Back in the New York groove….it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 28th February 2020

Just as last week’s Blog was being posted online, I was stepping on to a plane to head out to New York for Toy Fair. The flight there was quick, but the flight back even quicker – a mere 5 ½ hours. It might not be Concorde, but that’s still equivalent to some of my recent trips to Manchester.

New York remains an outlier in many respects; this year’s event took place seven weeks after the start of Toy Fair season in Hong Kong. The show also runs over a full weekend, something of anomaly in the current pantheon of trade events (only Nuremberg includes both a Saturday and Sunday, and that seems to predominantly cater for the domestic German market). It is also a rarity in that – arguably – retail is not the dominant force behind the show; of at least equal importance to this event is the strong presence of media and analysts, both integral to the success (or otherwise) of the major US toy companies.

No official figures have been released as yet, but I suspect that more retailers may have actually attended this year: most of the UK majors were present and correct, as were the US behemoths – I saw people wearing Walmart, Target, Amazon & TRU badges during the trip. On that subject, if you saw some of the UK buyers walking round sporting badges with certain suppliers’ names on, don’t worry – they haven’t ‘jumped the fence’ since London Toy Fair! I gather the cost for some international attendees has become rather high, so it seems that they were helped out by obliging customers, who provided exhibitors’ badges.

There was also a suggestion that international attendance from many territories climbed this year, potentially due to global retailers and distributors believing that this may be their last chance to visit a toy show for a while. Inevitably, that was counterbalanced by the lack of Asian visitors and exhibitors; the Toy Association was successful in reallocating the stands which had to be released by Chinese exhibitors, but the absence of visitors from the Far East was both noticeable and unavoidable.

Coronavirus remained the main talking point during the show. The general consensus was that the next 2-3 weeks will be critical; Chinese New Year fell particularly early this year, so the factories would normally be dormant until March anyway. However, if the situation isn’t moving in the right direction soon…as they say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The impact of COVID-19 is already being felt far and wide. This week saw the UK FTSE 100 Share Index suffer its biggest one-day fall since January 2016, wiping £62b off its value in a matter of hours. On this occasion, the biggest falls were associated with the travel industry (Tui, Easyjet, BA) – others will be drawn in if the problem escalates. The knock-on effect to the supply chain is being felt way beyond China; most companies with production facilities elsewhere still obtain most of their raw materials from China. For those who rely on US manufacturing plants (such as companies with printed product), they are now being quoted an unprecedented 10-12 week delivery time due to the backlog created by the China crisis. There was even a rumour that representations have been made to both Walmart and Target to delay the set date for new toy launches this year, to give suppliers some much-needed breathing space. Back here in the UK, one wonders whether Argos may potentially be forced to delay the launch of its autumn winter catalogue if things don’t improve soon…

These challenges are all very real and tangible. Then there are the intangibles – in many cases driven by complete over-reaction: signs being displayed in Thai restaurants and bars openly saying “No Chinese”; people avoiding their local Chinese restaurants across the world; a journalist asking NY Toy Fair organiser Steve Pasierb whether toys being shipped from China might be infected with the virus; even an Asian man in my local shopping centre sneezing, causing a woman to almost break the world 100m record running the other way (even though he was probably born in Hemel Hempstead and has almost certainly never been to China). Sad to say, prejudice is kicking in amongst the less-enlightened parts of society. So it was good to hear Steve Pasierb talk about the need for the whole toy community to help our Chinese factory partners through this traumatic period. The truth is simple – we really are all in this together.

Despite this backdrop, the New York Toy Fair always has vibrancy and energy, which is hardly surprising given its location – truly, every day is show-time in New York. Exhibitors go all out, whether large or small – everyone is putting on the Ritz, everyone is hustling. That ‘always on’ dynamism gives the show an upbeat mood, regardless of any concerns bubbling away below the surface. Steve Pasierb summed it up nicely: “I wish we could catch a break – just once, it would be great to have a boring year.” However, I don’t think this is going to be that boring year.

The US TOTY awards were once again dominated by the big boys: MGA won two awards, including the overall Toy of the Year; Mattel picked up four gongs and Lego three, while the award picked up by Disney Parks was a bizarre curveball questioned by just about everyone present. It was great to see other toy companies gaining well-deserved recognition, including Learning Resources, Playmobil, WowWee, Create a Castle and UK company Wow Stuff, which won Innovative Toy of the Year with its Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak. Talking to Richard North before the awards began, I asked him if he thought he was going to win: “Not a chance,” he said, “we’re sat on the very back table.” Imagine his surprise when Wow Stuff’s name was called out – although he surely missed a trick by not brandishing his award and shouting “The British are coming,” in the style of Colin Welland’s Oscar acceptance speech for Chariots of Fire in 1982. However, Richard did tease an intriguing new development by referencing sustainability in his speech – surely that was a precursor to something special…?

Overall, given everything happening in the toy space right now, you have to say that the show was a success. To all those people who managed to fit me into their busy schedules, thank you. Without you, I would just be ‘having meetings’ in Starbucks all day like certain other people – maybe they should think about charging for tables next year? Now Toy Fair Season is over, it’s time to get back to the day job…I’ve seen a lot of great lines over the past seven weeks, now it’s time to start telling people about them in our forthcoming issues.