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Any chance of some precedented times…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 21st August 2020

On the face of it, it’s been a relatively quiet news week in the toy world. In actual fact, there is plenty going on ‘behind the scenes’ – I am sitting on three major news stories at present. I won’t lie, that is one of the more frustrating situations for a media owner: I want to tell the world what is going on, but unfortunately my hands are (temporarily) tied. I am sure all will become clear soon – the Breaking News template is poised and ready to swing into action when the time is right.

In news we have been able to print, Hamleys CEO David Smith has ‘stepped down’ after only seven months in the role. With no background in toys, he always had his work cut out; toys is a very specific – some might say unique – retail market, and previous retail experience from Debenhams and The Body Shop would not have prepared him for what to expect in a normal year. And this is anything but a normal year. West End footfall has plummeted to record depths: I heard an uncorroborated report of just how far down Hamleys trading has been in recent months, and if it is even vaguely close to being accurate, it really is a shocker. Realistically, there is nothing David could have done about that; Hamleys is heavily dependent on international tourists and London day-trippers, as well as people who work in the capital. In the absence of customers from these target groups, little wonder that its sales have been decimated. Here at Toy World, we are in the process of trying to ban the use of the word ‘unprecedented’, as it has become something of a tired and lazy journalistic cliché; but right now, what would we all give to be back in precedented times.

The other major story of this week was the news that Amazon has lost a landmark court case in California, meaning that in theory, the ecommerce behemoth can now be held responsible for defective, faulty or unsafe products sold by third-party vendors on its platform. About time too – this egregious loophole has long needed closing. Let’s not get too carried away just yet: it was a ruling in one US district court. Nevertheless, if it sets a precedent, it may just be the impetus that suppliers and associations need to encourage Amazon to do more to clean up the murkier corners of its platform. And not just Amazon, but every online platform – eBay, Alibaba and all. Online sales have been vital for the global toy market this year, but we should not let the industry’s growing reliance on digital sales blind us to the issues that need to be addressed. Put simply, Amazon and its digital competitors need to be held to the same standards as every other retailer. Hopefully, this pivotal case offers a viable route to achieving that goal.

Chatter continues throughout the toy community as to what the traditional January / February Toy Fair season might look like in 2021. In many respects, it is still too early to give any definitive answers: however, it is worth keeping an eye on ongoing developments for clues. Like many of you, I read through the ‘All Secure Standard’ document which the BTHA kindly provided to London Toy Fair exhibitors last week. There are some fascinating elements, not least the ‘vetting process’ for visitors: with numbers likely to be restricted should the show be able to go ahead, it won’t be entirely straightforward to ultimately decide whose applications for entry would be approved and whose would be declined. Beyond retail buyers (who will obviously be fine), visitors come from many other parts of the toy community, not to mention the numerous companies whose business is linked to the toy market. Deciding who gets put on which pile will be a tough call.

Meanwhile, my ‘mole’ in Hong Kong tells me that all HKTDC trade fairs scheduled for October and November will be replaced by online events. One wonders whether someone in the higher echelons has an inkling of what might happen to the international travel ban / quarantine situation when it is due to be reviewed on September 26th. Should the ban be extended, it would take us perilously close to the traditional January trip. I read an article on the Bloom Report, which went so far as to suggest that the toy community should be considering moving shows from Hong Kong to Shenzen for the foreseeable future. Frankly, I thought this was a slightly naïve suggestion, and it seems that I am not the only one: look out for a guest post on this week’s Bloom Report from a member of the British toy community who knows the Far East landscape far better than me, responding to the original suggestion. No spoilers, but he seems to agree with me that it is a non-starter.

That said, I do think it’s important for media platforms to at least test the water by putting forward suggestions and new ideas, even if they might not always be entirely credible. If media isn’t saying something, challenging the status quo, addressing preconceptions, questioning whether things need to change or suggesting how things could evolve, then one wonders what the point of it is. Rehashing news from two months ago, cutting and pasting press releases and repeating bland platitudes just doesn’t cut it any more I’m afraid – those days are long gone. If the pandemic has taught us anything, regardless of what kind of business you operate, it is that you have to bring your ‘A-game’ if you still want to  be standing at the end of it – there is no room for mediocrity. It has been noticeable which businesses have stepped up this year, and which have floundered. Even when we return to precedented times, I don’t see that changing.

Finally, with the new football season only a few short weeks away, the Toy World Fantasy Football League is now open, and we welcome both returning and new players. The code for the league is smaaxi – click here to join.

If nothing else, it might be a nice distraction, something to help to take your mind off some of the strange things going on right now – just like Toy World. We’re here to help you as we make our way from unprecedented to precedented (darn, I just broke our own ban! And by the way, when we’ve finally managed to banish ‘unprecedented’ from our lexicon, we’ll be coming for ‘newness’ next…).