In many respects, it has been an unpredictable year. The under-performance of the much-hyped movie licences; sales of outdoor toys falling short of expectations, even when the sun shone; the pace and scale at which crazes have burst onto the scene, not to mention the sheer number of crazes that have exploded in a short period of time (fidget spinners, putty, slime and so on), have all taken retailers by surprise to some extent.
To that list you can now add the raft of products which are red hot and already in short supply…before the end of September! Usually we’re still placing bets on which winners will emerge far later in the year. Whereas currently, retailers are scrabbling around trying to secure more stock of items such as Luvabella, the large LOL Surprise! Doll, the Jo Jo Bows Doll, Fingerlings and several other key lines. With the Dream Toys committee due to meet to decide this year’s top toy list soon, this raises an interesting conundrum; on one level, certain lines are undoubtedly ‘dream toys’. But if retailers can sell all the stock they can lay their hands on (and more), and these lines are likely to be competing for the ‘Pimpernel award’ come January, should they realistically be included on the list? Or will that just hand the media an easy shot at the toy industry for ‘deliberately’ keeping the market short to boost demand: as we all know, that is complete nonsense (I used the nice word!), but sadly many journalists refuse to believe that and will trot out the same old tired clichés.
Mind you, if 2017 has thrown us a few curveballs, some things don’t change: this week has seen the annual toy retail discount party start in earnest. It was predictable that Argos would fire the starting gun; its ‘3 for 2’ promotion kicked in earlier this week, prompting Smyths to enter the ring with a 20% discount and naturally Tesco couldn’t resist joining in, launching a half-price toy sale of its own. But there are a few subtle differences in approach this year; Tesco’s sale (which I checked online) featured only 225 items, many of which were exclusive to Tesco – and therefore presumably bought specifically to retail at 50% off. Smyths insisted on a £50 minimum spend to get the 20% reduction (which I believe wasn’t the case last year). And Argos…well, fair enough, the sale was far broader (over 2,000 lines). However, there has already been media controversy, with suggestions that Argos hiked the price of toys just before the sale started. Although Argos has attempted to refute the accusations by saying the toys had been part of a promotion that had not been flagged due to a ‘technical issue’, some of the mud is bound to stick.
I also decided to check the stock situation in Argos for some of the red-hot toys I mentioned earlier. The large L.O.L. Surprise! doll – no stock. Fingerlings – no stock. The Jo Jo Bows singing fashion doll – no stock. Do you see a pattern here? Ok, I was only checking stock in my local area, although the website also said the items weren’t available for home delivery either. So, is this just a coincidence? Or will stock magically appear once the ‘3 for 2’ promotion ends next Wednesday? Who can tell…but in a year when the fight is on for every pound, indiscriminate and excessive discounting still strikes me as being an anathema. Maybe the retailers have recognised this and have crafted their offerings (and supply) accordingly. Nowhere near as cynical as the Aldi Prosecco debacle – a nationally advertised weekend promotion which ran out of stock at 8.02 on the Saturday morning – but still ‘cute’.
There is just time to touch briefly on the ongoing TRU situation. Having received a rather large number of calls from suppliers and retailers on the matter, I have found myself following the situation forensically, reading every article and email I can find on the subject (and trust me, that is a vast amount of information and opinion – some accurate, some spectacularly ill-judged and wrong-headed). I suspect that the age-old swan analogy applies to TRU at the moment: calm on the surface, paddling furiously beneath the water. On the plus side, the short-term $3.1 billion loan has been approved by the US bankruptcy judge, which will hopefully give the retailer the opportunity to build its inventory as it approaches Christmas…providing, of course, that suppliers are happy to play ball. While the US suppliers have court protection, the same is not true for UK/European suppliers, who are being asked to put their faith in TRU and support them in their hour of need. As for how that is panning out in practice, there are probably as many answers as there are suppliers – each has a decision to take, and some of those will be tricky calls to make. But I am sure they will all make the best call they can, based on their own circumstances, the information they have and the level of risk they are prepared to take (sorry, I’m beginning to sound like my pension advisor there).
Unquestionably, there is a lot of love for TRU, and not just from suppliers owed millions of dollars: a child’s letter to the Judge, pleading with him to keep TRU from going under, has gone viral this week. Unless, of course, there is someone in the US toy trade who is a master of disguising his hand-writing as that of a nine-year-old boy…Isaac, is that you?