Christmas is NOT cancelled…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 24th September 2021

“Soaring bills, empty shelves and NO toys for Christmas” screamed the Daily Mail headline last weekend. Clearly, I am familiar with the idea of journalistic licence and the concept of hooking readers in with a hyperbolic headline. But this example reinforces something I have been feeling for a few weeks now – that perhaps it is time to subtly alter the industry messaging around potential toy shortages. We know that what we have been saying is accurate, but once you put the message out into the big ugly world of the national media, the nuance can easily get lost. Yes, some items will be in short supply this year – but we never said there would be empty sacks under the tree. That just makes us sound a bit incompetent.

Thankfully, toy shortages have been knocked off the front pages by the energy crisis (Crisis, watt crisis?) – which may be no bad thing at this stage. Anecdotally, the message about shopping early for Christmas appears to have heeded by a healthy number of consumers. Maybe now is the time to pivot (can I still say that without sounding corny?) and focus on all the great toys that are in stock, rather than being overly negative about the potential for empty shelves (and remember, no toy company or retail store ever went bust selling every piece of stock it had).

John Lewis is one of several retailers that has taken the step of chartering its own boat in a bid to address stock shortages and sky-high shipping rates. One wag got in touch to say he wondered if that means Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent are coming out of retirement. But joking apart, there have also been low-level mutterings about ‘reprisals’ from shipping companies against those who are chartering their own ships. Shipping industry insiders have been dismissive of this suggestion on LinkedIn, but for what it’s worth, I heard similar hints about retribution months ago, although then it was aimed at anyone in the shipping community speaking out about the exorbitant rate hikes. The word ‘vindictive’ was used on more than one occasion. I have no idea whether the threats were real, implied or just paranoia, but people better placed than me to comment certainly inferred it was a genuine concern.

John Lewis managers have also faced an internal backlash after it emerged five-figure bonuses had been paid to some senior staff at a time when the company has been making widespread redundancies – echoes of the last days of Toys R Us, for anyone with long memories. Some might say it’s another example of a business decision being blown out of proportion by the media, although the staff seem genuinely aggrieved by it. Either way I doubt John Lewis will be picking up awards for tact and diplomacy or reading the room any time soon.

In more positive news, Toymaster released its Christmas catalogue this week – along with Smyths, The Entertainer and other specialist toy retailers, I really believe that Argos has handed a great opportunity to its toy retail competitors when it ceased publication of its catalogue. I am not saying it was the wrong decision for Sainsbury’s or Argos per se – that is very much up for debate. But I remain convinced that kids love a physical catalogue, so they can go through and circle what they want – even in the digital era, that’s still a big part of the build-up to Christmas for them (this Blog was written before we received the Smyths press release, which makes precisely this point – great minds think alike). And if the launch of those catalogues comes at a time when parents have the ‘buy early’ mantra at the back of their mind, so much the better.

Looking ahead to January, it’s marvellous news that the London Toy Fair has finally given exhibitors the green light to start working on their stands, while the ’22 show is already close to selling out. Having visited two shows in the past few weeks, it really does feel as though trade shows are very much back in business. We still have winter to navigate, but it does seem that there is every reason to believe that a successful event can take place in London in January. It is also good that the BTHA has put to bed the rumours about the redevelopment work going on at Olympia disrupting or even forcing the cancellation of the Toy Fair. Thankfully, those murmurs turned out to be more ‘some bloke says’ nonsense (using the polite word there, so the Blog doesn’t get blocked by over-sensitive spam filters).

International travel restrictions also appear to be easing – there has been potentially encouraging news this week around US travel, while UK inbound restrictions have also been relaxed significantly. Unfortunately, I am told that some European media outlets appear reluctant to make a big song and dance about that (I wonder what we might have done to upset our friends in the EU…?), so for people in the European toy and licensing communities mulling over whether to visit BLE this November, it is probably worth looking at the new rules.

Sadly, the same doesn’t appear to be true for Hong Kong – word has just reached me that the organisers of the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair have announced a new online /offline event in December, which will incorporate toys. In their own words, “with various health control measures and global travel restrictions still in place, we foresee overseas exhibitors and buyers may have difficulty coming to join our Toys & Games Fair in January.” Unfortunately, I think we can all see where this leaves us.

Post-pandemic, it can sometimes be difficult to look beyond one’s own bubble and experiences. Here at Toy World Towers, we have been back in our office for almost six months now. Since the summer holidays came to an end, the roads are certainly getting far busier again: the natural assumption is that many more people are now returning to offices. I am more inclined to trust the evidence of my own eyes than a few very vocal people on LinkedIn about how things may play out. But either way, if larger companies and retailers return to their offices, it will make their participation in trade shows and face-to-face meetings more likely. On that note, and knowing how popular last week’s video was, here is another amusing vignette that I hope will raise a smile: