Something to look forward to…it’s the Friday Blog!

There are certain fixed points in the calendar around which my year traditionally revolves, with the summer months being no exception. Kids break up from school in the third week of July – while mine are long past that stage, it does mean that my journey into the office becomes infinitely easier for six blissful weeks. Then, in a normal year, there are family holidays, trade shows and business trips to juggle over the summer months: each a tentpole in its own way, something to look forward to and to plan around.

Sadly, 2020 has seen the natural order of things thrown into disarray: kids haven’t been in school for months; one by one, trade shows and business trips have fallen by the wayside, while the family holiday bit the dust months ago. Even the good old Argos catalogue, a summer staple for the past 48 years, is no more: several months after we exclusively revealed that the catalogue would be cancelled this year, Argos has finally gone public with the news. While it represents the disappearance of an industry icon, it’s hard to argue with the rationale described by Sainsbury’s chief executive Simon Roberts: “Removing the printed catalogue helps us to flex our range and offers and to be more competitive on price.” In an age where flexibility and reactiveness are key to retail success, perhaps the catalogue tied their hands just that little bit too much?

Those who had planned to go ahead with their summer holiday to Spain were dealt a blow this week with the implementation of a 14-day quarantine period for returning travellers. Whether by accident or design, this move is likely to deter many from travelling abroad this summer – not just to Spain, as there is now a risk that any country could be added to the list at a moment’s notice. I know we’ve all enjoyed a good game during lockdown (our family favourite has been Big Potato’s Which Came First?), but I’m not sure whether I fancy a game of quarantine roulette. On the plus side, this may increase the number of staycations or UK-based holidays, which in turn could offer a welcome boost to domestic toy retailers.

We’ve been speaking to a host of indie toy retailers recently, and it’s encouraging to hear how many of them have been pleasantly surprised by the level of business that they have been enjoying since they re-opened. More people staying in the UK over the summer can only help that trend continue. Of course, there is a corollary to that: some retailers which depend heavily on international tourists are finding the going tough. An indie retailer on a day trip to the big smoke last weekend sent me some pictures from Hamleys – it looked like he had managed to sneak in through the back door before the store had opened, as the aisles were literally deserted. The West End in general is, I understand, still incredibly quiet, but pictures of a totally empty toy store are always a sad sight.

Thankfully, this doesn’t appear to be the picture across the whole of the UK: smaller towns in particular seem to have benefitted from the number of people working from home and shopping local. Official ONS data suggests that footfall is currently around 60% of the level it was a year ago, but almost all the retailers we have spoken to have suggested that there are fewer people just browsing and that customers are spending well, so footfall numbers are not the only arbiter. It’s also good to hear from indies that there has been no problem with the introduction of the mandatory face covering rule: it appears that most consumers are happy and willing to comply. No sign of a maskless Anne Widdecombe roaming toy stores terrifying small children thus far, which can only be a good thing whichever way you look at it.

Larger towns and cities may see some improvement soon: while working from home arrangements are still in place for many people, other companies will be returning to their offices in the coming weeks. This week saw the team return to Toy World Towers for the first time since the end of March – it’s great to have the gang back together. I even had my first client meeting / lunch since lockdown this week.

What hasn’t changed in recent months is our uninterrupted publication schedule: the August edition of Toy World has been landing on desks in recent days. Another belter of an issue, including some compelling exclusive interviews and features, and a host of exciting new products launching this autumn. With trade shows cancelled and international buying trips temporarily off the table, we’re delighted to keep toy retailers abreast of all the latest developments, as we have all the way through lockdown. No need for us to announce a comeback – we never went away. You can read the digital version of the August issue here.

The August issue also features the first in our new Show Off features – just like retailers, magazines need to be reactive and flexible to stay one step ahead of the competition. As the feature strapline says, ‘Even though the shows are off, you can still show off your product’. There will be further Show Off features over the coming months: in September, we’ll be aiming to fill the gap left by the cancellation of the Toymaster show with our Show Off Indie Special, while October will see our Show Off Licensing Special helping to keep licensees and retailers up to speed with everything happening in the licensing arena, in the absence of a physical BLE.

I would love to say that we’d be able to retire the Show Off format after that edition, but the realist in me wonders whether it may yet become a fixture beyond the next few months. Events in Hong Kong this week have raised further cause for concern: stricter lockdown measures have been introduced, including the closure of bars and restaurants and a maximum of two people able to meet up, according to our ‘man on the ground’. Add to that the fact that one major global retailer has been sending round an invitation to a webinar instructing suppliers how to prepare for its Virtual Buying Tour, while there are rumours that a couple of major UK accounts may not be planning to go, and a question mark is beginning to hover ominously over the January trip. The fact that tech show CES, which is held in Vegas in January, has already announced that it will be virtual-only next year raises another red flag. My guess is that we should get an idea of how things are looking for all the January shows by September or early October at latest.

I am crossing everything that I can cross in the hope that the measures being taken by governments across the globe will get the situation under control and allow trade shows and international trips to take place in the New Year. It has been hard enough losing those fixed points in the summer calendar: how reassuring it would be if my January schedule could be the same as it always is. I will never moan about Hong Kong jetlag, the car parking situation in London or the snow in Nuremberg ever again. I even booked our hotel for London Toy Fair this week (cancellable of course): it really is important to have something to look forward to.

“How’s my diary looking? Hang on, let me see…” …it’s the Friday Blog!

And so, we reach the end of another topsy turvy week, which has seen some encouraging signs of a return to normality, while several other notable developments have reminded us just how far we still have to go.

On the positive side, we have seen several retailers announce that their buying teams will soon be returning to their head offices, including Asda and Morrisons. Admittedly, Asda’s team will only be spending ‘part of the week’ in the office, while Morrisons’ new arrangements include a four day week, plus one Saturday shift each month (it will be fascinating to see how staff feel about that…). So, not exactly a complete return to normal, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, US toy sales have mirrored the UK trend, with NPD announcing a 16% increase over the first half of the year. Frankly, an amazing result, and one which few would have predicted four months ago – a most welcome springboard for what lies ahead in the second half of the year.

We’ve also seen companies continuing to use the lockdown ‘downtime’ productively, with both Toymaster and Tandem Group – owner of MV Sports – announcing major board restructures this week. Congratulations to MV’s Phil Ratcliffe and Jim Shears on their new joint MD roles and also to JAC Stores’ Chris Blatcher, who takes over from Ciaran Fitzpatrick as chairman of Toymaster. I’m sure they are all looking forward to their inaugural virtual board meetings…

Walmart has even decided that the time is right to revisit the possibility of selling a stake in its Asda operation: it will be fascinating to see what appetite the private equity sector has for investment in the current climate, but now may be a good time to at least test the water.

However, inevitably, there is a corollary to these welcome green shoots. The ‘new (ab)normal’ working conditions don’t just include the prospect of retail buyers having to give up one Saturday a month: at Tesco, workers at 2,000 stores are being asked to take on cleaning duties after contractors were axed. Nice timing: it’s not as if cleanliness is a major issue or anything, and why wouldn’t hard-pressed shop floor workers do a better job than dedicated, professional cleaners. I’ve already bought our sales director Mark his own mop, bucket, marigolds and an industrial quantity of disinfectant in preparation for his new extended duties.

We’re also seeing more events and trade fairs accepting that now is perhaps not the time to press on regardless. This week saw the announcement that the Brand Licensing Europe (BLE) exhibition will be transitioning to a virtual-only event for 2020. I completely understand and respect the rationale, outlined by show organiser Anna Knight in the first virtual press-conference I have ever attended. Based on both international and corporate travel restrictions currently still in place, the company felt that it wouldn’t be able to deliver a show of the high calibre it is known for, and has therefore decided to throw its considerable weight behind a four week virtual Festival of Licensing instead.

There were a few comments on social media following our announcement about this development, suggesting that the virtual realm might be the way forward for trade fairs as a whole. However, while I respect that everyone will have their own views on this subject, I tend to disagree with this suggestion. I don’t doubt that it will be interesting to see how virtual events fare, and there is every chance that they will become a valuable complement to trade fairs and international buying trips, but I’m not sure I see them being a long-term replacement for physical shows. Yes, I am old school and proud, but a trade fair is about so much more than the planned appointments: the many impromptu, unscheduled meetings and conversations in the aisles or coffee shop queues are often some of the most valuable. Even those little chats at the airport, on the plane or at a bar or restaurant can be gold – these are the kind of spontaneous interactions that it will be a challenge to replicate in the virtual realm.

Sadly, in addition to trade fairs, we’re also seeing a number of large-scale industry social events being called off for this year. The Fence Club announced this week that its legendary Christmas Ball won’t be happening this December. It’s a great shame, but I totally agree with the decision: things would have to change pretty dramatically to allow any massive parties to go ahead in December. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good industry social event as much as the next person. But when so many people aren’t allowed to hold face to face meetings, travel on business or even return to work in their offices, I’m not sure how attending a good old knees-up would realistically be justified.

That said, without doubt, we are all hoping that the next six months will bring about a significant improvement in the situation: I am sure that we would all love the Toy Fairs to take place in January as usual. From a business-critical perspective, they’re in a different league to award ceremonies and parties – they can genuinely make a tangible difference to the fortunes of so many businesses. We’re all adapting and making the best possible use of virtual options in the meantime, and I don’t doubt that these will remain part of everyone’s business framework long after the pandemic has passed. But I genuinely hope that we can reintegrate face to face meetings, trade shows and events into our business schedules sooner rather than later – when it is appropriate to do so. How I long for the day when someone asks me “how is your diary looking” and I can honestly reply “Pretty full, let me see what I have available,” rather than “Pick a time – literally, any time.”

Taking the temperature…it’s the Friday Blog!

In some quarters, normal service is slowly being resumed; as always, UK major accounts are in the process of finalising their spring/summer 2021 selections, albeit after conducting virtual previews to replace the usual face to face meetings or trips to the Far East. And despite the fact that they have already had an extended break from the office, I am reliably informed that toy companies based in southern Europe are still planning their traditional 3 or 4-week summer shutdowns. However extraordinary the situation we find ourselves in, and however much people talk about the ‘new normal’ and things never being the same again, clearly some old habits die hard.

If you looked at our list of ‘most read’ stories of the week, it displays a broadly familiar pattern that would not look out of place in any given year: major retail developments (the John Lewis store closures, the cancellation of the Argos catalogue), ‘people’ stories (Play-Room’s Miles Penhallow’s early retirement, the very sad news that former Woolworths’ trading controller Phil Green passed away this week), plus an exploration of what may lie ahead for future trade shows and events – albeit what may be round the corner next year is very different to the usual concerns anyone might traditionally have about a forthcoming trade fair. The difficulty of getting a hotel room or a direct flight to Nuremberg or the Hong Kong dollar exchange rate are clearly not going to be the most pressing issues next year. Never before has it even crossed anyone’s mind that a toy show might not physically be able to take place – let’s hope the next six months is kind to us in that respect.

The reality is that despite pockets of welcome familiarity, in other respects, everything we thought we knew continues to change, and as planning for next year starts in earnest, we have some complex challenges ahead – and not just because of the ongoing coronavirus situation. As the pandemic took hold, you will doubtless have seen a lot of social media posts which were essentially variations on a theme, namely “Do you remember the good old days when all we had to argue and worry about was Brexit? How I wish we could get back to simpler times.” Well, we got a glimpse at those ‘simpler times’ this week, and I am not sure they’re that appealing after all. Plans have begun to leak out about the revised UK customs and border arrangements that will come into force on 1st January, and they don’t make pretty reading for UK business owners. It has been predicted that over 200 million new customs forms will be generated, at a cost to business which has been estimated at between £7-13 billion. That is over half the cost of our EU membership just to get lorries out of Dover.

Instead of the Garden of England, it looks like Kent will henceforth be known as ‘Farage’s Garage’: in a few short months, Kent residents will truly know the meaning of the phrases ‘tailing back control’ and reaching ‘braking point.’

There is also bad Brexit-related news for Amazon UK sellers, after it emerged that the UK’s FBA operations will be separated from the rest of Europe after 1st January, which could lead to a huge part of their online audience disappearing. But to be fair, we knew what we were voting for…

Meanwhile, our old foe ‘rona’ continues to play havoc with schedules around the world. Over in Hong Kong, the Book Fair, a mammoth event which traditionally attracts over 9,000 exhibitors and close to 1 million visitors, was cancelled at two days’ notice – TWO DAYS! – as a new wave of cases forced the authorities to reintroduce the tighter lockdown measures which had been relaxed only weeks beforehand. This also raises the question of whether the current Hong Kong international travel ban will be extended past its current September cut-off point: a further three-month ban would take us perilously close to the end of the year…

And for those toy companies which have already been in a dialogue with trade fair organisers about next year’s events, the reality of what these new shows would potentially look like is beginning to sink in. We also have to take into consideration the fact that most buyers across the globe remain ‘locked down’ themselves: few have returned to their offices yet, while face to face client meetings and international travel are still off the menu, until at least the end of the year by most accounts. The big question is what it will take for those buyers’ bosses to relax their stance come January 1st…

Back here in the UK, we have finally caught up with much of the rest of the world and made wearing face coverings mandatory in shops – maybe Dominic Cummings has just realised he knows someone who makes face masks (although they’re probably a pest control company or a confectionery wholesaler…)? There is a strong argument that we should have been wearing masks all along, but I am pleased that with its trademark decisiveness, the government has finally reached the conclusion that we must act without delay…starting next Friday. Maybe they will also be announcing that all stable doors must be closed at the same time?

To be fair, there is a mature debate to be had over whether the mandatory face covering rule will inspire confidence or perhaps undermine shopper sentiment, although most polls I have seen on the subject suggest that the majority is in favour, or at very least prepared to accept that it is both courteous and a sign of the collective will of the people to fight the spread of the virus. Naturally, there are a few numpties who are banging on about this being an act of ‘control’, but I don’t count that sort of contribution as part of a mature debate.

If I have any concern at all, it is over the government’s suggestion that it is retailers who will bear the brunt of enforcing the new rule. I think that’s a lot to ask – putting the onus on the retailer seems a slight abdication of responsibility, but maybe rather than risking confrontation, the answer for retailers lies in the sign below. Hopefully, displaying this prominently would encourage even the most reluctant shopper to don a mask without unnecessary fuss….

Rectal thermometers blog

Cancel culture …it’s the Friday Blog!

Long-term ‘friend’ of this column Mike Ashley, owner of Frasers Group and Sports Direct, has been making a name for himself again this week. Sadly, the name he has been making is unprintable in a Blog associated with toys (although it rhymes with Nat). This time, he has written to all his landlords to kindly inform them that he won’t be paying any rent on his stores until trading “reaches a level that was expected when agreeing rental terms.” So much for ‘we’re all in this together’ and sharing the burden – if he had been a passenger on The Titanic, we all know how he would have approached the lifeboat situation. To be fair, I suspect that the majority of retailers are not currently trading at traditional levels, but I’m not sure it is ethical (or even legal) to completely withhold payment from service providers. Most of us accept that we have to take our share of the pain in the current climate, except apparently Mr Ashley. And the fact that his letter has somehow gone public will surely make other tenants feel they are entitled to make exactly the same request. If every retailer does that, the house of cards is likely to come tumbling down rather quickly.

Intriguingly, Mr Ashley’s letter also asks for payments to be made monthly, rather than quarterly – although as he has declared he won’t be paying any rent at all, I am not sure why that would make a difference. ‘I’m not paying rent this month’ and ‘I’m not paying rent this quarter’ sound pretty much the same to me. I know it’s not like Mr Ashley to be unreasonable, but it just seems to me that he has a rather unique definition of the word ‘partnership’. As I have said before, everyone will be judged on how they behave during this time. I know how certain toy retailers are approaching the same landlord/tenant negotiations, and without giving away confidential commercial information, let’s just say the approaches are absolutely chalk and cheese.

Mike Ashley is not the only retailer making headlines this week: John Lewis has confirmed that eight of its stores will be closing – four ‘at home’ branches, two travel outlets (Heathrow & St Pancras) and two major stores in Birmingham and Watford. The closure of the ill-advised ‘at home’ branches is completely understandable, but poor Watford; my hometown has already lost the new Debenhams flagship branch and now John Lewis, which has been the fulcrum of that shopping centre for the past 30 years. Incredibly, John Lewis didn’t even wait to see if its sales rebounded after the closure of Debenhams. A letter from a John Lewis director to suppliers told how the eight stores had been ‘identified as financially challenged prior to the pandemic’, but maybe the disappearance of its biggest local competitor would have helped turn that round? As for Birmingham, it has been suggested in some quarters that John Lewis made a blunder in choosing the Grand Central location, rather than the Bull Ring, in the first place.

Despite these developments, I am hearing that shopping centres are seeing improving footfall, now that more stores, restaurants and public toilets are all now properly open. Let’s hope that trend continues.

Inevitably, retail is not the only area grappling with new post-pandemic realities. In news which will come as a surprise to precisely no-one, a string of trade shows and events have regrettably been forced to admit defeat and announce that they won’t be going ahead. London Comic-Con, Cologne’s Kind & Jugend and the rescheduled Toymaster show have all had to wave the white flag of surrender this week. Kind & Jugend was a particularly interesting example: over in Germany, trade shows have been placed in a different category to general mass gatherings, unlike the UK, where everything is currently lumped in together. What this means in practice is that the current government guidance would have to change for a trade show to be able to take place here in the UK. Talking to someone who modern media parlance would describe as a ‘person familiar with the matter,’ he suggested that for the current rule to be relaxed, we would have to hit the equivalent of number 2 on the ‘Nando’s scale’ of virus transmission– essentially, we need to get to Lemon & Herb, while we are probably still somewhere between hot and medium. Whereas in Germany, trade shows can now legally take place, naturally with all appropriate safety measures in place. And yet, despite this, Kind & Jugend was still cancelled; this infers that whether a show can legally take place in not only factor in play – visitor and exhibitor sentiment play a key role in the final decision. And one would have to assume that the cancellation suggests that many people still feel slightly uneasy about the prospect of visiting a trade show right now.

There is also the question of whether a trade show organiser would be happy to go ahead with a compromised event that doesn’t live up to its usual standards, and indeed whether it would even be economically viable to do so, especially if the appetite from visitors is in question. Would exhibitors feel comfortable making the traditional level of investment without being confident of footfall reaching expected numbers (and we’re back to good old Mike Ashley…)? To take the analogy a step further, I doubt that exhibition venue owners would exactly be falling over themselves to reduce rental costs.

Now, of course, second season / spring summer toy buying shows are markedly different to main season/ autumn winter events (i.e. those toy fairs held in Q1): second season events are generally viewed as ‘nice to have’, whereas main season events have hitherto been deemed pretty much essential. When lockdown started, many in the toy community remarked how fortunate we were with the timing: the trade shows were all behind us and it was not a traditional peak retail sales period for toys. At that stage, most people were working on the perfectly reasonable assumption that this would all be over by late summer or the autumn. Over time, it became clear just how optimistic that timeline was. Now, all eyes are on the festive selling season and Q1 2021, in the hope that measures being taken now can get the situation sufficiently under control to enable retailers to enjoy a good Christmas and all the trade shows to take place in January and February. Let us hope that aspiration doesn’t prove over-optimistic too…

Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk…. it’s the Friday Blog!

Games are back in the news this week, and not just because they’re still selling incredibly well. No, this time it’s because the government has turned to heritage gaming for inspiration on how to defeat coronavirus. Rather than complex strategising and scenario planning long into the night, it appears that our illustrious unelected leader, super spore caster Dom, and his mate Boris Johnson have been holding their own Hasbro Games Night at Number 10 instead. That would certainly explain the photo on the front of last week’s Sunday Mail – Johnson wasn’t doing press-ups, he was playing Twister (beer belly: red, green, yellow and blue). Their game-playing shenanigans have also given rise to the UK’s new virus response strategy – now officially referred to in Parliament by its no-longer secret code name, Whack-a-Mole. If Hasbro isn’t working on a special limited edition ‘2020 coronavirus edition’ of the original game as we speak, I would be truly amazed. Rumour has it the pair also played obscure board game ‘Escape from New York’, but adapted it for the modern era by renaming it ‘Escape from Leicester.’ Maybe other government policies will be based on D&B’s Games Night in future – instead of pay rises, maybe all NHS staff could be given a game of Operation instead? And let’s just hope that no one gives them a copy of Risk or who knows where we’ll end up?

Back in the real world, the virus continue to play havoc with our old routines – both Autumn Fair and Comic Con have officially been cancelled this week, as organisers grapple with the realities of putting on trade and consumer shows in the current climate. I’m sure it is technically feasible with an awful lot of planning and a raft of safety measures, but as one sanguine show organiser said to me recently: “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” Indeed.

Some may even feel that sentiment could apply to the re-opening of pubs, bars, restaurants and other businesses this weekend, especially after recent developments in the USA. But looking at the move more optimistically, it will hopefully bring even more people back out into towns and cities, giving an additional boost to retailers. From what I am hearing, re-opening has generally gone pretty well – value sales shot up in the first week, and while that trend hasn’t been sustained in week two, some indies have told me that they’ve seen footfall pick up a bit this week, so maybe consumers have been favouring local High Streets over bigger destinations? In the first week, I understand that all supercategories were in growth for the first time since lockdown, even collectibles – anecdotally, it seems that kids are keen to spend the pocket money they’ve been saving up for the past 100 days.

However, despite the fact that the toy market continues to perform solidly, it is also inescapable that the wider retail channel and other parts of the UK economy are in for a pretty rough ride. The past couple of weeks has seen host of redundancies and store closures being announced: last week, we reported that Very Group would be losing over 100 people from its head office team, while this week saw John Lewis chairman Sharon Lewis warn of the impending closure of an unspecified number of stores, together with one London office. Details of which stores are for the chop will be revealed in July, at which point we’ll get an idea of how many job losses will follow. We already know the answer to that question at Harrods, where 700 roles – 1 in 7 of the workforce – will be disappearing. Overall, over 12,000 jobs in the retail and aviation industries were lost in just two days this week – incredibly sad and if this trend continues after the furlough scheme ends, it will surely curtail the speed and strength of economic recovery.

Thankfully, not all UK retailers are in the doldrums – far from it in fact. B&M saw its revenue rise by over 33% in its first quarter, while sales at Argos rose by over 10% over the same period, aided by a 78% rise in home deliveries, with toys cited as one of the key category drivers. Given how well toy sales have fared in general, we can but hope that this will restrict the number of job losses in our own market. However, there is a hard truth here: the government’s furlough scheme was incredibly generous and has undoubtedly saved many companies from going under in the short term. But it didn’t differentiate between businesses which have a long-term future and those which, frankly, don’t. I understand why means testing the furlough scheme would have been physically impossible given the time frame, but it did mean that millions of pounds were spent propping up zombie businesses, merely delaying the inevitable (we can see that in our own little corner of the media world…). Ultimately, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to result in the mother of all zombie business clear-outs – but I genuinely believe that we don’t actually have that many of those left in the toy market anymore, so we may yet escape relatively unscathed compared to many other sectors. Let us hope that proves to be the case.

One person whose current role has come to an end is Groupon trading director David Ripley, who left the business earlier this week. David will be in the market for a new challenge from 1st October and has told me that he would love for that to be in toys. However, in the meantime, he is keen to use his garden leave productively to support toy-related charities or not for profit toy organisations over the next three months, giving something back to the industry he has been a part of for so long. He can be reached at DavidJMRipley@Gmail.com or on 07738 999210 if you have a project or idea you’d like him to consider.

Before I go, if you’re looking for some uplifting reading for the weekend, may I recommend the special July ‘ 2020 reboot’ issue of Toy World? The physical copy is now arriving through letterboxes, but you can read the digital edition here. On so many levels, this strange and unpredictable year starts now, and this edition fires the starting gun on the all-important second half of the year, celebrating the fresh start that awaits the toy community. Enjoy!

For now, we’re all starting to get our heads around what post-lockdown life looks like in the short term. One picture which has been doing the rounds on social media this week caught my eye: is this what next year’s Toy Fairs might look like? If so, I for one can’t wait…

Friday blog bears

Two metre or not two metre, that is the question…it’s the Friday Blog!

This week has seen the announcement of the next step on the road to economic recovery: the relaxation of the two-metre distancing rule in England. As of 4th July, the new requirement is for shoppers to keep a distance of “at least one metre plus.” Nice touch of ambiguity there – I suspect that more cautious consumers will interpret that guidance rather differently than those who have been agitating for lockdown to end for weeks.

Combined with the re-opening of bars, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and other businesses on the same day, the belief is that this measure will attract more people back to the High Street and shopping centres. For some businesses, the newly reduced distancing measure could ultimately make the difference between profit and loss, and in some cases, survival. Limiting the number of customers has certainly impaired some business models, although the impact on physical stores will be interesting to monitor. It may give shops the opportunity to accommodate a greater volume of customers, but will that in turn discourage certain people from visiting, especially if they perceive themselves to be at greater personal risk as a result? Catch-22 writ large.

To be fair, talking to a selection of indie retailers this week, it seems that since re-opening, they have rarely had to implement a queueing system due to an overwhelming number of shoppers. Footfall remains somewhere around the ‘steady’ mark. However, nearly all the retailers I spoke to indicated that the average basket had increased: those consumers who are heading out to stores appear to be spending at an encouraging level. I am also hearing that online sales are holding up well, so those retailers who used lockdown to boost their online presence and capability continue to be rewarded for their efforts.

In some locations, reduced footfall comes as no great surprise; in normal times, a large percentage of city centre shoppers are office workers. With many of those people still working from home, it is inevitable that cities are not exactly buzzing yet. As one retailer told me: “Small town folk are using local stores more than ever.” Mental images of Royston Vasey aside (“local stores…for local people”), it is good to see that people are supporting their community shops – long may that continue.

But equally, I hope that shopping centres recover their mojo soon too. This may take a little more time; it’s hard to disagree with an article I read in Forbes this week which suggested that in the current climate, “travelling to an indoor place, full of other people, is not something which now feels in any way natural to us.” Intu’s financial woes are well documented; quarterly rent day fell this week, and it has been suggested that only 10-20% of their tenants were likely to pay in full, with some suggesting the company may fall into administration very soon. But many shopping centres have a toy store or two in residence, and it will be important for them to see shopping centre owners survive and customers return soon – because, let’s be honest, they are generally paying a fairly hefty premium to occupy mall space. They will already be facing increased costs for screens, face coverings for staff and industrial quantities of hand sanitiser. The last thing they need is any prolonged reduction in footfall to exacerbate the situation.

NPD revealed a little more detail about post-lockdown sentiment from a recent consumer panel survey this week: unsurprisingly, click and collect was the top-ranked initiative that would make consumers more comfortable to visit a store, while a staggering 82% claimed that they were apprehensive about trying a product in-store. I have to say from my own recent experience in grocery stores, this came as rather a shock: I have seen little difference in people’s behaviour as they go about their weekly food shop, vegetable fondling and all. Maybe this habit is just ingrained in them and they don’t realise they are doing it?

We’re all eager to find out how the first week’s post-lockdown sales numbers stacked up in the UK: omens from the international market are certainly encouraging, with other European territories enjoying a healthy jump in sales when stores re-opened. Italy apparently saw double digit growth, while the EU ‘big 4’ (Germany, UK, France and Spain) saw sales regain the equivalent of all the total value lost during lockdown. Admittedly, with UK toy sales increasing rather than declining during lockdown, our bounce-back is unlikely to be quite as dramatic. Even so, a further jump – no matter how modest – will be most welcome.

A lot of what happens next will be driven by business and consumer confidence. Consumers need to feel it is safe to return to stores. Suppliers and retailers need to feel that there is sufficient consumer appetite to support their endeavours. It’s been said many times before, but mutually supportive partnerships are going to be hugely important over the coming months. Honesty, transparency, timely communication and a partnership-oriented approach will go a long way to help everyone navigate the challenges together. Business can be a fragile eco-system: if some companies simply stop supporting others, it can in turn have a major impact on the ability of the affected companies to support their own suppliers and customers – a real life Domino Rally if you will. The toy trade has always benefited from a strong community spirit: it will be hugely beneficial if we can maintain that sense of togetherness in the weeks to come, and not retrench into solipsism.

As the world moves into the post-lockdown phase, so the job merry-go-round has started to turn again: this week we’ve announced that Hannah Mungo has left Universal for a new role at Sutikki, Neil Bandtock is to leave Epoch for an as yet unspecified new role elsewhere in the toy market, (for an update on this story, click here) while The Entertainer has appointed Pablo Badia to head up its Spanish retail operation Poly and Play Monster has named Tim Kilpin as its new president. And toy companies are beginning to build for the future again: Toynamics has signed an exciting deal to distribute the Skip Hop range in key territories across the world, including the UK market, while Inside Out has added Viking Toys to its growing portfolio of sustainable brands. Normal service is gradually being resumed…

Back to life (back to reality) … it’s the Friday Blog!

We made it – after what often felt like an eternity, we’ve finally moved to the next phase of unlocking lockdown, with non-essential stores across England once again open for business (with Wales to follow on Monday and Scotland at the end of the month).

Early indications are encouraging, but still mixed: there are undoubtedly positive signs, with some understandable caveats. Ireland was ahead of the game, opening stores last week, and it was good to receive a call from SMF Toytown’s Alan Simpson last Friday, keen to share the news that sales were on course to match the corresponding week last year. Alan admitted that he had been apprehensive about re-opening, budgeting to hit around 50% of last year’s number. So, to say that he was pleased with the initial trading performance was an understatement. Indeed, other Irish toy retailers and those based in locations such as the Isle of Man have generally given positive feedback.

Interestingly, SMF Toytown decided to go even further than official safety measures laid down by the government, implementing a distancing rule of 3 metres, rather than the decreed 2 metres – which may indeed be dropping to 1 metre in a matter of weeks (what happens to all of those 2 metre signs which retailers have installed…?). I suspect that customers will appreciate those retailers who err on the side of caution; consumers who are nervous about returning to physical shops are not necessarily worried about the stores or their staff, but more about the behaviour and lack of courtesy of other shoppers. If you saw the scenes from Bicester Village, you may not be surprised to learn that thousands of people have signed a petition to close the outlet mall, believing it to be unsafe. The person who launched the petition admitted that she was “disgusted to see people squashed into the street like coronavirus never happened.”

Many English toy retailers have also reported a respectable start to post-lockdown life: regular Toy World contributor Toy Barnhaus told us that sales were in line with last year, also noting that while there were fewer customers, those that turned out were spending more. Other toy retailers have used phrases like ‘steady’ and ‘average’, with most admitting that while they have rarely reached physical capacity at any stage this week, high ticket items have continued to sell well.

Some people may have been misled by media coverage of massive queues at Primark and Sports Direct (how people must have missed their over-sized mugs), but from what I am hearing, the real footfall picture is somewhat more nuanced. Speaking to Midco’s Dave Middleton, he told me that around 60% of the stores in the main Derby shopping centre remain closed, including major players such as WHSmith, Claire’s Accessories, River Island, Menkind and Build-a-Bear. This must have had a bearing on some shoppers’ decisions as to whether to head out immediately or wait a week or two. The weather hasn’t exactly helped either: after a prolonged period of beautiful sunny weather, which has gone a long way to making the lockdown experience more bearable, this week has seen incessant rain around the UK. Of all the weeks…

It is also interesting – and slightly counter-intuitive – to hear from toy retailers that most shoppers out and about this week have been from the older demographic, rather than younger consumers. Maybe that is why reports suggest that jigsaws remain as popular as they’ve been for the past ten weeks? Ahead of re-opening, most observers and pundits predicted that the older generation would initially be more reluctant to hit the High Street, while younger customers would relish the opportunity – anecdotally at least, it appears that the reverse may be true, so it will be fascinating to keep an eye on this particular trend. Overall, I think a fair summary would be that toy retailers seem relatively pleased: not ecstatic, but happy enough, and more than anything, just delighted to be open once again. As an industry, I guess we’ll take that.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer: Mothercare Ireland is the first Irish retailer to blame the pandemic for having to liquidate its 14-store portfolio, while here in the UK, Poundstretcher is threatening to close over 250 stores unless rent cuts are agreed under a proposed CVA. And then, of course, we have a potential No Deal Brexit looming on the horizon: apparently the government is about to undertake a massive ‘shock and awe’ (their words, not mine) advertising campaign to spur businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period on December 31st. The thing is, as a business owner, I don’t have the faintest clue what I am supposed to do to ‘get ready’, or indeed exactly what it is I am supposed to be ‘getting ready’ for. Don’t forget, it is only six months away….and we’re already in the midst of navigating the biggest upheaval any of us has ever experienced in our business lives. It’s hard enough preparing for Amazon Prime Day, when it moves from July, to September and now (we have it on good authority), October – right now, we all need some clarity and certainty, rather than more disruption. So, while an extension to the transition period would have been sensible, it seems our government doesn’t agree – thanks for that guys.

Finally, I just wanted to return to a story which broke just after I wrote last week’s Blog – the news that Fenwick & Bentalls had resigned from Toymaster. When I was first forwarded the email from Toymaster announcing the development, the person who sent it to me suggested it wasn’t good news for the buying group. We approached Toymaster for a comment, expecting the usual polite platitudes which most people offer in these kinds of situations. Instead, Ian Edmunds sent us what may be my favourite ever quote. It is surely the frankness of his reply which led this to become our most-read story of the week. It also showed commendable integrity and illustrated that there is often more to a partnership than purely the commercial element. If you missed it, you can read the full, unexpurgated response here. In this day and age of media training (I hate that phrase almost as much as I hate the concept) and people generally refusing to answer journalist’s questions honestly and openly, it’s rare – but very welcome – to receive something so honest and refreshing. All I can say is that in a world filled with corporate BS, be more Ian Edmunds.

When your world is full of strange arrangements…. it’s the Friday Blog!

It’s almost as if ABC’s Martin Fry had a time machine when he wrote the opening line to The Look of Love, which begat this week’s Blog title. I am sure that most of our worlds are full of very strange arrangements right now: the 30 second commute from the bathroom to the home office, the zoom calls that may or may not feature a goat (seriously, it’s a thing – livens up even the dullest meeting), putting on a mask to go shopping, queues to match peak holiday lines at Disney World everywhere you go, kids who can go to a zoo but can’t go to school …if a time traveller turned up from January, they’d wonder how on earth things could have changed so dramatically in such a short space of time.

Thankfully, some tiny semblance of normality is beginning to return to our world. With stores starting to re-open across the UK in a matter of days, hopefully this will mark a turning point on the road to retail recovery. There have certainly been encouraging signs from those countries which have been able to re-open retail stores ahead of us. Overall, UK toy sales have held up surprisingly well during lockdown: it’s true that there have been winners and losers, both in terms of companies and categories, but we really can’t grumble. When you consider the wider economic damage caused by the pandemic – the US has added $1 trillion of debt in just 40 days, while the UK economy shrunk by 20% in April, the largest monthly contraction on record – then we’ve got off lightly. As a community, we’re a bit battered and bruised in places, but largely unscathed…so far.

Preparations for shops to re-open to the public have been underway for weeks: there will certainly be some strange arrangements waiting to greet consumers in-store. We’ve been speaking to a host of retailers and buying groups to hear how they’re planning to emerge from lockdown – you’ll be able to read all about that in our July issue (wait until you find out about Sally the social-distancing Spinosaurus and her special sanitising station – truly a stroke of genius!). From fewer FSDUs – especially in smaller indie stores – to trestle tables at the entrance for a store owner to conduct transactions or even retailers who are prepared to open their stores outside normal trading hours to allow individual customers to shop safely, I think it’s fair to say that our January time traveller would find a very different toy store experience to the one they were accustomed to.

High Streets will look a little different too: in my local town of Watford, the Debenhams store has closed permanently. The store was hailed as a glimpse into the future of Debenhams when it opened in September 2018 as part of a £180m extension of the Intu centre. Fast forward a mere 18 months and it is indeed sadly indicative of the future of Debenhams: the retailer has been unable to reach an agreement with Intu over rent and the flagship store has been well and truly scuppered. I can’t imagine how many millions have effectively been poured down the drain because the two parties weren’t able to reach a compromise; it shows just how brutal some landlord / tenant negotiations are going to be in the coming months. But then I guess if you are over £4bn in debt as Intu is, you need to play a bit of hard ball.

It has just been revealed that the Fenwick and Bentalls department store group has resigned from Toymaster. You can read precisely what Toymaster has to say about it here. On this occasion, there is literally nothing for me to add.

It’s not just in-store where our mythical January time traveller would find things have changed beyond all recognition. What is going to happen with trade shows? With three UK-based events scheduled to take place in September (Toymaster, Autumn Fair and AIS), the time is fast approaching when decisions will have to be made as to whether they can go ahead as planned. I completely understand why each organiser wants to leave it as late as possible, but there comes a point when a final call will need to be made. French gift show Maison & Objet is the latest September show to take the decision to cancel.

The organisers of all three UK events are faced with tough choices: go ahead with a smaller show which would almost certainly turn out to be less well attended than usual, scrap it altogether (with all the attendant financial losses) or hope that things change sufficiently in the next few months to allow a half-decent event to happen. I totally understand why they would choose the ‘hope’ option. With any luck, there will be a way to take some of these events forward, but if they do happen, they will surely look very different this time round.

It’s not just UK trade events which are being affected: we’ve received plenty of feedback to the question of whether people will be heading to Hong Kong this October. Out in the lead currently is ‘Not sure, we’re leaving it as late as possible to make a decision’ (do you see a theme emerging here?), followed closely by ‘No, I’ll be zooming instead’ and ‘Absolutely – if I can.” The word ‘if’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that phrase: as things currently stand, the travel ban precludes visitors to Hong Kong, nor will corporate insurance cover you for any trip, at least until the Foreign Office changes its stance on international travel and maybe even beyond. I am not sure I’d want to take a trip without travel insurance in the current climate. As well as the Hong Kong trip being under threat, given the situation in the US, how many international visitors will realistically fancy a trip to LA this October? At least LA is largely held at company’s regular premises: I wonder how the situation in Hong Kong is affecting tenancy renewals in TST? Companies fund permanent showrooms by amortising the cost over several trips – do they remain cost-effective if it just comes down to one trip in January?

That said, one of the many challenges of replacing trade shows and face-to-face meetings with zoom calls (goat or no goat) is that seeing and handling a product, literally feeling the quality and checking it actually works, is a huge part of the toy buying process. Waving a new line around in front of your laptop camera isn’t quite going to replicate that experience. I am sure the industry is full of scrupulously honest and decent salespeople, with no charlatans to be found, but even so, it’s nice to handle the merchandise just to be on the safe side.

So, good luck to all those opening their doors for the first time in a while next week – it will be fascinating to see how quickly shoppers return, and interesting to see what impact lockdown has had on their finances and how it will affect their buying behaviour. But at least we are finally moving forward – onwards and upwards people, onwards and upwards.

What do you think of it so far…it’s the Friday Blog!

This Blog was published on Friday 5th June. Here it is again in case you missed it:

When we finally make it to the end of 2020, those TV programmes which look back at the year are going to be interesting, aren’t they? Who could possibly have foreseen how things would pan out when we congregated for Toy Fair season? It has been an incredibly challenging six months for the whole world – and yet, despite all the trials and tribulations, the toy market has fared surprisingly well, all things considered.

As the exclusive NPD article in the June edition of Toy World illustrates, while volume sales of toys are down in the UK, value sales are up – surely, we must be one of the few non-essential consumer markets to be in that position? While we are not out of the woods yet by any means, I do feel that the past few months have gone far better than we could ever have realistically anticipated.

It’s more than just commercial success too; toys have unquestionably played a pivotal role in helping parents get through the past few months. Most memes circulating at the start of lockdown suggested that copious quantities of alcohol would be parents’ key support mechanism – in practice, it turns out that toys were just as important (if not more so). Big ticket items have sold well – not just outdoor products, but many other toys too – as kids have enjoyed more free time to play, instead of their days being taken up by school and after-school clubs. Parents have been able to see first-hand just how long a good toy can keep children occupied for. And, for once, the sales increase hasn’t been driven by heavy retail discounting – toys have been selling close to full price across the board, while many other retail sectors have seen prices fall. In the main, sales haven’t been driven by heavyweight marketing campaigns either. We’ve seen the benefits of play appreciated by parents, which will hopefully stay with them long after lockdown is a thing of the past.

I don’t know about you, but May felt like a very long month. Now we’ve hit June, we do seem to have turned a bit of a corner. With stores due to re-open in just over a week, the general mood in the toy community appears to be improving. Our June edition arrived earlier this week – you can read the digital version of the issue here. Interestingly, as many people have read the June digital issue this week as read the May issue in a whole month (and the May readership was the highest since the Toy Fair edition). I get the sense that people are finally starting to look forward and plan for the second half of the year with greater enthusiasm and confidence.

The start of a new month has also led to a flurry of news stories: Geoff Sheffield has joined The Entertainer as buying director, with Stuart Grant moving over to a new position as sourcing director and John Driscoll leaving the business. It’s a great move for Geoff and we wish him all the best in his new role. Meanwhile, Argos is the latest retailer to announce that it will be re-opening a sizeable chunk of its store estate, albeit just for collections and returns at first. As I understand it, Argos is one of the big lockdown winners, so this move will hopefully give a further boost to toy sales.

Of course, there are still hurdles to overcome and not everything is returning to normal just yet. The BTHA has announced that its AGM and Industry Day will be held virtually this year: more details on that event here. Meanwhile, Spielwarenmesse has announced that Kids India has been cancelled: the show, which was due to take place in Mumbai in October, won’t be happening at all in 2020. And the news that Hong Kong has extended its ban on international visitors for a further three months surely places a huge question mark over the traditional October trip. While the travel ban will now be in force until the end of September, a further extension has not been ruled out; I would have thought that it would take a brave person to book flights for October under those circumstances. Or am I wrong – are you still planning to go if it is physically possible for travellers to enter Hong Kong by then? All feedback gratefully received, as I have been asked by quite a few people from the international toy community whether the trip is likely to take place, so it would be interesting to gauge the general consensus.

I was sad to hear that Michael Seres passed away last weekend. Known and loved by all the people who met him when he worked in the toy and licensing community, the numerous comments we’ve received since we announced the news show just how well-liked and respected Michael was. Our thoughts are with his family at this sad time, but through his ground-breaking work in the health sector, which he had focused on in recent years, his legacy will undoubtedly live on.

A quick reminder that there’s still time to be part of our special rebranded July ‘2020 reboot edition’ of Toy World – providing you get your metaphorical skates on, as deadlines are rapidly approaching. The all-important second half of the year is almost upon us, and this is your chance to let retailers know about your key new introductions, so they know which lines to support and invest in as we move towards the festive season.

Because, despite everything that has happened so far, as we know well in the toy community, Christmas always comes. Although maybe not in Vietnam – an industry friend based out in Hong Kong sent me this marketing message from a new toy show, which claims to be “the most professional baby products & toy expo in North ASEAN.” Although if that was the case, they would presumably have checked that there wasn’t anything major happening on the dates the show is due to take place…

Remake, remodel…it’s the Friday Blog!

We finally have a date for the grand re-opening of High Street UK – 15th June. It may well have been two weeks earlier, had a certain person not decided to take an ill-advised 260- mile trip up the A1 to Durham. It’s a total Domnishambles, but here we are.

While some toy retailers had got their hopes up for a 1st June re-opening, at least this new date gives them extra time to prepare. It also gives consumers a little more time to get used to the idea of everything being open again. Some shoppers are clearly champing at the bit to get back into stores, illustrated by encouraging footfall numbers from the recent bank holiday. Others may take a little longer to return to their old habits, but at least their temporary absence will help with the logistical aspects of re-opening shopping destinations.

We’ve run several stories this week which look at some of the practical measures that are being implemented: Intu is planning to introduce a one-way system around its centres, while also limiting the amount of people in the centre at any one time. As most individual stores will be doing the same, this raises the potential of shoppers needing to queue to get into the centre, then queue again to get into each store. The British are renowned the world over for our love of a good queue, but even we have our limits. We’ll probably even have to queue to get into the car park, as Intu will also be limiting the number of parking bays available. While this seems perfectly reasonable, if you have ever been caught in the Watford ring road gridlock in December, you’ll know the carnage that can follow when cars are denied entry to car parks (and if you haven’t had that particular pleasure, just watch the opening sequence of La La Land and imagine it without the sunshine or dancing).

In addition to these logistical challenges, stores will face their own ‘new abnormal’ decisions. For example, what happens to stock which has been sullied by the touch of human hand? Nothing, you might think – that’s how supermarkets have been operating. However, Waterstones will be operating its own form of ‘book quarantine’, taking any title which has been handled off the shop floor for 72 hours. When we reported this, I received several emails from toy suppliers doubting this would work in practice – but as a friend of my youngest daughter works at Waterstones on the South Bank, I can promise you that it is already happening. Given that Waterstones only carries a single copy of many titles, can you imagine how annoyed you would be if someone manhandles the book you had gone into buy and you had to watch it being taken into quarantine before your very eyes.

Practical niggles aside, the big picture here is that we are finally moving forward. Sales numbers apparently improved significantly after toy stores started opening for click and collect orders, so hopefully we can expect further improvement when those stores become fully transactional once more. With stock levels already falling, we should see retail re-ordering gaining further momentum in the weeks following 15th June.

Within a few short weeks, we’ll reach the next stage in the pandemic: lockdown will be behind us, parents can finally stop binge-watching their kids and we’ll hit the ‘re’ phase: pick your own adjective from refocus, restart, reboot, refresh, reinvigorate, reenergise, revitalise, recalibrate, rebirth – or if you’re an old Roxy Music fan like me, remake, remodel.

Each of these descriptions seems apt. In the short term, we have all had to remake and remodel our existing operations to fit the post-covid world – and no doubt, some of those changes will stay with us for the long haul. Virtual toy fairs and showrooms have been creating a bit of a buzz in recent weeks, as a question mark remains over when we will realistically be able to hold live events. I’m sure we’re all hoping to meet up with our industry friends and colleagues again soon – as for how soon, I guess that will become apparent over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, trusted media brands like Toy World have an important role to play in communicating with retailers: with many suppliers’ launch plans disrupted or delayed in recent months, retailers need to know where suppliers are going to place their focus in the second half of the year, so they in turn know which ranges to support and invest in. Without a doubt, fresh, exciting new products are going to play a pivotal role in encouraging consumers to return to physical stores – well-respected US specialist toy retailer Richard Derr from Learning Express recently posted on LinkedIn that his May sales have been dominated by new items, including some products which didn’t even exist a few months ago such as children’s masks.

With 15th June confirmed as the date when the starting gun will be fired on the second half of the year, we’ve decided to make the July issue of Toy World a special ‘2020 reboot edition’, giving suppliers the perfect opportunity to re-energise their autumn winter season. As an industry, we have fared incredibly well during lockdown, but the next six months will be crucial for toy suppliers and retailers alike. TV advertising and other marketing activity is gradually being re-activated, while new ranges and products will soon be landing at retail. Time for retailers to refresh their stores and for suppliers to reinvigorate their year – and Toy World is here to help you. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

And while it is warm and sunny outside, Christmas is most definitely coming – I will be filming my contribution for a TV show focusing on Britain’s favourite Christmas toys on Monday. By the time it airs, lockdown will hopefully be a distant memory, the only reminder of which will be a TV programme featuring my distinctly ‘throwback’ lockdown hairstyle, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for several decades. That’s the one thing I am not brave enough to remake and remodel myself…