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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: November 23rd, 2018

Retailers will no doubt be delighted that the weather has taken a distinct turn for the worse this week, as it is now beginning to feel a lot more festive. Trees and lights are going up in towns and retail centres around the country, and TV ad breaks are full to the brim with Christmas-related ads. Few of the main retailer ads are jumping out as being particularly toy focused, but anything that encourages the consumer to think seriously about Christmas can only be a good thing.

Mind you, we have Black Friday to navigate first. I have heard some spectacularly ill-informed conversations in the media about the whole concept this week: there does seem to be a lot of negativity in some quarters, much of it centring around the concept being another crass, commercial import from across ‘the pond’. But let’s be honest, just like Halloween, Black Friday is now firmly entrenched in the build-up to the festive season here in the UK and it is not going anywhere. Far from being an ‘online only’ initiative, bricks and mortar retailers – including multiple specialists and even independents – have embraced the concept with enthusiasm, and most importantly, it appears to be working for them.

Thankfully, the disgraceful Black Friday scenes of a few years ago – with consumers scrapping over cheap TVs in Asda – have yet to be replicated. Instead, fights have apparently broken out at Aldi, as shoppers battled to get hold of the supermarket’s Kevin the Carrot soft toy range. Yes, you did read that right and no, I promise I am not making this up. Fights over a plush carrot…further evidence that the world – and the UK in particular – is going slightly mad.

As well as a host of Christmas ads, several big movie releases scheduled for 2019 have released trailers in the past few weeks. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part trailer suggests the next instalment will follow in a remarkably similar vein to the original film (which can only be a good thing), while I was mightily impressed with the Pokémon trailer. It is genuinely funny and the creative execution looks great – if the whole movie lives up to the promise of the trailer, it will be a very strong year for the brand. And then there is Toy Story 4 – one of the most eagerly-anticipated movies of 2019. The first trailer that emerged was…well, let’s just say ‘interesting’ doesn’t quite cover it. I watched it three times in case the weird fork thing would somehow grow on me – I came to the conclusion that perhaps it will make more sense in the overall context of the movie. Thankfully normal service was resumed with the second trailer, which was much funnier and back to the level you would expect from such an iconic franchise.

Mothercare’s latest set of interim results were not pretty – a £6m loss with a like -for- like sales decline of 11%, with the added sting in the tail that the retailer will be selling its Watford headquarters in a bid to reduce its debt. Group MD David Wood’s resignation was announced shortly after the results went public. CEO Mark Newton-Jones attempted to contextualise the figures with talk of “capital restructuring” and “cost-saving initiatives”, and one can only hope that these moves will indeed bring the business back to profitability. There was also an intriguing comment about “managing trading and operations as a typical franchisee would” – or am I reading too much into that?

In a hugely challenging retail environment, it’s nice to see some retail owners appreciating the crucial role their staff play: this week has been ‘Top Teams Week’ at The Entertainer, where the directors have visited every one of its 154 stores across the past seven days (a marathon task by any measure). As well as geeing the store teams up for the key trading period ahead, it also gives staff the chance to offer feedback directly to the directors. What a fabulous initiative, and one which I am sure will be hugely beneficial: I am sure that many retail owners would benefit from hearing directly from people at the sharp end. I would also like to applaud Home Bargains owner Tom Morris for his decision to shut all its stores on Boxing Day, giving its 17,000 staff the day off without having to give up their holiday allowance. In both cases, it seems to me to be a great way to motivate staff as we enter such a crucial period. We’ve all encountered staff in retail outlets that very much look as though they would rather be somewhere – anywhere – else, so anything that can help to engage, enthuse and energise team members has to be a positive.

There isn’t much repeatable gossip this week, except the news that the cheeky attempt to set up a new distributors’ show at Lake Como to rival Distoy has been cancelled – which, I have to say, comes as little surprise to me.

Finally, I mentioned the phrase ‘holiday buyer’ entering the toy lexicon a few weeks back: it seems to have struck a chord with quite a few people, including some major buyers. I was particularly amused to hear that one major buying team had emailed a prominent toy person to suggest one of their own colleagues as someone who could indeed be construed as a holiday buyer! I love the fact that the Blog is starting ‘bantz’ in high places.

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