Countdown to London Toy Fair … it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 19th January 2024

The week before Toy Fair is always a slightly strange one. There are inevitably last-minute things that need sorting out and preparation to pull together ahead of scheduled meetings. Yet you still spend most of the week thinking “I just wish we were there now.” Thankfully, there’s not long to wait now…

We’ve already seen an increase in the number of press releases we’ve been receiving – and the deluge will turn into a flood any day now. The stage is set, exhibitors are getting excited, and hopefully retailers will be turning out in force. No snow is forecast, and there aren’t any train strikes planned, so that’s two big potential pitfalls avoided.

New products are the lifeblood of the toy market, they drive sales and generate excitement for consumers. We’ve already seen several early year launches getting off to a flying start (both Bandai’s Littlest Pet Shop and Flair’s Godzilla x Kong range have been cited by indies as selling well in the last few weeks), and with the next mainstream UK toy event – the Toymaster show – not taking place until the latter stages of May, the first half of the year will surely be far more successful if retailers can unearth a few gems at Olympia next week. That alone, in my humble opinion, makes a trip to the show absolutely essential for retailers large and small.

There have been a few significant changes on the buying side in recent weeks: it’s been common knowledge for some time that Charlie McNally will be leaving his role at Argos to take over toy buying for Europe at Aldi, based out in Dusseldorf, while Sarah Harding has left her role at Toys R Us UK to join The Entertainer. And what a time to be making that move…

No prizes for guessing the liveliest topic of debate in the toy community so far this year – The Entertainer taking over the running of Tesco’s toy department has unsurprisingly led to some interesting conversations. I caught up briefly with Geoff Sheffield in Hong Kong last week, as well as the Addo Play team, and it’s abundantly clear just how excited everyone within The Entertainer family is about this development.

Without giving away any major commercially sensitive information, I can certainly answer a few of the questions that have been raised most frequently by suppliers: for starters, anyone expecting The Entertainer to change its position on margin, now that it is controlling the Tesco toy aisles, is going to be disappointed. I am afraid suppliers are going to have to forget whatever trading terms they used to get from Tesco: that ship has sailed, and it won’t be coming back any time soon. The Entertainer secured the deal on the back of a successful trial – so it is not going to change what worked last year. And in any case, significant investment will be required to maximize the new partnership (store fittings, logistics capabilities, staffing etc), while Tesco will obviously be taking some form of ‘cut’…all the more reason for The Entertainer to maintain its traditional margins to cover these costs.

I can also confirm that if The Entertainer hasn’t been stocking a particular product range in its stores (i.e. Halloween, Harry Potter etc), that won’t change. Sure, those ranges may be found elsewhere in Tesco stores, but they won’t find their way into the toy aisles. And Sunday working for The Entertainer staff will remain off the table: schedules will be drawn up to allow the Tesco shelves to be restocked and merchandised late on Saturday evening and first thing on Monday, and there will be no staff from The Entertainer team on hand on the Sunday. All of this seems entirely logical and consistent, and to be fair, I didn’t expect anything else – anyone who knows Gary is aware that The Entertainer’s core values will never be compromised, whatever the circumstances.

Any influence from the existing Tesco toy buying team is already on the wane: appointments for Toy Fair have been cancelled (the day after they were made in some cases) and autumn winter orders that had been sent out were subsequently rescinded. The message is clear: as of now, toy suppliers are essentially dealing with The Entertainer for all Tesco toy-related conversations.

Not all suppliers are thrilled about that. The disparity between The Entertainer’s margin requirements and those of Tesco means that some lines that were big sellers in Tesco may no longer work under the new conditions, and even if certain lines stay in, the profitability will be significantly impacted. Without doubt, some suppliers are having to come to terms with that and evaluate how best to manage the situation. Other suppliers are seeing the upside: one pointed out that “the Tesco consumer will finally have a product range curated by people who are passionate about the product,” while others who struggled to establish a partnership (or even a conversation) with the Tesco toy buying team have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Meanwhile, other retailers will be watching closely too: not just grocers, but major and independent specialists will be keeping a close eye on proceedings in case new opportunities present themselves as a result of The Entertainer / Tesco situation. Basically, there will be winners and losers – and everything is up for grabs.

The UK toy market may have been down last year according to Circana numbers (and don’t forget, that’s without factoring inflation in….), but we are starting all over again from scratch. New year, new challenges, new opportunities. It’s an election year, with an incumbent government a long way behind in the polls: expect tax giveaways out of sheer desperation if nothing else. Inflation is slowing (no, we aren’t paying less for anything …prices are just not rising quite as fast as they were – big difference) and maybe we won’t have a rain-soaked summer like last year.

Whatever happens, it all starts next week at Olympia. As Keith Elmer always used to say: “How can you be serious about toys and not be there?” That sentiment is as true as it ever was, and with the Toy Fair celebrating its 70th anniversary, we should all raise a glass or two next week to its continuing success.

Personally, I will be attending my 43rd Toy Fair, and I am still as excited about the show as I have ever been. It may have changed over the years, but it is still the one event which brings pretty much the entire UK toy community together in one place, and we should cherish that.

See you at Olympia. Toy World can be found on Stand B23, at the heart of the show.