Another busy week in the toy world, so let’s get straight into the highlights. It has been confirmed that the liquidator for Toys R Us is in the process of selling off its intellectual property rights. For some reason, many media outlets have turned into sniggering schoolboys, fixating on the fact that domain names up for sale include sextoysrus.com and adulttoysrus.com. However, beyond the smutty headlines, there are more important ramifications for the toy business; if the names Toys R Us and Babies R us are available for purchase, along with the Geoffrey the Giraffe logo, presumably that reduces the likelihood of the existing Toys R Us American operation being sold as a going concern? If that proves to be the case, it would at least offer closure, allowing US suppliers to focus on the retailers that will be aiming to capitalise on TRU’s disappearance, rather than holding out hope for a salvage operation.
Back here in the UK, Mothercare is in the process of mounting its own salvage operation -and things are already turning slightly surreal. Store closures and job losses were expected as part of the CVA, but the hokey-cokey with reinstated CEO Mark Newton-Jones took everyone by surprise (you put your CEO in, your CEO out, in-out, in-out…). Three weeks ago, he was relieved of his duties. Now he’s back, with the man brought in to replace him moved ‘sideways’ from CEO to Group MD. Having a CEO and an MD rarely ends well, but under these unique circumstances, the main word that springs to mind is ‘awkward.’
Within half an hour of walking into the Toymaster show on Tuesday, I heard that Sally Hunter had joined MGA: excellent timing, with this week’s announcement that MGA was the second biggest toy company in the UK in April. Naturally, Isaac has been very quiet and under-stated about this – that information had to be literally prised out of him (sarcasm alert). What he didn’t say though was that, apparently, if the LOL Surprise! brand was a toy company in its own right, it would be the fifth largest toy company in the UK. I’ll just leave that there to sink in for a minute.
One of the other main talking points in Harrogate was the Argos/Sainsbury’s chimera (which we should presumably refer to as Arsa?), which is doing its best to rival Mothercare in the upheaval stakes. Trading manager Linzi Walker will be leaving the company, a move that has come as a major shock to everyone I’ve spoken to. General consensus is that Linzi will be sorely missed, and that she was a valuable asset to the organisation. There is also genuine concern at the disruption to the Argos business and whether the new streamlined team will find the workload a challenge, not to mention the differences in strategy (less emphasis on promotional offers, more just-in-time buying). There are more changes to come, with the remaining buying team due to be trimmed further, from four people to three – worst game of musical chairs ever.
The Toymaster Show itself was another triumph. I’m told that 106 members signed in on the first day, while presumably more arrived over the course of the next two days. That seems a healthy turnout to me; the retailers I expected to see were all there, and they seemed happy with prospects for the year. The TRU closing sale has obviously had a short-term impact on many independent stores, but hopefully the effects won’t be felt too much longer. And while no-one knows where those customers will go now, I liked the suggestion that if they were the sort of people who just wanted to sit behind a computer and buy with the click of a mouse, they probably would have migrated online a while back. So, hopefully they are the sort of consumers who value the bricks and mortar experience and their spending power will remain rooted in that area.
Sadly I missed the Wednesday evening function, which featured a host of presentations to deserving individuals and companies; Green Elephant won the first-ever Toymaster New Supplier of the Year award, Grovers Toymaster of Northallerton was recognised for celebrating fifty years in business, Trevor Simmonds and Michael ‘Mickey’ Berg both received Golden Teddies and a right rogue’s gallery of sales people – Ross Macdonald, Graham Hurrell, Colin Rossiter and Roger Brown – were honoured ahead of their impending retirements. I hear on the grapevine that this format may be expanded next year, with Toymaster looking to introduce its own set of awards. Personally, I think this is a fantastic idea; it gives Toymaster a great opportunity to do something a little different and maybe even a little quirky and fun, complementing the Toy of the Year awards rather than competing with them. That would give the toy industry two sets of genuine, authentic awards, adjudicated directly by retailers without unnecessary influence by commercial interests.
Maybe they could consider having an award for the Genius PR of the Year; if so, I have found an early contender – step forward OnBrand Group, who described new retailer IDKids in a tweet this week as “a mix of Toys R Us meets Mothercare.” Seriously, have they not read a single news story in the past six months?! With ‘friends’ like that, who needs enemies? Or maybe OnBrand has been secretly paid by another retailer to scupper the new venture…
Finally, my other award this week is for Questionable Cash-In of the Week. Inevitably, the news has been full of stories about this weekend’s Royal Wedding, including coverage of the welter of products being released to ‘commemorate’ the occasion. Now, there have been some genuinely fine products, such as Arklu’s Lottie Flower Girl and Top Trumps Royal Wedding Limited edition (complete with card for Meghan’s father, who has been doing his own ‘attendance hokey-cokey’ this week). But one particular product caught my eye; a range of Royal Wedding dolls which sell for the princely sum of $149 a pair. There’s only one tiny problem; they don’t actually look anything like the happy couple. Not even remotely. I showed them to our old friends the Nuremberg Dolls, who were suitably shocked: