Bucking the trend…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 23rd April 2021

As England and Wales continue to bask in sunshine and toy stores feel the benefit of being open once more, it’s reassuring to know that other parts of the UK and Ireland will be catching up next week – shops will be re-opening in Scotland on Monday 26th and in Northern Ireland on Friday 30th. While it is reasonable to assume that sales will begin to level off now that kids are back at school, hopefully the initial rush back to stores will have given April sales numbers a healthy boost.

The last two weeks should also have helped stores to start moving through any residual stock which may have been left from Christmas, while anecdotally, I gather that pick-up lines are…picking up. Some categories have remained remarkably buoyant throughout lockdown, driven by digital sales, but let’s be honest, online sales of low-priced impulse and collectibles products were never going to be able to replicate what can be achieved in-store. The same could be said of ranges like plush, where the ‘aah’ factor of seeing product in the flesh makes so much difference. Hopefully suppliers in these categories are set to see a welcome upturn in business over the coming weeks.

As stock starts to turn, that should help sales reps and agents to get appointments with retailers, who will soon need to start placing new orders for summer and beyond. Slowly but surely, the industry’s natural cycle is returning. Along with renewed confidence, we’re starting to see more deals signed and new ranges unveiled – this week saw Moose Toys announce that it had signed on as master toy partner for toyetic online game Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout; Magic Box reveal its new collectible vehicle range T-Racers, plus the tantalizing prospect of Jazwares becoming a player in the costume category, with the news that it has signed a deal for Marvel costumes for the US market.

On the retail front, it was good to see Studio confirm that now it has sold off its Findel Education arm in a management buyout, it would no longer be exploring the option of selling off the main Studio retail business – a big relief to many toy suppliers, who tell me it is a growing, successful account. Elsewhere in the retail channel, tenants of shopping centre owner Hammerson will no doubt be pleased with the news that their landlord is to offer rent cuts of up to 30% to help maintain the viability of its centres. Seems an entirely sensible decision for Hammerson to “share the pain” with those retailers who have been forced to shut for so long, and hopefully it will be a mutually beneficial strategy in the long run.

Let’s hope toy suppliers can keep stock flowing as consumer demand starts to ramp up – we’ve already had a handful of companies decline the opportunity to advertise in the next few issues of Toy World due to ‘stock issues.’. However, they’re very much in the minority: after publishing our largest-ever April edition, May will be another sizeable issue, and June is already shaping up very nicely indeed, so retailers can order with confidence from the many companies who have chosen to showcase their new ranges in Toy World and presumably have sufficient stock to back it up.

The ongoing container complications may be one reason why a few companies are having supply problems. This week, it emerged that container rates have been climbing back up after the Suez debacle, as a shortage of both ships and containers has arisen from the week-long blockage of the canal. Suppliers are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: do they ship now and pay the higher rates, which they will almost certainly have to swallow themselves, unless they feel sufficiently brave to attempt to pass on the costs to retailers in the form of increased prices? Or do they wait a little longer and hope prices will start to fall again soon? At least one senior shipping industry figure suggested that it may take 6-8 weeks for capacity to return to its proper level which, if true, takes it perilously close to when autumn winter shipments will need to be made. No-one wants to risk potential fines from their main accounts for late product arrival, but equally some companies and ranges can ‘take the hit’ of additional shipping costs better than others.

It will also be interesting to see whether the pandemic has an impact on production in certain countries – the tragic situation in India, which has been all over the news this week, may yet affect those companies who were encouraged to dip a toe into manufacturing in the region. A year ago, when Covid first struck, there was a lot of talk about toy companies moving production out of China, in order to spread the risk. At the time, it probably seemed like a sensible strategy. A year on, as China has successfully subdued the outbreak and returned to almost full production capacity while other regions struggle to get the virus under control, one wonders whether some companies may be regretting the move. I just hope our customers, readers and the friends from India we’ve made at trade fairs over the years are all safe and well – as we emerge from a very challenging period, it’s easy to forget that many other countries are still in the eye of the storm. And when it comes to international travel and global trade shows, the adage ‘no-one is safe until we’re all safe’ is something we all have to bear in mind.

But for now, we can be thankful that re-opening has been a success for toy stores across England and Wales, and with any luck the rest of the UK and Ireland will have a similar experience next week. As Mattel’s impressive Q1 results show, the toy market has carried on in 2021 where it left off in 2020 – bucking the general retail trend. Long may that continue.