Don’t look back in anger…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 23rd December 2020

In case you missed it, here’s the very last blog of 2020.

We’ve almost reached the end of the most unusual and challenging year I imagine any of us have ever experienced, either personally or professionally. Although this will be my final Blog of 2020, we still have a few days’ hard graft ahead of us here at Toy World Towers: once we have finally managed to send the January issue to press, I suspect we will all be heading off to lay down in a darkened room for a while to reboot. After the year we’ve all had, I bet we won’t be the only ones.

On the plus side, just as the toy industry has bucked the prevailing retail trend by having nothing short of a remarkable year (+6% YTD), so our January issue has managed to achieve something I would never have thought possible – we have a bigger issue than last year, when there was still a London Toy Fair to preview!

It’s yet another example of how 2020 has often proved to be wholly counter-intuitive: time and time again, preconceptions have been well and truly challenged and, individually and collectively, many of us fortunate enough to ply our trade in the toy market have somehow managed to triumph over extreme adversity. It’s been a tough slog, but we got there in the end.

People and companies across the toy community have done extraordinary things this year: in many respects, staying in business has been an extraordinary feat in itself. But I have heard so many uplifting stories this year, of companies and individuals going the extra mile and really stepping up.

Despite trading challenges, established toy industry charities The Fence Club and The Toy Trust have continued to raise valuable funds for great causes, while new kid on the block ToyAid made a marvellous contribution from a standing start. And respect to those retailers and suppliers which have made grand (or even small gestures) to their staff and customers this year: it’s been a year where the value of a supportive team has shone through, as I can personally attest – this year would have been very different without the help, support and flexibility of the fantastic Toy World team.

So, whether it is retailers like The Entertainer, Asda or Home Bargains giving staff Boxing Day Off (seriously – this year of all years, surely all shops should be shut on Boxing Day…) or Tesco returning the business rate relief it received, setting a chain in motion that saw each of its competitors follow suit, we’ve seen a generosity of spirit that is fitting for these times.

Sadly, not all retailers have been feeling quite as philanthropic – it was disappointing to hear that one very large retailer has been unfathomably slow in paying suppliers in recent weeks. They’re certainly not struggling from a sales point of view, which leaves either incompetence or a bizarre form of corporate manipulation: either way, it’s highly unethical and smacks of a degree of arrogance. What happened to that ‘we’re all in it together’ spirit? Not good to go at all.

I know what you’re all thinking – “I bet he’s going to take a pop at Amazon next.” Well, yes, but…in keeping with the ‘turning preconceptions on their head’ theme, I am going to hedge my bets. On the positive side, Amazon – and other online platforms such as eBay and On Buy – have been a lifeline for many retailers and other small businesses this year. We have two great articles running in our January issue, both addressing this very subject: never let it be said that we don’t believe in airing all points of view. Interestingly, neither contributor is a rose-tinted devotee of Amazon’s business practices, but both have weighed up the many pros and cons and reached the conclusion that they need to find a way to co-exist – which is completely understandable if you have seen the NPD presentation on the growth of online sales this year.

That said, we have a third article on Amazon in January which also underlines the importance of working with Amazon – but simultaneously warns that next year’s terms negotiations could be the most brutal ever, with Amazon expected to leverage its 2020 performance for all it’s worth and then some. If this perception is correct, old timers will be yearning for the good old days of fiery negotiations with the likes of Woolworths and Toys R Us. You could be longing for Phil Shayer banging the desk – at least you were negotiating with a real person. I won’t give away too many spoilers, but unless you have an Amazon vendor manager, it sounds like you may find yourselves disappearing down a frustrating ‘computer says no’ wormhole.

If you don’t believe me, feast your eyes on this particular gem of a response from Amazon to a toy company, which had been complaining that someone had hijacked its listing and replaced the toy with a headphone jack. Open and shut case, right? This is what Amazon had to say – verbatim – wording, typography, errant punctuation and all: “We understand that the title and brand name on website are incorrect and you would like us to update the correct details. Irrespective of the fact that details are incorrect, we would not have any option to make corrections requested by you on website. This is because, Contributions.”

Clearly no human being would actually type those words and think “Yes, sure, that makes total sense – I’ll tell them that and the problem will just go away.” So, is this an AI-generated response? Have we really arrived at a John Connor / Rise of the Machines moment? Or is this all a clever ruse to make people give up? Now imagine this level of debate being replicated in terms negotiations… I don’t envy you – at least I still negotiate with sentient human beings (well, mostly…). To paraphrase a popular idiom: Amazon…can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

On that bombshell, all that remains for me to say is an absolutely massive thank you to all of our readers, contributors and advertisers for your unwavering help and support this year. The Toy World team won’t forget those who have been there for us this year. Have a merry little Christmas (I’d rather emphasise the ‘merry’ than the ‘little’ myself) and here’s to a happy and prosperous new year. We’ll be sending out email news alerts until 23rd – and then we’ll return on 4th January, shortly before our January issue arrives with you, wherever you may be. At which point, who knows, we may hopefully have struck a deal with the EU. 1635 days since referendum, 1357 since Article 50 was triggered, 3 Prime Ministers, 3 Parliaments, 18 Parliamentary votes, £200b cost…and still no-one has managed to explain a single benefit of Brexit to me, other than some nonsense about fish and a blue passport (pointless to me, as I am partially colour blind). But, in the end, we got through this year, and we’ll get through next year too, whatever it throws at us. Happy New Year everyone.