Anything can happen in the next half hour…. it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 20th March 2020

As a child, I loved all the Gerry Anderson TV shows – Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Stingray. The latter programme had a particularly stirring opening sequence, featuring thrilling, breathless music punctuated by a booming voice proclaiming “Anything can happen in the next half hour.” I was reminded of it this week, because…. well, that’s exactly how it has felt at times. To say things have escalated quickly would be the understatement of the year.

UK consumers have moved to full-on panic buying mode, stripping shelves of toilet roll, hand sanitiser and pasta (except the brown pasta obviously…. we’re not that desperate just yet). US consumers have started panic-buying too, although in their case it is guns and ammunition (insert eye-rolling emoji here). Speaking of emojis, crossed fingers have moved to the front of my most-used emoji list, along with gritted teeth and the one with the monkey with his head in his hands.

Do you remember when we all used to start our emails with “I hope you are well” – now that phrase takes on a literal meaning rather than the platitude it had become. However, some things haven’t changed: Groupon is still sending me an email every hour, offering me a reasonably-priced Italian meal for two (wilfully going against the ‘advice’ of our dear leader to avoid social contact).

In amongst all the panic-buying of essentials, there has been some welcome short-term respite for toy retailers, as families stock up on games, puzzles, art & craft kits and anything else which will help them get through the weeks of isolation which lie ahead, especially now schools are closed indefinitely. Enterprising toy retailers are helping to support their customers in a variety of ways, including kerbside deliveries (‘drive-by toys available here’ is certainly a new service for many). One retailer told us that his online orders were running way beyond the levels he would expect at Christmas, while other online retailers are offering free deliveries – Bargain Max admitted that it was losing money in the process, but felt it was a nice gesture that would hopefully offer long-term benefits. I like that philosophy.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that stock was king – it seems that retailers are increasingly adopting a ‘cash is king’ mantra; The Entertainer ran its first-ever BOGOF deal this week. The offer was initially limited to stores only but was quickly extended to online customers after a bit of a social media backlash. Right now, we are all having to think on our feet and be reactive and flexible: one major retailer told me that he is having to take decisions in a matter of hours which would normally take weeks or even months to be agreed.

Many specialists have been in a fortunate position this week – aided no doubt by Amazon’s decision to suspend deliveries of all non- essential items into its warehouse until at least the first week of April, maybe longer. As toys aren’t classified as essential (although I am sure some parents would disagree), it gives a valuable window of opportunity to those retailers who are dedicated to the category. But how long can this situation last: realistically, it is surely a case of when – rather than if – non-essential stores are forced to close, as they have already in many European countries. Several have already shuttered here in the UK – including Hamleys, Selfridges and Disney Stores – while Toys R Us Canada has also closed its 82 stores. These retailers can’t maintain their business by switching to selling health and household items like Amazon and the grocers can. Many of our specialists live a hand-to-mouth existence and will struggle to cope with closure for any length of time. They will need all the support and forbearance they can get over the coming weeks. Major toy specialists are already pausing orders and stopping warehouse deliveries, and I understand that not all suppliers have been thrilled. I get that, but I hope they understand that the retailers are trying to protect their businesses as best they can. All of us business owners will have a massive balancing act as cash flows dissipate. Engaging with our customers to find mutually acceptable solutions will be key. Now is not the time to ‘go dark’; it’s the time to communicate as openly and honestly as possible.

Which is why, dear reader, Toy World will continue to operate a service to the best of our ability. Of course, it is not ‘business as usual’ – right now, nothing is ‘as usual’. But we can do our best to keep information flowing throughout the toy community. We can help and support everyone by keeping the channels of communication open. I appreciate that in the grand scheme of things that there are more important things on peoples’ minds: however, judging by the spike in this week’s online traffic, people still want to understand what is going on in the business world. Our readers are facing challenges bigger than they have ever faced before – our modest contribution will be to help make some sense of the chaos around us all.

The next few months are going to be tough. There will be business casualties – I have heard this week of at least one UK toy company and one US toy company on the verge of administration. Some companies will panic: can the rumours really be true that one of the industry’s most experienced and respected toy buyers has been made redundant, along with another senior colleague on the same buying team? If so, it strikes me as a very strange move indeed. Events will continue to be postponed or cancelled; this week has seen the cancellation of both the Independent Toy & Gift Show and Distoy, as well as the postponement of the Las Vegas Licensing Expo to August. As one toy retailer said to me: “Oh for the days of moaning about Brexit and complaining to Andrew Laughton about where my next LOL delivery was coming from.”

But Covid-19 will be defeated in time (by the way, thanks to Dave Collins for his great suggestion that it doesn’t sound so bad if you say Covid-19 to the tune of ‘Come on Eileen’ – I feel we will need more gallows humour before we’re through). It’s a cancelled marathon, not a sprint. Community spirit will be key to overcoming this crisis; a bit less of the ‘me’ mentality and a bit more ‘us’ will come in handy over the coming months. When all this is finished, the High Street is probably going to be a very different place. But I think we can all agree that we want to see as many toy stores still standing as possible. And hopefully the occasional toy trade media operation as well. So, let’s keep talking, sharing, engaging and supporting each other. Kids will be at home and parents will need to keep them occupied. Viewing numbers will rise exponentially, both on linear TV and SVOD. There will be opportunities along with the huge challenges. Let’s try to find the positives as well as accepting the new realities.

As BTHA chairman Andrew Laughton says in his address to the UK toy nation this week (puts on best Churchillian voice): “We will stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity…” Although come to think of it, aren’t we meant to be three feet apart, rather than shoulder to shoulder? Don’t want anyone getting into trouble…