Time to make the magic happen …it’s the Friday Blog!

By the time you read this, if you’re based in the UK, you will know which of the infamous tiers you are now located in. Ahead of the announcement, I imagined a process somewhat akin to the televised draw for the next round of the FA Cup: “So it’s Ian Wright to draw the location ball, and Roy Keane to draw the Tier ball. Right, so first up we have Manchester…and that’s in Tier Three!” (Full disclosure: this may not be the actual process the government used…but arguably it might as well have been).

The good news is that regardless of which tier you fall into, ‘non-essential’ (their description, certainly not mine) retailers will be able to open once more. Thank goodness for that – let the countdown to Christmas truly begin. There are still a few festive foibles to work out, not least the complex issue of family bubbles (‘Fubbles’? Coincidentally, the brand name of a new range of bubbles which will be making its debut in the December issue of Toy World, which will be landing on your doormat early next week). And, of course, whether or not you can watch your football team play on Boxing Day (Watford fans were secretly hoping we’d get placed in tier 3)?

However, the most important thing as far as this column is concerned is that specialist toy retailers can throw open their doors once more and welcome shoppers as they frantically finalise their festive purchases. I received a message several weeks ago from an independent retailer, asking if I thought stores would be able to open again after 2nd December – and you could tell the trepidation which accompanied his request. Being closed for November has unquestionably been a pain; but it wouldn’t have come close to the pain of being closed for December. So, thank goodness we don’t have to face that prospect. Onwards and upwards – time to make the magic happen. Let’s just hope that shoppers feel confident enough to hit the high street in their droves (socially distanced droves, of course).

It isn’t just retailers who will be relieved: after a strong year of sales for many toy companies, suppliers had stocked up in anticipation of a bumper Christmas period. Many online retailers have inevitably had a field day during lockdown, but there are limits to what even they could have achieved in December, the peak month for deliveries. And for those who may have assumed that the grocers have been cleaning up as a result of being allowed to stay open, I am told that hasn’t necessarily been the case. That may not be as counter intuitive as it sounds: if a visit to the supermarket has ever been a relaxing, enjoyable event (questionable), I doubt many would feel that is still the case at the moment. You get in, you get your shopping, you get out – all the while avoiding the sort of people who don’t seem to be fully embracing the concept of social distancing and the courtesy of wearing a mask (if I see one more numpty wandering the aisles with his mask hanging off his chin, or with his nose poking out…). I am not sure that loitering down the toy aisle, gently perusing the myriad options for what to buy little Derek or Delilah, has the appeal it perhaps once did.

France went a step further, ‘encouraging’ (and by encouraging, I assume that meant applying serious pressure to) Amazon to postpone its Black Friday event until ‘non-essential’ stores could re-open. That is brave governance – it’s just a shame that our government talks a good game about level playing fields, but so often fails to follow it through. The Northern Ireland government should also be applauded for promising to give each household a £200 voucher to spend on the high street, to help stimulate post-Christmas demand. I have seen some store owners expressing disappointment that the voucher won’t be available before Christmas, but perhaps it will turn out to be even more helpful to drive customers into stores in the New Year? Either way, it is still a bold initiative and arguably better targeted than showering multi-billionaire business owners with government subsidies that just get passed on to shareholders (mentioning no names, but if you google the AO CEO, he does a great job of naming and shaming some of the guilty parties…).

Speaking of stimulating demand, I am reliably informed that last week’s ‘How to Spend it Well at Christmas’ was as effective as ever in driving sales, as several people whose brands were featured in the show were delighted to confirm this week. And as one happy camper pointed out: “And it cost me nothing! Now that’s what I call the best PR…. ever.” Catalogues are also said to be making a big comeback – with families stuck at home, prospective shoppers have far more time to browse catalogues, and are probably looking for a good excuse to tear themselves away from the screen for a while (maybe it’s not just kids who should have their screen time regulated…?). Great for those retailers who persisted with a printed catalogue – and further proof (if proof were needed) that print is a long, long way from being defunct.

Finally, as the festive season swings into gear, one toy shop owner in Cork was surprised to find that he had been banned from selling certain items from his Facebook shop, as they ‘violated’ the platform’s trading policy. What toy horrors could possibly have fallen foul of the Facebook algorithm (given the some of the material it deems acceptable to publish)? It turns out that one offending item was a kid’s wooden sword and shield, which does seem rather draconian – but not as funny as the Brio Train Station being on the naughty list, because it apparently violates the policy of “ticket selling” on the site. Great to see the Facebook algorithm is working so well – if only they could get it to recognise and root out hate speech rather than obsessing over kid’s toys, eh? Tech giants – gotta love their sense of priority.

It’s not fair …it’s the Friday Blog!

Lockdown 1 was largely characterized by a coming together of the UK community in the face of adversity, a collective camaraderie aimed at defeating an unknown enemy. Many people talked about ‘Blitz Spirit’, even though they weren’t even born then. Lockdown 2 definitely feels different: people are quite understandably starting to feel a little tetchy, and it’s all getting a bit fractious out there. If Lockdown 1 could be summed up by Captain Tom’s nobility and clapping for carers, an abiding memory of Lockdown 2 will be Midco Toys’ Dave Middleton filming himself roaming the aisles of his local Tesco, bemoaning the fact the supermarket can stay open to sell toys while he can’t. “It’s not fair” he points out – and he’s right. It isn’t fair.

The lack of consistency has rankled with shop owners and consumers alike – although from different angles. Consumers don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to buy whatever they want if a store is open, regardless of whether an item is essential or non-essential (and who decides what is essential anyway…?), while independent store owners see their livelihoods at risk by being forced to close during one of the peak months of the year.

Exacerbating the situation, we are still in the dark about what happens after 2nd December. Numerous retail executives have called on the government to offer some clarity about the next steps, yet ministers don’t seem to appreciate that retailers can’t just make arrangements to re-open the night before. There are staff rotas to organize, stock to pull together – particularly for omni-channel retailers, do they divert stock to the stores or to the warehouses that fulfill online orders? Sadly, as most politicians have little experience of business (or indeed the real world), the pleas of retailers appear to have had little effect so far, as the government continues to prevaricate and talk in riddles about what may or may not happen next month.

The BTHA and the TRA have joined forces to make their own request to the Prime Minister – that he should add toy retailers to the essential retail list. The impassioned letter makes a compelling case and few could find fault with its logic – but unfortunately that hasn’t necessarily been a pre-requisite of the decision-making process thus far. Of course, there are no easy decisions, and a relaxing of the lockdown in December will almost certainly result in measures being tightened again in the early part of next year. From a toy retail perspective, I would imagine that is a trade-off most toy retailers and suppliers would be prepared to make.

That said, I suspect a lot of children will receive money or vouchers for Christmas this year especially from relatives who may not want – or be able – to travel. NPD produced a report in the US, suggesting that 30% of festive shoppers are planning to spend more than last year, because they have fewer expenses related to activities such as eating out and travel, while 40% said that would be buying more gifts to bring joy during challenging times. And over 50% said that they would be sending gift cards or money. So while January sales will never compare to December turnover for the toy market, we could still see a nice boost in the New Year – and if stores can stay open, they can get their share, rather than sitting back and watching as yet more money flows into Amazon’s coffers. That wouldn’t be fair either.

However, there is still an awful lot that can happen between now and January. Black Friday seems to have turned into a month-long event rather than a specific weekend this year – no surprise with all the capacity issues within delivery services. Indeed, the whole supply chain is creaking at the moment – logistics companies have been warning of severe disruption at ports for some weeks, with some ships prevented from unloading or even being forced to divert to other ports hundreds of miles away. Who could possibly have foreseen this kind of chaos when the port of Felixstowe appointed Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling as a part-time advisor (£100,000 a year for 7 hours ‘advice’ a week)? I for one am truly amazed that a man with his incredible track record has stuffed it up so badly. If ever a man had the ‘reverse midas touch’…

I was very sad to hear that Jimmy Hunter passed away last weekend. Another toy trade legend has left us – Jimmy was one of those ‘once met, never forgotten’ characters who was a passionate advocate for the toy industry throughout his distinguished career. Through his own Hunter Toys company and his sterling work for the BTHA, Jimmy was always willing to break new ground, and he was never less than forthright and honest in everything he did. The Golden Teddy awards are just a part of the great legacy he leaves behind, and the many comments we received show how well loved and respected he was within the toy community.

I trust you all saw the toy-focused episode of Philip Schofield’s ‘How to Spend it Well at Christmas’ this week? Companies whose products have featured in the programme in previous years always tell me that it shifts units – I very much hope that happened again this year. As for the programme itself, it perhaps felt a little more disjointed than in previous year and perhaps some of the segments felt a little out of place (adult inline skates or marshmallow and beer advent calendars anyone?). As ever, many great toys shone through, while it was also heartening to see a selection of inclusive toys being prominently featured – it’s nice to acknowledge some of the great work being done by the toy industry, as well as focusing on its commercial success. Ultimately, if the show has moved the dial again, that will be good news for the whole toy community – and we need all the good news we can get at the moment.

Finally, like many of you, the Beano was part of my childhood, so I’m delighted to see it continues to raise a smile so many years later. This week saw the appearance of the first-ever ‘BeanOld’, a special edition aimed at adults featuring topical satire such as the marvellous takedown of Dominic Cummings below. And if the government completely stuffs up the decision about what happens to so-called ‘non-essential’ retailers after December 2nd, I very much hope the ‘BeanOld’ gives it to them with both barrels.

Essentially…. it’s the Friday Blog!

So, how was everyone’s first week back in lockdown? Somehow, it feels different this time round, and not just because schools and universities are still open, making it all feel a bit half-hearted. Meanwhile, as the government is busy playing ‘My Little Crony’ (seriously, Hasbro should sue…), retail businesses are left to squabble over the sheer inconsistency of it all. Indies are understandably grumbling that they have been forced to close, while the likes of Ryman’s and The Range are allowed to stay open to sell toys. Come on – if Ryman’s is ‘essential’, Donald Trump is a good loser.

It’s not just the indie retailers that are feeling fractious, as Nat Southworth eloquently pointed out on my LinkedIn feed this week: “Please also spare a thought for all the suppliers who committed to stock ahead of the lockdown and have containers arriving and warehouses full of product that should be flowing to stores and consumers. The shops are at the front end, but there are a lot of other businesses impacted through the supply chain. Let us all hope that we experience a MEGA December!” Indeed, I’m sure we’re all hoping for that.

I doubt it makes specialist toy retailers feel any better when they read that sales are soaring at B&M, another retailer which has escaped the lockdown regulations, while they can also go to their local supermarket and see aisles of toys packed with customers, buying the very products they could be selling themselves, if only they were open. What level playing field…?

And then there is the catch-22 of Amazon; many specialist retailers have sensibly turned to eCommerce during lockdowns, yet this week Amazon has been hit with anti-trust charges, after being accused of systematically collecting data from independent companies and vendors and using it to gain an edge over them. The only surprise is that it took EU regulators two years to come to this conclusion – I would have thought it fell under the ‘blindingly obvious’ category of things Amazon has been up to, although I should probably point out that Amazon has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that “no firm cares more for small businesses.” This comment prompted some choice replies on my LinkedIn feed – I particularly liked the observation about Amazon levying “baseless fines” on its vendors which have to be fought on an individual case-by-case basis (one small company owner claimed she had successfully won 50 cases in the last few weeks alone!). Not the way companies generally treat customers they “care” about, surely?

Talking to a few indies this week, consumers seem to be behaving a little differently during the latest lockdown: it appears that many of the enquiries they are receiving are for products which are proving difficult to track down in the retailers that remain open. Interestingly, one of the main lines being cited is the JJ doll from Cocomelon, which I don’t remember appearing on many of this year’s festive top toy lists. Some may wonder whether this suggests that these lists are more about eliciting marketing support from major suppliers or promoting toys that retailers have heavily stocked up on, rather than predicting top toys per se. Personally, I prefer to look at it as a perfect example of the delicious unpredictability of the toy market. After all, if this hot line passed all the main toy retailers by only a few short weeks ago, it shows just how difficult it is to accurately gauge the most sought-after toys, even when you are a bona fide toy ‘expert’. And as for the indie retailer who was asked if he had any ‘Roadblocks Lego’, full marks for tact and diplomacy in his reply (I wonder how many supermarket store assistants would have been able to work out what the customer was looking for…).

Two of our biggest stories of the week have featured The Entertainer, a retailer which has certainly not been resting on its laurels recently. Our article about The Entertainer’s spat with the Westfield shopping centres drew a huge audience – who knew that rental disputes were that fascinating to so many people? I understand that the two parties are now in conversation to resolve the issue – hopefully common sense will prevail.

The Entertainer’s other major news was its tie-up with M&S to supply toys via its online platform. The deal will see around 250 products available through the M&S website – mostly ELC lines, along with a sprinkling of branded and licensed items. So, the big question on everyone’s lips is whether this deal is ‘for life, or just for Christmas’? No official word from either side, but my guess is that both parties are assessing the performance over the festive period and seeing if the partnership offers a good foundation to build on for the future. Who knows, the relationship may even migrate from the online realm to the physical stores – stranger things have certainly happened. Either way, it opens another avenue for selling toys which has recently been closed off, so that can only be a good thing for the toy market.

Right now, I suspect most of us are doing our best to look ahead. No doubt the tantalizing announcement of an imminent vaccine has us all excited – providing, of course, the government doesn’t mess this one up too (so basically, I look forward to catching up with you all again in 2025). Despicable Dom and his Minions are leaving Downing Street (seriously, Universal should sue…). Suppliers and retailers are looking forward to a strong festive period, then finding a way to navigate Toy Fair Season when there won’t actually be any Toy Fairs. Hopefully, we can play our part in supporting the industry in that respect – the Toy World team is spending most of its working (and waking) hours on our essential January issue right now. It’s hard enough to pull a gargantuan beast like that together at the best of times – and this is hardly the best of times. I’m sure we’re all experiencing the joys of making decisions and finalizing activity when our teams are spread far and wide. So, thank you to all those companies which have helped us enormously by confirming their participation so that we can plan ahead – and hopefully there are plenty more to come on board yet. We’ve hit record readership and engagement levels this year, and January is always our most-read issue of the year – and next year, with buyers not spending a fortnight in Hong Kong or having to prep for London and Nuremberg, they’ll have even more time to digest our ‘bumper’ issue. Toy Fairs may not be taking place, but buyers still need to buy – and we will make sure they can read about all the important new 2021 launches in this issue. To paraphrase one of the stars of Lockdown 1, all the cool cats and kittens will be in there – as they say in all corny sales pitches, “don’t miss out.”

Always look on the bright side of life… it’s the Friday Blog!

Like many of you, last Saturday evening I sat and watched our somewhat bewildered PM deliver the news that the business community was dreading – despite repeatedly insisting that he wouldn’t do it, he had made yet another U-turn and decided after all to put England back into lockdown, from 5th November until 2nd December. My initial feeling was one of foreboding – that I was going to come into the office on Monday to be greeted by a tide of less than positive calls and emails from customers. How wrong I was – just another reason why I love the toy trade and its enduringly positive outlook. We really do ‘always look on the bright side of life’, even – especially – in the face of adversity.

Without doubt, lockdown 2 is a bloody nuisance. But Christmas is most definitely NOT cancelled – and neither are bricks and mortar sales. Speaking to a host of toy retailers of all sizes on Monday to gauge their reaction to the news, it was clear that the resilience that has been evident throughout the year is still there in abundance. Instead of sitting there moping and moaning, retailers were already gearing up to continue trading through the next four weeks. They’ve been through lockdown before, they know what it entails and what they need to do – and they wasted no time in making sure their customers knew how they could continue to get their hands on toys over the coming weeks.

As an added bonus, in the days preceding lockdown, toy stores were absolutely flying – this very welcome sales surge saw queues forming and sales numbers matching Christmas week. Gary Grant was almost bouncing off the walls as he told me that online sales had grown by 400% over the weekend, while Monday’s trading across the store estate had hit double the figure achieved on the corresponding day last year by 2PM. As Gary said to me: “Shoppers are definitely panicking. If they didn’t take the ‘shop early for Christmas’ message on board before, they certainly are now.”

It wasn’t just UK retailers who were brimming with positivity this week – I had a fascinating call with FAO Schwarz’s Jan-Erik Kloth, who was delighted to share how the retailer is bringing its renowned experiential retail experience to life in the post-covid digital arena (more on that in the coming days and weeks), while Mattel’s EMEA managing director Sanjay Luthra was just one of many senior toy executives keen to share how the company is supporting its retail customers in the run-up to Christmas. Far from being faced with a barrage of negativity this week, it has been inspiring and uplifting to talk to people who are rolling their metaphorical sleeves up and getting on with it, facing the challenges head on. We survived lockdown before and we will survive it again.

Of course, it’s inevitable that there will also be some less than positive stories, given the prevailing climate. The news that Spring Fair has been cancelled for ’21 will come as a surprise to precisely no-one, although the announcement that John Lewis will be making 1500 head office staff redundant was perhaps more of a shock (although I am going to say what many of you are thinking…if they are letting that many staff go, how many people did they have working there in the first place?).

The other eyebrow-raising retail news of this week was the revelation that the majority of standalone Argos stores will effectively be phased out over the next four years, with 420 earmarked for closure by March 2024. Overall, 3500 jobs will be lost at Sainsbury’s, which is a huge shame, although Argos’ strong performance during lockdown – when sales increased despite stores being closed – suggests that the store estate is no longer a key driver of Argos sales, making the move somewhat inevitable.

Interestingly, research unveiled this week suggests that independent shops have been better at surviving Covid-19 than chain stores: small independent retailers on the High Street suffered a net decline of 1,833 stores in the first half of 2020, less than a third of the 6,001 chain store outlets lost. The research concluded that independent operators were more agile and reactive, bringing in new product lines and responding quicker to trends and consumer demand. They also had a smaller cost base to cover during periods of little or no trade and had been able to take advantage of government support schemes (although to be fair, that couldn’t be said of Sainsbury’s, which this week announced dividends to shareholders while pocketing £230million in business rates relief. The combined value of the final and interim dividend was…. you guessed it, just over £230million. And there you have the intrinsic flaw in the system laid bare in all its glory….).

Anyway, I digress – for me it has been a surprising week. I expected nervousness and trepidation, and while those feelings inevitably persist in certain quarters, most of the people I have spoken to this week are confident in their brands and their plans, and continue to remain optimistic about the UK toy market’s prospects for the festive season. Lockdown does raise the issue of whether we will now see large crowds return to stores in December, which was something retailers were working hard to avoid – and arguably rather undermines the government’s virus containment strategy – but that’s a challenge for another day.

For now, let’s continue to make the most of the ‘new weird’ – as retailers introducing a virtual Father Christmas service are certainly doing. Personally, I think it’s a great move – why shouldn’t kids get zoom fatigue like adults? “Santa, you’re on mute….SANTA!”

A better class of problem …it’s the Friday Blog!

I called a client in Italy earlier this week and asked him how things were there – his reply was short and to the point: “It’s a giant mess.” To be fair, he was laughing when he said it and I doubt he is alone in his assessment of the ongoing handling of the pandemic, and in thinking it’s good to try to retain a modicum of humour about the whole sh*tshow.

France and Germany have just gone back into lockdown (with French toy stores now closed until the start of December), while clamour is growing here in England for the government to follow Wales and Ireland into some form of ‘circuit breaker’ scenario. With only eight weeks to Christmas, it is not just UK toy retailers who will be watching the situation nervously; so many businesses depend on the festive trading period.

No surprise then that in addition to bringing the annual DreamToys media event forward by two weeks, chairman of the DreamToys committee Gary Grant was keen to push the ‘buy early for Christmas” message to the media. He’s not wrong either: it was no marketing ploy or the voice of someone crying wolf – consumers would certainly do well to heed his sage advice.

The toy industry has often been accused by the media of artificially creating stock shortages to drive demand, something I have robustly denied whenever interviewed on the subject. Why would a toy company deliberately set itself up to sell less than it could? This year’s conditions have provided a perfect storm: when lockdown first hit the UK in March, many retailers cancelled or deferred orders, unsure of what the coming months would bring. Production was lost across the globe – and indeed, I have been hearing rumours coming out of China that there are still major capacity challenges, as a result of staffing issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And the toy trade has performed far better during and post-lockdown than we could ever have hoped, putting even further pressure on stock of in-demand items. Of course, the fact that toy sales – and many toy retailers – are absolutely flying at the moment can very much be filed under ‘a better class of problem’, but you can see why retailers are urging consumers to buy early to avoid disappointment.

Furthermore, should we be forced into a new national lockdown, the idea that shoppers will just be able to turn to online delivery is rather optimistic – the delivery system is already struggling to cope, despite considerable resources being added, and a further surge in demand beyond what is already anticipated would surely be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We’ve already seen strong Q3 performances – Mattel, Hasbro and Hornby all released positive trading updates this week. Companies are also continuing to expand their portfolios – the acquisition of the Rubik’s brand by Spin Master this week being a prime example of a company pushing forward rather than playing it safe. September and October have been good months for the toy market, so let’s hope that consumers are paying attention and we see strong sales in November too – ‘a bird in the hand’ and all that.

Elsewhere, global toy show organisers have started to firm up dates for postponed 2021 events as well as 2022 shows. Both Nuremberg and New York will be returning to their traditional January / February slots in 2022, although there is a potential twist with Nuremberg – as exclusively revealed by Toy World earlier this week – with the organiser seriously considering moving the show forward a day, so that it will run from Tuesday – Saturday rather than Wednesday-Sunday. Assuming the proposed change is approved by the regulatory board, I suspect it will find favour with the majority of UK and international exhibitors and visitors.

Meanwhile, the postponed 2021 Nuremberg Toy Fair has been pencilled in for 20th-24th July. There has been plenty of lively debate about the new date on our social media feeds – inevitably, some people are in favour, while some are not. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out with each of the postponed events (quick recap – Hong Kong Toy Fair has moved to the end of April and New York to the start of May). Naturally, the first major hurdle is whether the prevailing virus situation allows any of the events to go ahead – should that hurdle be cleared, we can debate the respective merits of the new timeslots to our hearts’ content.

By contrast, the London Toy Fair has joined the Australian Toy Fair in skipping a year and going straight to 2022. In the case of the BTHA, it has also declined to organise a digital event to compensate. There has been a bit of low-level grumbling about that, but as I hinted last week, I can completely see why the BTHA has chosen that course. We’re all replacing physical meetings with digital ones, but what is the role of a toy association or exhibition organiser in facilitating these meetings…can’t they just as easily be arranged directly between buyers and sellers? Setting up a brand new digital event would presumably involve considerable investment in cash and peoplepower terms, and there is no way to amortise the investment – money, time or resources – across multiple events, as Festival of Licensing organizer Informa has done (with four events in the past month alone). In my very humble opinion, the BTHA has done the sensible thing and left it to suppliers to sort out their own retail zoom meetings. Admittedly, I feel for new or smaller players which don’t necessarily have the same established retail relationships – the shows offer them a valuable platform, and they may potentially find it harder to secure digital meetings. But on balance, I believe the BTHA is right to focus on what it does best.

Finally, a few people got very excited this week when a random tweet suggested that Woolworths might be making a comeback. Quite a few media operations got taken in – perhaps because it wasn’t April 1st, it didn’t occur to them that the whole thing might be one giant hoax? To be fair, the signs were there for all to see: Very owns the Woolworths name, why on earth would it license it out to a business it had no control over, yet alone one which was proposing opening only “2 or 3 stores.” Perhaps the clincher was that the post misspelt the Woolworths name – not once, but twice in a single tweet. I appreciate that people are keen to read some good news at the moment, and there is an abiding fondness for Woolworths – even after all these years, it still has a place in the nation’s heart. But the world has moved on, perhaps we should celebrate what we have – there are many fine toy retailers which the kids of today will reminisce about in decades to come. Anyway, you wouldn’t even want to nick the pic’n’mix at the moment, when you have no idea who has been diving in before you. Let it go people…

Show Down … it’s the Friday Blog!

The worst-kept secret in the UK toy community is finally out: it has officially been confirmed that next year’s London Toy Fair has been cancelled. It has been widely known for weeks that the show wouldn’t be able to take place in 2021, but complex negotiations between the BTHA and Olympia had to be successfully concluded before the news could be made public. Of course, it is a massive shame for the BTHA: I genuinely feel for them, but realistically it was the only logical course of action. Both our daughters live in London and right now, if we wanted to see them, our only option would be to walk around a park with them. Unless we all fancy setting up trestle tables in Kensington Gardens, I’m afraid running a conventional trade fair is just not feasible. There is the slimmest of chances that things may be better by January, but a far greater possibility that London could be in Tier Three, or that the whole of the England could be in a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown by then (better then than November or December, that’s for sure).

It’s not nice to announce a show cancellation, but never more so than when it’s the main event for the UK toy community. I attended my first London Toy Fair in 1981. I have attended every day of every show since then – well over six months of my life has been spent at the show (I can’t be precise about the number of days, because I forget when it went from five days to four, then from four days to three). I have made and cemented countless business relationships and friendships over the years, and seen thousands of amazing products. I went on my first date with my wife during Toy Fair, and we got engaged during the show a year later. I even once turned down the chance to spend an evening in a Bushey wine bar with George Michael, when he was going to give me some tips about how to make it in the music business….because it was Toy Fair and that was more important (my bandmate went instead, and look where we ended up). The show has been cancelled outright, not postponed, so it’s a case of roll on 2022 – that will be one amazing show. I also wholeheartedly agree with the BTHA’s decision not to offer a digital alternative – more on that in next week’s Blog.

Of course, I am hugely fond of all the international trade shows too: the wonderful cities of Hong Kong, Nuremberg and New York are like second homes to me. My first ever time on a plane was my flight to Nuremberg in 1982 – the furthest I had travelled before that was the Isle of Wight. January and February will be very different next year, that’s for sure.  I love visiting all the shows and I find them hugely valuable. But the toy business must go on, even if trade shows can’t. Retailers still need to buy, and suppliers need to get their new products in front of them – and we will play our part in helping to do that.

Preparations are already well underway to utilise the channels which remain open: one retailer we spoke to this week described his office as being like a parcel depot, as samples have already begun to arrive from across the world, while he also admitted that his buying team is setting up Zoom and Teams meetings around the clock. Toy companies will be exploring their options too – in Germany, it appears that key suppliers will be coordinating the opening of their showrooms in January and February, in a similar vein to the way West Coast US suppliers operate in LA in September. Watch this space for more news on that initiative in the coming weeks.

Back in the UK, it turns out that last week’s Blog ‘Tier Four Fears’ headline was mildly prophetic (it’s almost as if I put some thought into these things…), as national news this week has been dominated by the lockdown tier system. Wales and Ireland have both introduced ‘firebreak’ lockdowns – Wales has introduced a total lockdown for two weeks, while Ireland has moved beyond Tier Four (thus totally ruining last week’s carefully constructed pun) into Tier Five, with measures set to last for up to six weeks until 2nd December. From a toy industry perspective, this could potentially have been disastrous – however, the Irish government has thankfully been persuaded that toy stores should be allowed to remain open for click and collect orders and home deliveries, while other non-essential retailers have been forced to close. Whoever in the Irish toy community has the ear of the Taoiseach and / or influence in the Irish corridors of power, fair play to them.

Meanwhile, UK cities continue to negotiate their upgrades / downgrades into Tiers Two and Three, attempting to navigate a government financial support system which seems haphazard at best. You may be thinking ‘why is he banging on about this’, but it matters: footfall in Liverpool slipped back to July levels this week, after being placed in Tier Three. In general, major cities have been struggling with footfall throughout the pandemic, as tourists and office workers have largely been absent. Hamleys has made a quarter of the staff in its Regent Street branch redundant, as there is no sign of a resurgence in visitors to the capital. And don’t forget, London is only in Tier Two, not Tier Three – for retailers, as we have seen with Liverpool, the increase in a Tier level can have a significant impact.

Before the news about Toy Fair broke, I had plenty more puns up my sleeve for the Blog headline this week: ‘Tiers of a Clown’ was my first thought (for obvious reasons). I could have gone with ‘Tiers are not enough’, although that would have implied I feel they should go further, and with my toy trade hat on, I couldn’t countenance that with the festive season looming. I am probably more in the ‘No more Tiers (enough is enough)’ camp right now – bricks and mortar retail needs all the help and support it can get, and we all know how important the last 4-6 weeks of trading are to the toy industry. Yes, online retailers (and those physical retailers with a strong online presence) would have a field day if England joined Wales and Ireland in a circuit breaker lockdown, but how long would it take before the logistics and delivery system became totally overwhelmed (rhetorical question – the answer is ‘not long at all’). Let’s hope that can be avoided this side of Christmas.

Finally, I was very sad to hear that Ian Cuthbert passed away earlier this week. The warm tributes we received from his many industry friends and colleagues show just how well loved and respected he was – a sad loss. No doubt we’ll raise a glass to his memory when we can all meet again.

 

Tier Four fears…it’s the Friday Blog!

I was driving home from the office a couple of weeks ago when I said to my wife: “Gary Grant has been very quiet recently. I do hope The Entertainer is doing ok.” Based on the latest developments this week, The Entertainer is clearly doing more than OK. In hindsight, his temporary low profile was obviously a by-product of being rather busy, landing a couple of truly massive and ground-breaking partnership deals.

The first coup sees The Entertainer responsible for bringing toys back into Debenhams stores across the UK. The decision by Debenhams to close its toy departments, while at the same time making its entire toy buying team redundant, caused shock waves when we first broke the news in early February (back when the world was still almost normal). Indeed, this was arguably a portent of wider tribulations ahead for Debenhams, which has been teetering on the brink at certain points this year. So, when we received a press release on Monday announcing that new toy departments would be opening in 80 of its stores before Christmas, I was delighted, but also curious. Why the change of heart? Who had physically curated the range, when the toy buying team left the building a long time ago?

A bit of digging online and it soon became apparent who was behind the move – The Entertainer. It’s good to see Debenhams having a strong toy presence, and I am reliably informed that initial sales reads are highly encouraging, both in-store and online. And for anyone concerned about Debenhams’ prospects, The Entertainer has been here before with Mothercare, so I am confident that they know how to structure a deal to protect themselves should things take a wrong turn.

Arguably, the second Entertainer deal is even more intriguing – a trial partnership with Asda to run its toy aisles. The trial, which starts in February, will involve five stores, and is part of a wider initiative by Asda to involve specialist retail brands being given responsibility for key non-food departments. It will be fascinating to see whether the trial is successful, and if it leads to a more permanent arrangement. It would certainly represent a massive game-changer for the UK toy market, not to mention for The Entertainer. I remember interviewing Gary Grant a while back and asking him if they were close to reaching saturation point in terms of potential new locations to open new stores, and whether that would present a ceiling to growth in the UK. Gary told me that they weren’t remotely close to hitting that point, and that there were many other avenues which could offer tremendous growth potential for the company. These latest developments illustrate just how right he was, and how opportunities often come from way outside what people would consider to be ‘your lane’. Spare a thought for the Asda toy buying team though, who must be feeling a little apprehensive (all 16 of them) …

Elsewhere this week, another toy trade show hit the ‘postpone’ button – this time, it was the turn of the Hong Kong Toy Fair, which has moved from its traditional slot in early January to a potential new date at the end of April. On the one hand, it was a logical (unavoidable?) decision to give up on January, with the existing quarantine regulations making the trip all but impossible – unless you were prepared to travel before Christmas and spend the festive season on your own in a hotel room (and I couldn’t see too many takers for that). The proposed new date would see the show coincide with the Hong Kong Gifts & Premium Fair, which has a certain logic to it. Unfortunately, the dates (27-30 April) immediately precede the proposed new dates for the New York Toy Fair (1-4 May), which is less than ideal. Time will tell whether virus conditions allow either or both events to take place, and to what extent the consecutive dates would impact people’s ability to attend both shows.

Indeed, we have our own short-term virus-related concerns to worry about here in the UK, as the spectre of another – albeit temporary – national lockdown looms. For now, tiers 1-3 thankfully don’t mandate for non-essential stores to be closed, but if we were to return to a full-on national lockdown, that would be an entirely different – and far more troubling – scenario. The first lockdown was not great for bricks and mortar retailers, but at least it didn’t happen at a peak selling time for toys: the  two or three week ‘circuit breaker’ being proposed in some quarters for October half-term would arguably not come at a worse time for the toy community. I’m repeatedly being told that people are shopping earlier for Christmas this year: a three-week gap between the end of October and mid-November would have a seismic impact on the strong momentum the toy market is building up. Very much a case of ‘Tier Four fears’ as far as the toy community is concerned…

If the worst were to happen and shops were forced to close temporarily, it would undoubtedly hand a massive advantage to online retailers. Timely, then, that the BTHA reminded everyone this week that the problem we have seen with unsafe products being sold by third-party sellers on online platforms is not going away…in fact, evidence shows it is actually getting worse, which is hugely disappointing. Online platforms have played a pivotal role in keeping the toy market buoyant in this most unusual of years, so I can understand why some suppliers might be reluctant to be seen to be rocking the boat at the moment. But, come on – 60% of the toys tested by the BTHA had serious safety failures and 86% were illegal to sell in the UK. That is simply not good enough. Online platforms have had plenty of time to get their house in order, and despite the reassuring promises, it appears that little or no genuine action is being taken (or if it is being taken, it is largely proving ineffective). I genuinely hope that MPs aren’t too distracted with covid and Brexit to be able to introduce legislation which would help to tackle the problem. Time to earn your wage increase, MP chaps and chapesses…

 

 

Don’t want to miss a thing …it’s the Friday Blog!

Life comes at you fast these days – I’m almost nervous to write the Blog too early on the Thursday, in case I have to rewrite it following yet another major development. There has been little time to pause for breath this week: the Australian Toy Fair became the latest event to reveal that it will be going virtual in 2021; the New York Toy Fair announced a potential date for the rescheduled show (1st- 4th May); Rubie’s emerged from Chapter 11 with new owners; Smyths became the latest toy retailer to unveil its predictions for top festive toys, while it has been confirmed that the next Jurassic World movie has been delayed from summer 2021 to summer 2022. So, if you harboured hopes that consumers will be flocking back to cinemas in the early stages of next year, it seems that movie studios don’t necessarily share your conviction. We had already seen the James Bond movie postponed yet again, this time from November to April 2021 – and who would bet against further postponement? Turns out James Bond’s licence to kill has been extended to British cinemas, as major chain Cineworld announced shortly afterwards that it would be temporarily closing all its UK cinemas from yesterday, with the loss of over 5,000 jobs. Odeon has also proposed weekend-only opening at just a quarter of its 120 UK sites. In fairness, you can’t really blame them, when they don’t have anything new to show. It would also be pretty awful if you were a major retailer which had selected two key movie-driven properties to support heavily on a cross-category level in 2021 and both movies ended up getting moved back to the following year – although maybe that is just one of the pitfalls of making early decisions in the current climate?

Whatever your personal view (is a trip to a socially distanced cinema or theatre any more dangerous than many of the things we are allowed to do?), it does seem that the situation surrounding mass gatherings of any description remains complicated. As ominous threats of further lockdown measures hover over England and Ireland, and more draconian restrictions are introduced in Wales and Scotland, it is very much a moving feast – and who knows when it will end.

And yet…. this is the good part – the toy business remains in rude health. I promise I am not wearing rose-tinted glasses: as regular readers will know, the prozac journalism approach of saying ‘everything is awesome’ when it’s anything but is certainly not my style.

However, speaking to NPD last week for a fascinating article that you’ll be able to read in the November issue of Toy World, it turns out that the numbers back up what I am hearing anecdotally…that the toy market continues to hold up remarkably well. In the UK, some weeks in September saw double digit growth: YTD, the UK market is up 6%. Come on, if someone had offered us that result when lockdown started in March, surely we’d have had their hand off for it?

It’s not just the UK either: the 13 countries which NPD track around the globe were collectively running at +11% to the end of August. However, it’s not quite as simple as saying that the global toy industry is up; the UK is outperforming the rest of Europe, while US gains are driving the international performance. For the detailed stats, you’ll have to wait to read the full article in November, but the headline takeway is that the toy market is doing ok – actually, better than ok.

The NPD data also affirms that consumers have started shopping early for Christmas. A psychologist would probably tell you that this reflects a desire to exert some degree of control when all around you, things are spiralling wildly out of control. This trend is also encouraging on a commercial level: historically, early shoppers tend to spend more than later shoppers, while retailers and consumers alike will want to avoid creating the kind of crowds we have become accustomed to seeing in the final weeks before Christmas.

I noticed a great story in the Irish press this week: huge queues had formed outside several branches of Smyths Toys, as rumours spread of an impending lockdown which would see all but essential stores forced to close. The first thing those shoppers thought about wasn’t toilet roll, pasta or three different types of flour: it was their kids, and the worry that they may not be able to get hold of the toys they want. This instinctive behaviour reinforces the age-old toy community adage that parents will do whatever they can to give their kids a happy Christmas. And after the year we’ve had, who could blame them?

So, while uncertainty rages around us, the toy industry is just getting on with doing what it does best – spreading a little joy and happiness. In strange, unpredictable times, it is nice to hang on to that very simple thought.

No doubt there are still many twists and turns ahead of us: Amazon Prime Day falling in October could be a game changer this year. In the same way that – in times long gone - the launch of the Argos catalogue used to be a pivotal moment for the toy market, Prime Day could very much ramp the season up several notches this year. Meanwhile, we’re all trying to get our heads around the lie of the land for 2021 – trade shows, international buying trips, previews, face to face meetings…. when will they be able to return? What will they look like when they do? How will they reflect the hybrid physical/digital model that many are suggesting is ‘the future’? This week’s Festival of Licensing has represented a big leap forward in terms of digital capability, although will it be better when virtual events can support and enhance rather than attempt to replace or replicate the benefits of physical shows and presentations?

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we’ll certainly keep asking all the right questions of all the right people. As I said at the start of this week’s Blog, things are happening fast – so to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up to receive our daily email newsletter and also – if you are likely to be working from home for any length of time – don’t forget to email anita@toyworldmag.co.uk with your home address so that we can divert your print copy accordingly. With so much happening and things changing rapidly, I’m sure you don’t want to miss a thing – and as long as you’re reading Toy World, you won’t.

News travels fast…it’s the Friday Blog!

Early on Tuesday morning, I received a WhatsApp message from a client in Hong Kong: “How does it feel to know that you are the guy that just made the entire toy trade hold their breath? I have been forwarded a link to your Nuremberg announcement by about 20 people in the last five minutes.”

News does indeed travel fast these days – especially major news like that. In case you have been on a digital detox this week, the Nuremberg Toy Fair announced that for the first time in its history, the event won’t be taking place at the end of January in 2021.

The news came as a shock to many, as the Nuremberg organisers had issued a statement only a month or so ago, stating that the show would be going ahead. However, ‘real world’ events clearly overtook the situation, while strong rumours had been circulating for weeks that potential complications were arising. It was a fairly open secret that a number of major multi-national toy companies wouldn’t have exhibited in Nuremberg in January: I even received a statement from one company, although I was asked not to release it, which I respected. It was obvious why: not only did they not want to be the first company to announce that they would be pulling out, but I suspect they hoped all along that they would never have to go public at all, should the show be cancelled. Another big clue came two weeks ago, when the organiser of the Frankfurt shows announced it would be postponing until April: at that point, it seemed entirely logical that if Frankfurt deemed postponement necessary, other German shows were likely to follow suit.

There is talk of the Nuremberg Toy Fair being delayed until the summer, which would undoubtedly have its merits: walking around the Messe showground or the old town in the evening in just a shirt, rather than thermals, two jumpers, a heavy coat and fetching gloves/scarf/wooly hat combo certainly appeals. On the flip side, many toy retailers will have finalized their autumn winter selection process by the summer – it’s a tough one to call.

Trust me, it makes us very sad to have to break news like this. I have spoken to numerous people this week who are genuinely upset that the toy community won’t be meeting up in the first few weeks of 2021: just as there was public outcry when our dear PM hinted that different households may not be able to mix at Christmas, so the toy trade feels similarly disappointed that it won’t be able to come together in the usual way. But is it the right decision? I believe so – I say that with a heavy heart, but there is no escaping the fact that shows under the current guidelines would be a pale shadow of what we are used to.

In the absence of trade shows, there will be challenges for retailers and suppliers to face: we coped relatively comfortably this year, as retailers saw all the new products at last year’s previews and shows. And while spring summer previews had to be conducted digitally, it is not an insurmountable problem, given the modest level of new launches for that period – previewing for autumn winter is a whole different ball game. I spoke to a couple of suppliers this week who admitted that a sense of ‘zoom fatigue’ is beginning to creep in. I’m hearing that some suppliers are looking at live, interactive broadcasts as a way to inject some pizzazz and create more engagement into proceedings, while there is also talk of socially distanced physical previews making a comeback in January / February.

Next week’s Festival of Licensing may give us a few more clues as to how digital events can be harnessed to good effect; the big advantage this event has is that licensors are showing broadcast footage and sizzles, not actual products. Few retailers I have spoken to believe there is a substitute for seeing the product in the flesh – which is why I am convinced that toy trade shows will return as soon as it is deemed practical.

Indeed, the Hong Kong government has just launched a $130m exhibition industry subsidy scheme, whereby it will cover the venue rental cost for organisers of exhibitions held at the Hong Kong Convention Centre and AsiaWorld-Expo. This is potentially good news for the conference sector in Hong Kong, but realistically the concept is unlikely to be replicated by our own government. The announcement also strikes a note of caution: “Exhibitions typically have long planning lead-times and re-launching them before the October 2021 deadline for the Subsidy Scheme may prove challenging.” Speaking to someone from the toy retail community this week, he admitted that 90% of what he traditionally does in the Far East could be done here in the UK – although the caveat is that he doesn’t have an own brand range to curate.

However, despite the latest wave of trade show cancellations, there has been plenty of good news to report from the world of toys this week: several retailers – including Studio, B&M and Halfords – have issued positive trading statements, backed by hugely encouraging sales numbers. We’ve also revealed the Amazon top 12 toys for Christmas and the winners of the inaugural Play for Change Awards, which were unveiled in a video in which you might recognise one of the presenters moonlighting from his usual role as publisher of the UK’s leading toy magazine. Let’s just say that I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon. But it was a great initiative to be part of - as chair of the jury, we certainly had some lively debates before we arrived at the winning entries. Kudos to the TIE for managing to get the awards up and running in this most challenging of years. I think it is important to recognise the great work being done by toy companies in the fields of empowerment, sustainability and future skills areas, and hopefully we will see many more toy companies following suit and launching their own initiatives in the coming years.

The bumper October issue of Toy World also landed on desks, accompanied by a special supplement published in conjunction with Mattel Licensing – both publications packed with great exclusive content. Trade shows may have had to hit the pause button for a short while, but we’ll continue to keep you up to date with what’s happening and all the latest products about to hit shelves. And in the immortal words of a certain British ‘sweetheart’ which arguably resonate more than ever this year: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” Or maybe it will be a wintry day. But we will meet up at some point – and what a show that will be!

When the going gets tough …it’s the Friday Blog!

It was all going so well too. Once again it’s a case of ‘all change’, as the government rows back on many of the things it has encouraged us to do in recent weeks, such as return to the office and generally get out more. Clearly, it’s all the public’s fault for following these suggestions in the first place – what were we thinking?

The good news is that it seems we can’t catch Covid in a pub before 10.00 at night, although I do hope the virus will recognize when the clocks change next month.

Joking apart, I do feel for retailers in city centre locations, for whom the latest policy U-turn will come as a blow. However, local stores could once again stand to benefit if people heed the advice to work from home – although personally, I am not convinced that will prove to be the case. Businesses which have invested significant time, effort and funds in creating ‘Covid secure’ workplaces did so for a reason; they believe their teams work better when they are together, rather than operating remotely. Even the Prime Minister admitted under question from fellow MPs that if a business felt it was operationally beneficial to work from the office, it should do so – which seems to directly contradict what he said on TV the day before. No wonder we’re all confused…

Whatever happens, the toy community has weathered the storm so far this year, and it will do so again. We’re a resilient, resourceful, adaptable, reactive crowd, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make it work – unless, of course, a return to lockdown brings back the dreaded Zoom quiz. If that happens, we riot.

If Covid wasn’t enough for businesses to contend with, Brexit looks set to provide further challenges: in the ongoing saga of ‘Freight Britain’, it has emerged that drivers will need a ‘Kent Access Permit’ to get into the county after December 31st, creating a de facto internal border….in Kent! Maybe our government has been following Trump’s lead: “We’re going to build a wall…and Maidstone is going to pay for it!”

The sad thing is that while we joke about it, this whole fiasco could have a profound impact on retailers and suppliers next year: we’re creating borders where there were none, inflicting cost where none was previously levied. Earlier this week, Michael Gove admitted that a 7,000-strong lorry queue could easily follow in the wake of the new arrangements: to put that in context, last year it was suggested that a queue of between 1,200 and 2,724 heavy goods vehicles would lead to tailbacks lasting six days. Now multiply that by six…thank goodness January is not a key month for toy stock to arrive in the UK. Hopefully, the wrinkles will be ironed out by the time toy shipments start to arrive in earnest.

Away from the virus and Brexit-related developments which have dominated national headlines this week, it has been a very busy week for the toy community – and Toy World has once again been first with all the stories that mattered. Whether it was the appointment of Rosie Marshall to head up AIS’s play-room department (a move which has been warmly welcomed across the trade); the news that Rubies is poised to come out of Chapter 11, courtesy of a deal with Neca owner Joel Weinshanker; confirmation that Smyths will not be running its ‘£10 off £50’ promotion this year, plus the launch of its Christmas catalogue; Menkind opening concessions in Debenhams; the postponement of the Frankfurt February trade shows or the news that Hong Kong’s quarantine restrictions have been extended to 31st December and the UK placed on the ‘high risk’ travel list– EVERY important story affecting the toy market has appeared first on the Toy World website this week. As it does every week.

Our story about the Hong Kong quarantine ‘stealth extension’ took a bit of digging to uncover; the Hong Kong government certainly kept that one quiet, possibly to avoid push back from the businesses which will be most affected, including tourism, retail and of course the whole conference and trade show sector. The fact that the UK has now been added to the ‘naughty list’ makes matters even worse, putting a serious question mark over the traditional January buying trip for most UK visitors.

There is a vague possibility that the quarantine regulations will be lifted from 1st January – but how many international travellers will be willing to commit to airline tickets and hotel reservations on the slim chance that happens? If the restrictions are still in place, visitors wanting to open up a showroom or attend appointments in the first few days of January would need to fly out the week before Christmas and spend the next 14 days alone in a hotel room. We all love the trip, but I’m not sure anyone would be up for that.

This is just the latest twist in this most unpredictable of years. Undoubtedly, 2020 hasn’t been the year any of us would have hoped for, but one of the things that has shone through in the toy community this year is its passion for what it does. People care. They care what happens to trade shows and buying trips. They care about the people they work with in the trade – look at the number of people offering their congratulations on our social media feeds to Graham Saltmarsh, Rosie Marshall and numerous other people who have recently taken up new roles. Toys is a close-knit community – and it shows. Toy World is at the heart of that community – we haven’t missed a single daily newsflash or monthly print issue at any stage this year. Like most people in the toy industry and Billy Ocean, when the going got tough…. we got going.

We’ve received so many messages from retailers and suppliers this year, thanking us for maintaining our service. In truth, we never considered doing anything else: our role in this great trade is to keep information flowing, to keep people up to date with what’s going on, to keep communicating, voicing an opinion and analysing what’s going on. Arguably, the industry needed that more than ever this year. The way things are going, next year will be no different. So, we’ll keep doing what we do. Good or bad, we’ll bring you all the news that matters – and you’ll read it here first.