I have spent this week at Olympia, where BLE has been taking place. Unfortunately, things did not exactly get off to the best of starts – the first hour of the opening day was like finding yourself in the middle of the worst episode of The Apprentice ever. Queues stretched right back to the main road as front desk systems apparently failed, leaving thousands of frustrated visitors waiting for one solitary printer to spit out their entrance badge. In the ensuing chaos, some enterprising exhibitors sent staff out to hold meetings in the queue, while other stranded licensees and retailers were ‘rescued’ by exhibitors bringing out their stand staff’s badges to smuggle them in. Nevertheless, many people missed their first two or three meetings, and feelings were still running high days later. One disgruntled licensee told me: “They were passing a tin of Celebrations along the queue. It was hardly cause for a bloody celebration!” (If you read that in a Bolton accent, as I heard it, it’s even funnier!).
In fairness, the organiser has since apologised, and I am sure lessons have been learnt – I would also imagine that the words “You’re Fired” have been heard in certain quarters. Oh for a return to the days of badges being mailed out in advance of the show: it might have cost a few thousand pounds, but in the grand scheme of things, compared to the reputational damage – not to mention the discounts that numerous exhibitors suggested to me that they will be seeking – the cost would be peanuts.
It was a shame it all started so chaotically because, overall, the show was a success. As Nickelodeon’s Ron Johnson put it: “Vegas is all about the sizzle. At BLE, we actually sign deals.” There weren’t many celebrities present at the show itself (maybe they didn’t fancy the queueing), but apparently Bryce Dallas Howard did make a brief appearance at the Universal party the night before the show opened. The only ‘movie star’ who made it into the aisles was Bob, the feline star of A Street Cat Named Bob, although he was upstaged by the sniffer dog at the entrance – judging by the number of comments made to me, someone should start a licensing programme for him next year.
As well as the usual strong showing from licensees, the show also continues to attract a strong retail presence, with many licensors pleased that they could secure 30 or even 60-minute meetings with key retail buying teams. I gather that Tesco’s new commercial director Deborah Rabey was amongst those doing the rounds; while I understand she doesn’t have specific toy experience, having previously worked on the party and greetings category for Tesco, Deborah is clearly well versed in the Far East production process, having spent the past few years in a sourcing role in Hong Kong. So one would assume that she is pretty clued up when it comes to factory pricing – I suspect that will make for some interesting conversations in the coming months.
Toys R Us UK buyers were also present, as I am told their US counterparts were at the US Fall Toy Preview last week – although I am led to believe that the ‘big dogs’ from the senior management team were conspicuous by their absence in Dallas. Inevitably many of the conversations with people from the toy community at BLE continued to revolve around the fortunes of TRU. There are some encouraging signs from both sides of the pond; I heard tales of US investors buying one of the debt packages at 85 cents to the dollar, which would seem to indicate a degree of confidence. Closer to home, TRU UK still seems to be placing orders, and I’m not hearing of any short-term payment issues.
However, I also spoke to one prominent specialist retailer who told me that his sales have gone through the roof in the past couple of weeks. I suspect that is not pure coincidence. The fact that he seems to have been able to secure additional stock of high profile, short-supply lines will undoubtedly have played a significant part in the upswing. But there is also the distinct possibility that some consumers – concerned about the potential post-Christmas return situation at TRU – may have decided it is safer to shop elsewhere, at least for now.
Elsewhere Smyths has released this year’s Christmas commercial, which you can view here. After last year’s ground-breaking TV commercial, it has a lot to live up to – but Smyths’ creative team has certainly come up with something original and memorable, and the charity angle is a neat twist. Great Ormond Street is a fantastic cause, and I can see stocks of Snot – the star of the ad – running out very quickly.
Finally, I hear that Disney’s ‘legendary’ approval process was in full force this week, as a Disney- themed dance routine was performed on Strictly Come Dancing. Apparently, Disney insisted that no performer with visible tattoos should take part representing a Disney character. This resulted in some of the costumes being hastily adapted to cover up offending ink, and some dancers having their artwork painted over with make-up. No wonder Justin McGiffin chose to move on a few years back – I can only imagine how long his morning makeover routine took!