From New York to LA …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 25th February 2022

It seems strange to be kicking off this week’s Blog talking about something that isn’t going to happen for another 18 months, but the news about the change of date for the New York Toy Fair is undoubtedly going to have significant ramifications for the global toy community.

The news itself wasn’t a huge surprise – I had suspected that the show was likely to move from its traditional February timeframe to a new September slot. I had also reached the conclusion that despite numerous social media posts suggesting a change of venue, the show would probably remain in its long-term New York location.

I have no horse in this particular race – it is none of my business where the show ends up and when it runs. There are strong views on all sides, and it was never going to be easy to satisfy everyone – as we saw from some rather lively debate on LinkedIn after the announcement was made.

In terms of the timing, a lot of people seem to believe that the February date was no longer viable from a commercial perspective, and that September will better reflect US retail buying cycles. But which retailers? I guess the answer isn’t that difficult to work out – Walmart and Target have always held an almost mythical status in the toy community. They are Gods that walk amongst us mere mortals. I remember being asked to leave New York showrooms, as they had to be completely cleared when a buyer from one or the other arrived. Not a problem for me, but I can’t imagine major buyers from outside the US were thrilled to be asked to vacate a showroom mid-tour. I know of US company owners who have relocated to Bentonville so their kids could play little league with the Walmart buyer’s kids (imagine people here relocating to Galway or Milton Keynes…). If Walmart or Target didn’t select a line, it rarely went into production. One US executive who relocated to the UK once told a very large UK toy retailer their negotiation stance didn’t frighten him because “Walmart’s sample order is bigger than any order you will ever give me.”

That kind of power skews thinking – massively. So, if Target and Walmart finalise their buying in October or November, September must be the right time for a show to run. Right? Well, maybe it is. Except…there are a lot of other buyers who won’t even be thinking of next autumn winter selections that early – numerous mid-tier and specialist retailers who like to see how their Christmas sales finish up before looking at the following year’s strategy. One might even question how any buyer (small, medium, large or XXL) can make those important calls before over 50% of their year’s sales have been made.

In terms of the US show, I think the clamour for a new autumn timeslot was always going to be hard to ignore, and I am sure the Toy Association has reflected the majority view of its members. But I was surprised to see a few people on LinkedIn suggesting that other shows – especially Nuremberg – should follow suit. US buyers should rightly determine the timing of the US Toy Fair – I am just not sure the same should be true of a global / European-focused show. Toy Fairs are for everyone, not just a handful of buyers or major suppliers – no matter how big they are and how much clout they have. The UK Toy Fair is hugely successful, and the four largest UK toy suppliers don’t have stands on the show floor.

For the inaugural autumn 2023 New York show, I suspect there will be huge interest and curiosity to see how the event will evolve in its new timeslot. More closed stands surely? US toy companies and major studios are extremely secretive (bordering on the paranoid) at the best of times – moving the Toy Fair nearly five months earlier is only going to exacerbate the clandestine nature of the event. It perhaps won’t be a great experience to ‘wander’ the show. But how will that square with the Toy Association’s suggestion that “Fall can deliver a powerful pre-holiday opportunity for companies to make product news that matters.” That would mean a mix of 2023 and 2024 product on the stand, while uninviting white walls and heavy security is directly at odds with welcoming media. Will there be separate halls (and stands?) for those suppliers looking to showcase new ’24 lines and those looking to create hype in the run-up to Christmas ’23? What will the major studios allow toy companies to put on show for the following year?

And then there is the elephant in the room – the LA ‘event’. The Toy Association declined the opportunity to move the Toy Fair to the LA convention centre, suggesting that “a convention centre versus LA showrooms makes those at the convention centre nothing more than stepchildren.” To be fair, this could be construed as sound reasoning: when the toy showroom buildings at 200 5th Avenue and 1107 Broadway were in their pomp, many buyers never even went down to Javits; the exhibitors there were viewed as second class citizens. But if you have been following Isaac Larian’s LinkedIn posts this week, you will see that he has strong views on whether retailers (and California-based toy companies) will welcome two separate events in LA and New York within a matter of weeks. The long and short of it is no-one will know how this will all pan out for another 18 months – then we will see who called it right.

Meanwhile, back here in the UK, there has been plenty going on. As predicted in last week’s Blog, Frasers Group wasted no time in buying Studio, pouncing before the appointed administrators had even had time to put the company into administration. More news on Mike Ashley’s plans for the business when we have it. Toys R Us will be watching with interest, as it prepares to launch into the digital area in the coming months – it unveiled several new additions to its buying team this week, including welcoming James Ford to the toy side of the business, while I gather its proposed trading terms have also been arriving with suppliers. Elsewhere, Nikki Samuels has joined Hunter Price as commercial director – the company is certainly positioning itself to make major moves in toys. And John Lewis has finally dropped its ‘never knowingly undersold’ slogan – about time too, it was an anachronism that had long outlived its practical application.