Glorious sunshine accompanied the Toy World team’s trip to Solihull for the AIS Show this week. The event represents the first time since Toy Fair season that a sizeable percentage of the trade gathers en masse, so it provides a great opportunity to get a handle on how the first quarter has panned out and catch up with the latest gossip (and there’s certainly no shortage of that, more of which later).
The show itself seemed nice and steady, and I suspect the clement weather helped to increase the actual turn-out. According to Miles Penhallow, visitor numbers were up across both days compared to last year, and there were a number of new independent attendees. I tend to think it’s all about expectations with this particular event: the AIS group has some very solid core toy members – such as SMF, Morleys, Beales and Toys-UK – which are capable of writing nice orders, as well as a number of department stores and garden centres which potentially offer a different channel for suppliers. For example, I hear that Roys of Wroxham has just opened a new garden centre – Highways – which features a large toy department. Miles also told me that a number of department stores are finding themselves with a bit more space due to declining ladies wear concessions, and with toys being one of the main growth areas for AIS (along with Intersport and cookware), some of this space may well end up being given over to toys.
In addition, non-members swell visitor numbers: it was great to bump into the Toy Barnhaus boys, who made the trip not so much to see toy suppliers (which they’ll do at Toymaster), but more to seek out new gift companies. It was fascinating to hear them talk about how well products such as licenced cookie jars and sunglasses have done for them: they seem to me to epitomise what it is to be a progressive, 21st century toy retailer, open to possibilities and happy to take a punt. Book Week was apparently another major success for them, producing phenomenal numbers on dress-up costumes.
The major topic of conversation during my visit predictably centred on recent events at Toys R Us: the story which Toy World broke exclusively on Monday about which buyers were leaving the organisation was mentioned by just about every single person I spoke to. In case you missed it, you can find details here.Unsurprisingly, it got the highest number of views of any online story this month, mainly – I suspect – due to the lack of information coming out from Toys R Us themselves. I understand that the company has form in this respect: one supplier told me that they neglected to tell anyone the last time they moved to a new office. Many suppliers are naturally concerned about the changes, especially if the buyer with whom they been discussing this year’s selections is one of those leaving. By all accounts the buyers who are staying have been told which areas they will now be responsible for going forward: it seems inevitable that most of the remaining buyers will be handling a broader range of categories. As I understand that TRU buyers also allocate stock to individual branches as well as actually select product, it sounds like their workload has just increased significantly.
Another retailer pruning head office staff is Morrisons, which has announced it will be cutting over 700 posts, equivalent to a third of the current head count. There is also the ongoing uncertainty at Tesco, where I understand Tara Mortimer is the latest buyer to announce she is leaving (Lisa Costello also went several weeks ago). Elsewhere, I gather that Mark Whittle will be leaving Argos after 3 ½ years to take up the position of head of buying and merchandising at The Entertainer.
I also hear that the franchisee behind the Toys R Us Irish stores, which I mentioned in last week’s Blog, may have previously been associated with Smyths Toys, which adds a whole new frisson to the situation. Factor in the disruption within the Toys R Us buying team and the parlous state of the Euro at the moment and I’d say the individual concerned clearly has balls of steel. But I guess you need those to open any new operation these days. Best of luck to him.