Geoffrey, you’ve been rumbled…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 12th October 2018

The curtain has come down on another BLE – the last to take place at Olympia. As parting shots go, it was a fitting end to its tenure at the venue; another impressive event which grows demonstrably more European with each passing year. There was, as ever, a great energy and enthusiasm to proceedings, and no-one can ever accuse the licensing community of lacking in self-confidence or optimism.

The toy fraternity turned out in force, despite the clash with the annual autumn Hong Kong trip – a few have already left, although I suspect the mass exodus will occur over the next few days.

Few licensors unveil brand new properties at the show- that’s not how the licensing game works any more. If I’m not aware of a property before arriving, either I’m not doing my job or the licensor isn’t doing its job – and I imagine the same is true for licensees and retail partners. However, BLE does give visitors an opportunity to assess the progress brands are making and see where momentum is building and buzz is being created (and, of course, vice versa).

With so many people from the toy community in attendance, the event also offers a great opportunity to assess how people are feeling ahead of main season – which I would sum up as ‘cautiously optimistic’. Some retailers are flying (Smyths, The Entertainer, B&M, the indies), while others perhaps have some ground to make up. Some suppliers have suggested that Argos’ first ‘3 for 2’ promotion didn’t quite live up to expectations: but then again, some might say that if you raise your prices just before the promotion, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In these days of savvy social media consumers spreading the word an instant, cynicism is perhaps not so easily hidden (a point I will return to later in the Blog). I also get the impression that supermarkets are lagging behind previous years; a reduction in toy shelf space has probably been a factor, while a more leftfield (but highly plausible) theory revolves around the ‘shrinkage’ challenge presented by collectibles in the grocery channel. Anecdotal evidence suggests that significant volumes are ‘disappearing’, and with toy sales in the first half of the year driven by the collectible category, it’s surely an issue which supermarkets need to address swiftly. It will be interesting to see if NPD’s data matches what I’m hearing on the ground, and if they can shed any further light on the factors behind these developments.

There has been a veritable avalanche of retail news this week – some of it promising, some less so. In the former category, the arrival of an FAO Schwarz concession in Selfridge’s is something I’m looking forward to experiencing: in fairness, I knew about the development some months ago, but have had to wait until the Selfridge’s PR team woke up and shared the news with the world. I liked what I heard from the Schwarz US team back at Licensing Expo in Vegas, so I’m looking forward to seeing how things stack up in the flesh.

Elsewhere, the rest of this week’s retail news was more mixed: WH Smiths announced a restructure of its High Street operation and the closure of some stores, despite posting a pretty healthy £134m profit; meanwhile Wilko has plunged into the red to the tune of £65m, while Hamleys also dropped into the red last year, with an £11.7m loss, representing a hefty swing from the previous year. Over in the US, it looks like the end is finally nigh for Sears, with bankruptcy said to be looming.

But amidst all this retail turbulence, Toys R Us remains the source of arguably the most fascinating developments. Earlier this week, we reported that the bid by the Orchestre Group to acquire the French operation had been gazumped by Jellej Jouets – a company created especially for the bid process by Cyrus Capital, one of the US creditors of Toys R Us. So clearly that is in no way hooky – not in the slightest, nothing to see here.

Mind you, consumers aren’t gullible, as was evidenced by the reaction to Toys R Us’ return to social media in the US. Indeed, the company’s new twitter feed and Facebook sites had to be taken down and ‘cleansed’ of comments after a mere twelve hours of going live. It had all started out so promisingly. Toys R Us posted a gushing: “Guess who’s back? He’s been traveling across the globe for the past few months but now #GeoffreysBack and once again ready to set play free for children of all ages. Share some of your favourite memories and get ready to make a whole lot of new ones!” (NB: I have amended the spelling, because for some reason Americans still can’t spell the word ‘favourite,’ no matter how many times we tell them).

At this point, can you guess what happened? Well, here is just a selection of the comments screenshotted before they were removed: “Here’s my favourite memory: when myself and 33,000 people lost their jobs and your evil creditors took over the company and took all the money and liquidated us and took my severance.” Or try this: “My favourite memory was when you fired thousands of people with no severance in a deceptive ploy to give golden parachutes to investors and incompetent businessmen.”

The fact is that social media can be brutal, and companies have zero control over what people say on their feeds. Perhaps a little less hubris and a less patronising tone might have helped though. “Geoffrey has been travelling the globe…” No, he really hasn’t; Geoffrey has been busy sacking workers, reneging on his promise to pay them severance and defrauding suppliers of millions of dollars. That’s what he’s been doing, and whether the owners like it or not, they can’t just sweep that under the carpet. I don’t doubt for one second that Toys R Us still has a vital role to play in parts of the international toy community – but whatever happens in France, the US and around the globe, if Geoffrey thought he could just waltz back in and carry on where he left off, as if nothing happened, I think he now knows he has another thing coming. Geoffrey, you’ve been rumbled.