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Alibaba and the 40 (thousand?) thieves…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 18th December 2015

Last week’s Friday Blog certainly seemed to strike a chord – based on conversations I have had with a number of well-positioned people, it seems that the unfortunate saga involving B&M Bargains and fake copies of the Pie Face game is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, a report by the EU’s largest intellectual property agency released this week suggests that EU toy companies lose as much as 1.4bn Euros a year due to counterfeit products. I have no idea how accurate this figure is, but I don’t doubt the scale of the problem: one supplier admitted to me that “keeping counterfeiters at bay is nigh on impossible.” Another suggested I visit the Alibaba website and type in Pie Face: I did so and 178 entries came up, presumably all knock-offs (as an aside, original Pie Face brand owner Graham Thornton was recently emailed by a Chinese manufacturer offering him the opportunity to buy copies of the game, with the website even featuring a picture of the product in his old Rocket Games packaging!). Obviously, it’s not just Pie Face that is affected: 11,000 entries come up on Alibaba when you type in the word Lego, and I think we can all take a wild stab at how many are genuine. I’m beginning to wonder whether the Alibaba name is deliberately ironic, although at least the original Alibaba only had 40 thieves.

I appreciate that over-runs or modest ‘tolerance quantities’ from legitimate factories can occasionally end up in the wrong hands, while the questionable reputation of some Chinese factories is an open industry secret. However, far more concerning is the fact that I been told about people from the UK toy fraternity openly selling counterfeit products. One person from the buying community told me: “I was approached by someone who told me they were dealing with factories which could copy any successful product I wanted. They said that the factory is so good at doing it that no-one will notice the difference.” One can only hope that not too many retailers are tempted, but I suspect it’s a problem that won’t be going away in a hurry.

Elsewhere, I hear that Argos’ now legendary systems issues continue unabated: I understand that a percentage of their sales didn’t register on NPD data for several weeks, which will surely skew the figures, given the volumes that can be achieved at this time of year. Perhaps worse – as far as Argos and its suppliers are concerned – I gather that as some items were not registering as being sold, Argos wasn’t reordering and lines were going out of stock. I genuinely feel for them: in many respects they are the engine room of the toy market, and they make an invaluable contribution to the industry. But it’s precisely because of their stature and position in the toy firmament that these tribulations are viewed with such concern, and I am sure the toy industry is united in hoping they can rectify these problems sooner rather than later.

On a far more positive note, congratulations to Vivid’s Leon Jarmolowicz, who has been promoted to EMEA commercial director for the Crayola brand, while I gather that a re-organisation at NPD will see Jez Fraser-Hook heading up the newly-formed Northern European toy division, covering the UK, Germany and Poland. Meanwhile former Hornby national account manager Alistair Tonnison is looking for a new challenge, and is available for short-term contract work if there are any companies which need additional sales or marketing support over the forthcoming Toy Fair period. Alistair can be contacted on atonnison@btinternet.com

As this will be the last Friday Blog of 2015, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year. Thank you all for your extremely kind comments about the Blog – I am delighted that so many of you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. The Blog will return on January 8th, when I’ll be bringing you my first missive from Hong Kong. Until then, have an amazing festive season. As I don’t want to be the only person on the planet not referencing Star Wars this week, I’ll leave you with my favourite tweet of the week:

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