Back to life (back to reality) … it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 19th June 2020

We made it – after what often felt like an eternity, we’ve finally moved to the next phase of unlocking lockdown, with non-essential stores across England once again open for business (with Wales to follow on Monday and Scotland at the end of the month).

Early indications are encouraging, but still mixed: there are undoubtedly positive signs, with some understandable caveats. Ireland was ahead of the game, opening stores last week, and it was good to receive a call from SMF Toytown’s Alan Simpson last Friday, keen to share the news that sales were on course to match the corresponding week last year. Alan admitted that he had been apprehensive about re-opening, budgeting to hit around 50% of last year’s number. So, to say that he was pleased with the initial trading performance was an understatement. Indeed, other Irish toy retailers and those based in locations such as the Isle of Man have generally given positive feedback.

Interestingly, SMF Toytown decided to go even further than official safety measures laid down by the government, implementing a distancing rule of 3 metres, rather than the decreed 2 metres – which may indeed be dropping to 1 metre in a matter of weeks (what happens to all of those 2 metre signs which retailers have installed…?). I suspect that customers will appreciate those retailers who err on the side of caution; consumers who are nervous about returning to physical shops are not necessarily worried about the stores or their staff, but more about the behaviour and lack of courtesy of other shoppers. If you saw the scenes from Bicester Village, you may not be surprised to learn that thousands of people have signed a petition to close the outlet mall, believing it to be unsafe. The person who launched the petition admitted that she was “disgusted to see people squashed into the street like coronavirus never happened.”

Many English toy retailers have also reported a respectable start to post-lockdown life: regular Toy World contributor Toy Barnhaus told us that sales were in line with last year, also noting that while there were fewer customers, those that turned out were spending more. Other toy retailers have used phrases like ‘steady’ and ‘average’, with most admitting that while they have rarely reached physical capacity at any stage this week, high ticket items have continued to sell well.

Some people may have been misled by media coverage of massive queues at Primark and Sports Direct (how people must have missed their over-sized mugs), but from what I am hearing, the real footfall picture is somewhat more nuanced. Speaking to Midco’s Dave Middleton, he told me that around 60% of the stores in the main Derby shopping centre remain closed, including major players such as WHSmith, Claire’s Accessories, River Island, Menkind and Build-a-Bear. This must have had a bearing on some shoppers’ decisions as to whether to head out immediately or wait a week or two. The weather hasn’t exactly helped either: after a prolonged period of beautiful sunny weather, which has gone a long way to making the lockdown experience more bearable, this week has seen incessant rain around the UK. Of all the weeks…

It is also interesting – and slightly counter-intuitive – to hear from toy retailers that most shoppers out and about this week have been from the older demographic, rather than younger consumers. Maybe that is why reports suggest that jigsaws remain as popular as they’ve been for the past ten weeks? Ahead of re-opening, most observers and pundits predicted that the older generation would initially be more reluctant to hit the High Street, while younger customers would relish the opportunity – anecdotally at least, it appears that the reverse may be true, so it will be fascinating to keep an eye on this particular trend. Overall, I think a fair summary would be that toy retailers seem relatively pleased: not ecstatic, but happy enough, and more than anything, just delighted to be open once again. As an industry, I guess we’ll take that.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer: Mothercare Ireland is the first Irish retailer to blame the pandemic for having to liquidate its 14-store portfolio, while here in the UK, Poundstretcher is threatening to close over 250 stores unless rent cuts are agreed under a proposed CVA. And then, of course, we have a potential No Deal Brexit looming on the horizon: apparently the government is about to undertake a massive ‘shock and awe’ (their words, not mine) advertising campaign to spur businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period on December 31st. The thing is, as a business owner, I don’t have the faintest clue what I am supposed to do to ‘get ready’, or indeed exactly what it is I am supposed to be ‘getting ready’ for. Don’t forget, it is only six months away….and we’re already in the midst of navigating the biggest upheaval any of us has ever experienced in our business lives. It’s hard enough preparing for Amazon Prime Day, when it moves from July, to September and now (we have it on good authority), October – right now, we all need some clarity and certainty, rather than more disruption. So, while an extension to the transition period would have been sensible, it seems our government doesn’t agree – thanks for that guys.

Finally, I just wanted to return to a story which broke just after I wrote last week’s Blog – the news that Fenwick & Bentalls had resigned from Toymaster. When I was first forwarded the email from Toymaster announcing the development, the person who sent it to me suggested it wasn’t good news for the buying group. We approached Toymaster for a comment, expecting the usual polite platitudes which most people offer in these kinds of situations. Instead, Ian Edmunds sent us what may be my favourite ever quote. It is surely the frankness of his reply which led this to become our most-read story of the week. It also showed commendable integrity and illustrated that there is often more to a partnership than purely the commercial element. If you missed it, you can read the full, unexpurgated response here. In this day and age of media training (I hate that phrase almost as much as I hate the concept) and people generally refusing to answer journalist’s questions honestly and openly, it’s rare – but very welcome – to receive something so honest and refreshing. All I can say is that in a world filled with corporate BS, be more Ian Edmunds.