toys R Us. Nowhere was this more evident than at the TOTY Award ceremony, a glamorous upscale event attended by 700 people. I’ll be honest, a few of the category winners came as a surprise to me; I’m not sure if that reflected the intrinsic differences between the UK and US markets, or the fact that the voting process employed criteria that were outside my frame of reference. Interestingly, the overall Toy of the Year award was shared for the first time ever; the joint recipients were Fingerlings and LOL Surprise, which were both worthy winners. In some ways, I can see why it was hard to choose between the pair; LOL won the sales battle, while Fingerlings arguably triumphed in the media arena. So maybe a split decision was a fair result? In the past, I get the impression that MGA has felt that there was some sort of conspiracy theory preventing them from winning; in fairness, had they not have walked away with a top award this year, I think they would have had a strong case.

The TOTY Awards were also memorable for several lively speeches, in which ‘beef’ was most definitely the order of the day. Zuru’s Nick Mowbray kicked things off by thanking Isaac Larian “for all the publicity on LinkedIn”, while Isaac responded by thanking “WowWee for sticking it up that bald guy from Zuru.” Dull it most certainly wasn’t! On a friendlier note, Stuart Grant was thanked in two separate speeches – I’m not sure that any major US buyers got a mention, so for an international buyer to be recognised in that way was quite something.

Back in the UK, I hear that Argos trading director Andy Hannan will be leaving the business shortly. I don’t know whether this development heralds another round of integration / rationalisation within the Argos and Sainsbury’s empire, but it does mean that no Argos trading directors have survived the merger process, which in itself is an interesting scenario.

Finally, I will leave you with this rather wonderful traveller’s tale from New York: a friend – who shall remain nameless – woke up to his alarm at 8am for a 9am appointment, feeling a little rough. He felt this was very unfair, as he had been in bed by midnight and shown admirable restraint at the Spin Master party the night before. He hit the off button rather than the snooze on the alarm and woke up again at 8.45. Cross with himself, he texted his appointment to say he was going to be 15 mins late, quickly shaved and dashed downstairs to an empty lobby and a dark street…he’d left the phone on UK time, so the alarm had gone off five hours early. As he pointed out, “when will Apple work out an app that modifies the time of NY appointments arranged in the UK, rather than me having to leave the phone on UK time?!”

I think we can all sympathise – there but by the grace of God…