Exclusive: Rick Derr & Dave Middleton compare notes on US & UK trade shows

Published on: 30th June 2023

Passionate toy retailers and unlikely friends Dave Middleton (Midco Toymaster, Midco Toy Planet and Freak Treats) and Rick Derr (Learning Express Lake Zurich) speak to Toy World after successfully completing their latest foreign exchange programme. 

L-R: Dave Middleton and Rick Derr at the ASTRA Marketplace and Academy 2023

Following Rick’s visit to Harrogate for the Toymaster May Show, Dave headed to Columbus, Ohio. If you follow Rick and Dave on LinkedIn (and if you don’t, you should), you’ll probably already have seen plenty of posts about their visit to the annual ASTRA Marketplace & Academy, the jewel in the crown of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association’s events calendar. This year, ASTRA’s sold out 5-day Marketplace & Academy hosted around 400 exhibitors – which Rick says is slightly up on usual numbers – around 70 of which were new start-ups or grassroots vendors.

“Out of 5, I’m awarding the ASTRA show a 4.8,” Rick tells me over the Zoom, his background-blur filter causing Dave’s disembodied head to float in and out of view at random intervals. (He adds that his rating for Toymaster would be ‘darn near as high’, if not a 4.9.) “ASTRA’s chosen venue was terrific this year and allowed a really good number of visitors to attend. Of course, at Toymaster you can speak directly to the likes of Moose, Basic Fun and more, whereas here we have to go via distributors, which in turn raises the cost because you’re dealing with a middleman. Now I understand why my portfolio of brands is much more evenly distributed across supplier sizes compared to Dave’s.”

The pair selected a number of lines that caught their eye at the show. Rick’s top three were Fidl Bitz from Play Vision (straight faces, people, straight faces), which was being sold in as a construction toy but is arguably far more an ASMR product; Sowa Sowa (Japanese for fidgety or jittery) from My Bumpas, a weighted infinity plush kids can turn in their hands or wear over their wrist; and Santa’s Kindness Ornament from Demdaco. Shaped like a compass, it comes to life on 1st December and transmits messages from Father Christmas that are rooted in kindness and positivity.

Although Fidl Bitz stood out for Dave too, he’s come away not with a top product to bring to his three stores, but a category – readers can find out what this is by reading the full article published in the July issue of Toy World, along with the top property he feels UK retailers are underestimating.

Rick and Dave also discuss the markedly different mindsets among US and UK retailers, the other major differences between the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy and the Toymaster May show, and where they feel suppliers could work with indies much more closely to the benefit of both parties.

Dave says: “I need to start looking at toys that aren’t necessarily from the major players: smaller items with bigger margins that I can really make my own, like Rick does with his new launches, rather than chasing down brands that are absolutely everywhere. I do see the opportunities Rick sees. Us indies just need to show suppliers how much we’re capable of.”

Read the full article here, and look out for more articles from both Rick and Dave in the near future.


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