Buy, buy baby…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 28th October 2022

Are we ready for some good news? Well, let me try to find a few positives to focus on from this week’s developments in the toy trade and beyond. First up, the hopelessly inept government of the past six weeks seems to have been replaced by a calmer version, with the pound and financial markets recovering slightly as a result. Consumers may not have been fully aware of the potential effect on store prices if the pound had not rebounded quickly, but suppliers and retailers certainly were – and I am sure a collective sigh of relief has accompanied sterling’s rally. We are not out of the woods just yet, but the portents are a lot better than they were two weeks ago. Maybe we just need a period where safe, boring people are in charge for a while?

Even better news comes from the toy retail front line, where I gather half term sales have shown encouraging signs of picking up…finally. It’s still sensible to remain pragmatic when looking at what may happen in the run-up to Christmas, but at least there is some evidence to suggest that toy sales are going in the right direction at last.

In other encouraging news, SMF Toytown opened its latest branch in Coventry yesterday – the 8000 sq ft branch is located on the first floor of a former Debenhams store, and the WhatsApp video which Alan Simpson sent me the day before the store opened showed how impactful it looked. Hopefully by the time I write this, the pristine shelves and aisles will have begun to look well-shopped, and the new Coventry store will be following the trajectory of Toytown’s new Perth store, which has traded exceptionally well since it opened a month ago.

It is the kind of location that I think many people in the toy community envisaged Toys R Us occupying when it starts its retail roll-out next year. Last week’s Blog had to be hastily rewritten on Friday morning, after news of the Toys R Us deal with WHSmith came into our inbox overnight. I wasn’t sure if my take on the arrangement would align with what other people were thinking – but most of the feedback I have received this week suggests I wasn’t too far away from capturing the general consensus.

If anything, some people were actually less optimistic about the partnership than I was, although one of Toys R Us’ big challenges was the lack of obvious choices: Sainsbury’s has Argos, Tesco has The Entertainer, Asda tried that approach and backtracked, and Morrisons is generally felt to be too inconsistent and not sufficiently focused on toys – while, crucially, the department store channel is in a huge state of flux here in the UK. Debenhams would have arguably been a logical option had it not closed its doors last year, especially when you look at the arrangement Toys R Us has put in place with Macy’s over in the US. John Lewis was one option I had thought plausible, but with only 34 stores left open in the UK, maybe the long-term numbers didn’t add up for both parties? Waitrose was another potential candidate I had identified, along with Wilko and The Range at the other end of the scale– although other people have suggested that maybe they would be considered too ‘downmarket’?

It will be interesting to see how Toys R Us approaches ranging in the WHSmith trial; presumably there will be a greater focus on sub £10 and £10-£20 price points than the overall online range, while certain categories (games, puzzles, art & craft, STEM spring to mind) would appear to make more sense than others. One of the big attractions of Toys R Us in its heyday was the vast choice it offered consumers – and, of course, the fact it was an exciting outing for the whole family to visit. Will consumers still be expecting an experience along those lines? And what about staff interaction with customers – it wasn’t always Toys R Us’ strongpoint compared to the successful specialists which flourished in its wake, like Smyths and The Entertainer. Nevertheless, its staff’s engagement with customers was still head and shoulders above what anyone would traditionally expect in a WHSmith store. Still, lots of time for them to address these potential challenges to deliver an experience which could ultimately benefit both partners.

Whichever direction Toys R Us choose, curating a standalone retail range will take a bit of time, despite the ‘toe in the water’ nature of the nine-store arrangement. And, of course, WHSmith will still have to maintain its toy buying team to cover the rest of its store estate.

Toys R Us isn’t the only retailer starting to look at ranging for 2023 – the new Toymaster selection committee met this week to start planning selections for next year. I gather there has been a change of guard, with Carl Blatcher and Emma Dadswell joining Dave Middleton and Steve Hartfield on the team. Dave is gutted that he is now the oldest member of the new, younger team – but at least he has a way to go to catch up with Paul Reader, who is now the Alex Ferguson figure to the ‘Class of 92’ selection committee. At least Paul will appreicate the Blog title this week…

Speaking of next year, if you haven’t planned your trips to London and Nuremberg Toy Fairs, I would add that to your list of things to do pretty sharpish – with many hotels across the globe still operating below capacity, rooms are scarce and prices are higher than they’ve ever been, especially in Nuremberg. While it is unavoidable and outside of anyone’s control, I do think it’s a shame, as it may impact on the size of teams that retailers and toy companies decide to send. But with the likelihood that far fewer people will be travelling to Hong Kong in January, Nuremberg and London are going to be incredibly busy shows for retailers. All the more reason to make sure you have a strong presence in our Nuremberg and London Toy Fair preview issues – buyers’ schedules are going to be full to bursting and they need to know why they should add you to their list. Those editions are already filling up fast, so now’s a very good time to pick up the phone or drop us an email to secure your spots.

Finally, if you’re not planning a trip to Coventry in the near future, here’s a look around the new SMF Toytown store in all its cinematic glory: