Bring me sunshine… it’s the Friday Blog (on a Thursday)!

Published on: 1st April 2021

As Easter approaches, most of the UK has been basking in glorious sunshine for the past couple of days. I doubt I am the only person who has been WFG (working from the garden). A stream of phone calls, advance planning for our forthcoming bumper May edition and a chance to kick back and read our April print issue have all proved to be perfect activities for the great outdoors (apart from the first draft of the May flat plan being blown across the garden after a rare gust of wind).

I am still a huge fan of reading a magazine in print – nothing beats it in my humble opinion. Nevertheless, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that our digital readership has rocketed in recent months, so if you are one of the people who likes to peruse the issue in digital format, you can do that here. I am proud to say that it is our largest-ever April issue: as I mention in my leader column, we certainly couldn’t have achieved that without the abiding positivity of the toy community, helped by the fact that toy sales numbers have continued to buck the prevailing retail trend, remaining healthy despite the lockdown. I’m also not unaware of the impact that trade show cancellations have had on our short-term fortunes.

Sadly, another show bit the dust this week – it has been confirmed that the proposed ‘summer edition’ of the Spielwarenmesse will not take place, depriving us of the opportunity to experience the lovely city of Nuremberg in glorious sunshine for once. While it is a shame that the show won’t be able to run, pandemic-related developments in Germany and much of mainland Europe over the past few weeks made the decision inevitable. In any case, the July timing was never going to suit vast swathes of the global toy community (especially larger suppliers and retailers). Hopefully we’ll all be able to head back to Nuremberg at the start of February next year, with Spielwarenmesse once again able to take its rightful place at the heart of the traditional Toy Fair Season calendar.

Back at home, with the prospect of retail re-openings tantalisingly close, several initiatives have either been introduced or proposed to help boost footfall – although whether they will be needed is another matter entirely.

First up, stores will be allowed to open until 10pm, should they choose to do so, without needing council permission. Most of the toy retailers we spoke to seemed lukewarm on the idea: the majority felt it wouldn’t be necessary, saying they would monitor the situation and especially what other nearby retailers would be doing. I’m not convinced many parents with younger children will be out late-night toy shopping, but perhaps some Kidult purchasers would be tempted by the prospect of extended opening hours?

Another suggestion that has been put forward is for the government to fund a Shop Out to Help Out scheme, which would see the government covering 50% of the cost of goods bought at independent non-essential retailers, capped at £10 (a little like the American Express Shop Small scheme). Some toy retailers have expressed their enthusiasm for such a scheme, but I am not convinced it will get off the starting blocks. Having said that, the US stimulus package has apparently done wonders for retailers in the States, so you can certainly understand why people are calling for a similar approach here.

Although physical stores are about to re-open, the need for a digital presence certainly isn’t going away: last week saw B&M, one of the few high-profile High Street retailers without a transactional website, taking on the former head of digital from The Range, presumably as a precursor to a serious move into digital retailing. Interestingly, however, some sources have suggested that toys won’t be part of the retailer’s online offering – fascinating if true. According to reports, there is concern that selling certain categories online would not necessarily improve the company’s business model, firstly because it could impact sales made in B&M stores, and also because it would create a greater margin challenge. Having attended a B&M manager’s conference in the past, I know just how laser-focused the management team is when it comes to margin, profitability and SKU efficiency. I am sure they won’t just do something for the sake of it, or because everyone else is doing it – they will want to be convinced that it is the right move for the right reasons, and it will not cannibalise or adversely impact other areas of the business. Many people have criticised Primark for its ongoing ‘no digital sales’ policy, but I suspect it will have the longest queues of any retailer come April 12th.

There have also been a couple of significant moves within the specialist toy retail community: at The Entertainer, Geoff Sheffield has been promoted to chief commercial and marketing officer, while as we exclusively revealed yesterday, Brian Simpson will be leaving his role as head of buying at Toytown after a decade in the position. Congratulations to Geoff on his promotion, and we wish Brian all the best in his new challenge outside the toy industry. I’d also like to belatedly congratulate Richard Hollis on his appointment as licensing manager at HTI, where he will oversee the company’s extensive portfolio of licensed properties – welcome back Richard!

All that remains is for me to wish everyone a Happy Easter and good sales, however you are set up to make them: obviously, it would help if this glorious sunshine persisted, but my weather app is suggesting snow for the early part of next week (and no, sadly that isn’t an April Fools’ Joke – there really is a snowflake on the app for Monday and Tuesday). Looks like WFG is on hold for now.