It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The weather has turned, Halloween and Bonfire night have been and gone, and our screens have started to fill up with festive ads. It’s been interesting to see how retailers have pitched it this year; some have elected to adopt a more muted, toned-down approach, such as John Lewis. Personally, I like the ad, and skateboard companies will absolutely love it (although look out for lots of skateboarding dads in A&Es across the country in the New Year). Other ads are more upbeat: Smyths is a high-octane, toy-filled thrill ride with admirably high production values, while Asda even succeeded in persuading Warner Bros and Will Ferrell to let them feature footage of the iconic Buddy the Elf character in its ad, which many people have told me is their favourite creative execution of the season so far.
Trade has also kicked up a few gears; one indie suggested it was as if someone flicked a switch last Friday that said: “It’s Christmas” (best read in the voice of Noddy Holder singing Merry Christmas Everybody). Hamleys has unveiled its iconic Christmas windows (how long did it take someone to put all those Schleich reindeers in position?!) and suddenly, it all feels like the festive race is well and truly underway.
We’ve also seen the ‘big gun’ Christmas top toy lists come out in recent weeks. ITV’s This Morning ran a segment last Thursday, which I am told noticeably moved the dial for the toys featured. This year, the slot was sponsored by Studio Retail, who presumably worked very closely with the programme makers to curate the list. The sponsorship move was interesting on a number of levels: I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite that blatantly paid for masquerading as mainstream TV editorial content, although I am not sure how many viewers fully appreciated that (or indeed cared).
This week saw the annual Dream Toys event take place in London. Organised as ever by the Toy Retailers Association, one of the strengths of the Dream Toys list is the fact that it represents a good overview of what’s hot from a broad selection of retailers. I also get the impression that the Dream Toys Committee had stronger representation from specialist toy retail operations this year, as opposed to grocers and other multi-channel retailers. I am going to chalk up as a positive too, as I feel that they not only have a different agenda to the cross-category retailers, but also perhaps a more balanced view across the whole market. Indeed, there is a feeling amongst many toy suppliers that specialist retailers are performing comparatively better than some of their multi-channel counterparts right now.
I noticed the usual grumbling on social media from a few people suggesting that the Dream Toys list didn’t represent the ‘best toys’ – but what are the best toys? Who says they are the best? The truth is that there can never be a definitive list of best toys – that is far too subjective. It is like putting a group of people in a room and asking them to choose the best 12 songs of the year. They would be there for weeks and still not agree – because there isn’t a right answer, it all comes down to personal choice, which can be influenced by many factors.
In some respects, it doesn’t actually matter which individual toys make the list. What ultimately matters is the resulting publicity for the toy market as a whole, and whether that in turn encourages consumers to go out and buy toys (not just those on the list, but anything on their kids’ wish lists). Coverage levels this year were very good: pretty much all the nationals ran a piece, along with plenty of radio stations and there was even a respectable sprinkling of TV coverage, with more promised early next week.
Much of the coverage focused on pricing, which was somewhat inevitable, given the absence of any other specific narrative or over-arching theme connecting the top 12. In many respects, it felt like this year’s list was carefully constructed to avoid scoring any own goals – I can certainly understand why the committee felt that this was the year to focus on value and the wide choice of price points available, rather than include too many high-priced items which would have given journalists an easy tap-in. It helps to illustrate that the toy community is sensitive to the wider economic challenges that consumers are facing – just as many retailers have moved their festive ads away from the traditional ‘buy more stuff’ strategy, it was important for Dream Toys to position the toy industry in the appropriate way.
Everyone who featured on the list will now be watching what happens to sales in the coming days, and also whether any retailers decide to aggressively price promote any of the Dream Toys, as has happened in the past. Over the past week or so, I have certainly noticed a few barbed social media comments from indies directed at the pricing decisions of a couple of larger retail accounts – some of the usual suspects, some less so (Very came in for some criticism this week, along with the likes of Tesco and Smyths). In fact, I think some indies feel particularly aggrieved when a specialist toy retailer discounts heavily, especially when it happens to brand new ranges that haven’t even had time to breathe. As one indie posted on social media this week: “Product is king. Price doesn’t matter when you have what people want. Indies are cheaper to support than the nationals. We don’t want to mark down and devalue toy brands. We want them to thrive and grow by selling them better than anyone else.”
Of course, it would be lovely if all retailers thought like that, but I guess the real world is far messier and less black and white. I just hope that come the close of play on December 24th (and yes, it really will go right down to the wire for many retailers and consumers this year), everyone locks up feeling that they have had a good festive season, whatever that looks like for them.
Then we can meet up in London and Germany a few weeks later to start the process all over again.