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Things move fast around here….it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: August 21st, 2015

Potentially the week’s biggest story was over almost as soon as it broke. Out of nowhere, Retail Week released a story on Wednesday morning suggesting that The Toy Store had sent a letter of intent to Hamleys, showing its interest in acquiring the company. I immediately dropped a line to my contact at The Toy Store asking for further details or comment: when the reply came 12 hours later, it included a statement which confirmed that talks had ceased (assuming they had even begun). So it’s very much as you were: Hamleys is said to be still in talks with Chinese conglomerate Sanpower – the owner of House of Fraser – over a possible acquisition, while The Toy Store is on course to open its London flagship store in just under a month’s time. I am hearing that there has been a shift in emphasis in terms of the product mix for this new venture, with greater focus on character licensed merchandise at the expense of other brands. If true, it’s an interesting approach, especially given the store’s proximity to a branch of The Disney Store.

In other news, the Star Wars fiasco I mentioned last week has escalated quickly. It seems that the notorious Force Friday embargo, which is supposed to preclude retailers across the globe from showing any product from Episode 7 until September 4th, is being routinely ignored by an increasing number of people. I mentioned a Toys R Us store last week; this week’s miscreants included several branches of Walmart, which in turn led lucky consumers who bought stock to start advertising items at hugely inflated prices on ebay, while unofficial stockists appropriated the images to start taking orders for product early. Meanwhile, official stockists observing the embargo can only sit and watch with growing frustration. Here is one independent retailers’ take on the whole sorry mess: “So it’s ok for the general public to take pre-orders for Star Wars using stolen pictures from leaked Walmart stock, but actual toy stores cannot show any images until September 4th. Mass retailers such as Walmart and Toys R Us flout the rules and sell gear early with no backlash, then the general public can buy from them and make a killing on ebay, while the independent toy trade can’t do anything for weeks.” In fairness, you can see why this might be frustrating.

There’s another interesting angle developing: figures which are expected to retail for £9.99 in the UK are currently on sale in Walmart for $6.74. The UK media has long struggled to understand why the UK price in £ is traditionally the same as the US price in $ , but when there is such a disparity – effectively making the figures twice the price in the UK – it is surely only a matter of time before the ‘rip-off Britain’ headlines make an unwelcome reappearance.

My favourite article of the week appeared in the New York Times. The piece is a warts and all expose of life inside Amazon’s Seattle HQ. If you have 10 minutes to spare today, I can heartily recommend reading it in its entirety:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html?_r=0

It really is quite an eye-opener. It seems that the appalling conditions in Amazon’s warehouses which were exposed several years ago – where ambulances were on standby to take people who keeled over in the heat to hospital – are matched by an office culture that one Guardian journalist described as “comically horrific.” Over the years, the toy trade has taken its fair share of flak over Chinese factory working conditions, so to see tales of bullying, intimidation, genuinely sick people being eased out of jobs and a general poisonous atmosphere in one of the globe’s most famous companies puts things into perspective. Perhaps my favourite line comes from a recruitment company, which admits that former Amazon employees are known locally as ‘Amholes’, presumably as a result of this questionable culture rubbing off on them. Of course, no-one is forcing people to work there, and this article will probably dissuade the kind of person who would hate to work in such an environment from applying for a job there in the first place. Some people might even enjoy such a bear-pit: it’s not for me, but I’ll bet most of us could think of someone who would fit in perfectly.

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