Eerie echoes…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 4th January 2019

Happy New Year to you all – I hope you had a wonderful festive season, both personally and professionally. I’d like to start my first Blog of 2019 with an apology to anyone whose letterbox didn’t come off too well in a fight with our January edition when it landed earlier this week (the fate of any household pets which inadvertently wandered beneath it at the time doesn’t bear thinking about). Humble brag out of the way, I hope you enjoy this monster issue – the whole Toy World team put an immense amount of hard work into bringing it to you nice and early, so you have plenty of time to read it before Toy Fair starts in just over two weeks’ time. In fairness, it isn’t always about which magazine is published first, but with the Toy Fair edition, being first on desks is EVERYTHING. With no sign of the other magazines yet, readers are already using the Toy World issue to make their Toy Fair plans, so advertisers are getting maximum bang for their buck. And I’d hate to be the last magazine out – a bit like a quiz show with a very tall host with distinctive glasses, it really is the very definition of pointless. If you’re more of a digital native, you can read the online version of the main issue here, while our dedicated Spring Fair supplement can also be viewed here.

By the time you are reading this Blog, I will be finishing off my first day of appointments in Hong Kong, where Toy Fair Season is already well and truly underway. The likelihood is that it will be an eventful one, with plenty to talk about already this year.

The health of the retail channel will unquestionably continue to be a major-talking point across the globe. The year has started with the sad news that Nordic toy specialist Top Toy has been declared bankrupt – not a move forced by the banks, but instead instigated at the request of the Board of Directors. The retailer had originally filed for bankruptcy protection in December and come up with what it saw as a viable restructuring plan, but disappointing Christmas sales killed off any hope of the plan being put into action (eerie echoes of 12 months ago, when faint hopes of Toys R Us surviving met a similar fate after a poor festive performance). So, is there any likelihood of a ‘white knight’ stepping in to save the chain? According to well-positioned sources, it would seem unlikely; while there is undoubtedly a gap in the market, it seems the challenge is possibly too great for anyone to take on.

Back here in the UK, we’ve already had our first retail casualty of the year, with HMV collapsing into administration, putting over 2,000 jobs at risk. While not a mainstream toy retailer, HMV was a good account for a number of pop culture suppliers and its demise also illustrates a conundrum that the government needs to get to grips with: HMV paid around £15m a year in business rates on sales of £277m. Compare that to Amazon’s rates bill, which is estimated to be in the region of £38m, while its largest UK arm posted revenues of £8.8b – oh, and it paid a paltry £4.6m of corporation tax on that sum too. That said, HMV’s demise can’t solely be put down to onerous business rates: the vulture fund which owned it – Hilco – took almost £50m in fees during its five-year ownership, claiming these exorbitant fees were “in line with or below the market levels.” To use a topical musical analogy, it makes the deal which Robert Johnson is said to have made with the devil at the Crossroads seem like a bargain in comparison.

On the subject of eerie echoes, just days into a new year we already have a new Amazon-driven safety scandal to deal with. The latest transgression involves magnetic toys, a category which requires the utmost adherence to safety protocol. Unfortunately, Amazon allows cheap copycat products to be advertised alongside the legitimate brands, which was a disaster waiting to happen. And sure enough, it did; just before Christmas, when a boy was hospitalised after swallowing magnets from knock-off brand Imden. Worse still, legitimate brand Magformers was implicated in the scandal. And then, to add insult to injury, while removed the offending product from sale, it was still being offered for sale on Staggering – clearly the US team don’t have any communication with their UK counterparts (or should the words ‘team’ and ‘counterparts’ be replaced by the word ‘bots’??).

On to more positive news; I’d like to offer my congratulations to Adrian Whyles on his appointment as managing director of Interplay UK, where he joins up with former University Games colleague Sharon Fosbery, who had already made the move last year. That’s not the only big news from the company this week: following on from PlayMonster’s acquisition of Interplay UK in June last year, the company has confirmed that it will be adding the PlayMonster portfolio of games to its Interplay business from July 2019. Titles include Yeti in My Spaghetti, Chrono Bomb, Don’t Rock the Boat, Game of Things, Relative Insanity and the 5 Second Rule brand. The move not only strengthens Interplay’s portfolio, it takes the company into the games category for the first time with a selection of proven sellers, so I’m sure the team is hugely excited about the opportunity.

Meanwhile, University Games has announced that it will be combining its UK operations with Paul Lamond Games this year. Richard Wells will become the managing director of the merged University Games UK business as of 1st April, while from 1st February, sales of University Games products to independent stores will be managed by the Paul Lamond Games sales force.

Elsewhere it’s great to welcome Craig Mair back to the toy market, having taken up a position with Wizards of the Coast managing EU sales, while news reached me just before Christmas that Simba Smoby has acquired Jada Toys.
I’m sure I’ll hear plenty more interesting snippets of news as I pound the mean streets of TST over the next few days, before the official Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair starts on Monday. As usual, we’ll keep you posted.