Going Nowhere… it’s the Bank Holiday Blog!

Published on: 14th April 2020

(This Blog was first published just before the Bank Holiday weekend, last week – but here it is again in case you missed it.)

It has been a strange week on so many levels; had coronavirus not intervened, I would have been walking my eldest daughter down the aisle today. Like so many other things, the big day has had to be put on hold – in her case, until September. At least it gives me more time to work on my speech. It certainly isn’t the easiest of times to write a wedding speech (or even a Blog for that matter) – getting the tone right is no mean feat.

Coming just too late for inclusion in last week’s Blog was the news that Toymaster has postponed its May Show, with proposed new dates of 2nd-4th September. Looks like I am going to have a busy September, what with the rearranged wedding and at least three UK trade shows to fit in to what is traditionally a busy month anyway.

A little bit of context about the Toymaster decision; it has been evident for weeks that the May Show wasn’t going to happen. Quite rightly, Toymaster wanted to ensure it had weighed up all the options before deciding on the best course of action. Having ascertained that the majority of its members and suppliers were broadly receptive to postponing rather than cancelling the show outright, a variety of different dates were apparently under consideration. It was eventually decided that August would be too early, with school holidays likely to restrict attendance. Relocating the May Show to October alongside the traditional FOB event was also considered but rejected for being too late. The first week of September does seem the most logical slot from a timing perspective, despite the resultant fixture congestion – the show will now finish a couple of days before Autumn Fair starts, while AIS’s Independent Toy & Gift Show has elected to choose a date towards the end of the month.

While it may force some retailers and suppliers to choose which of the shows to visit, I’m reliably informed that less than a couple of dozen Toymaster members traditionally visit Autumn Fair anyway. With Toymaster’s Autumn Winter FOB programme cancelled, members will be reliant on domestic stock to carry them through the key pre-Christmas trading period. There are reportedly still plans to publish an autumn winter catalogue, so if retailers can re-open and trade through the summer holidays, early September should see them relatively clean in terms of stock, ready and raring to place Christmas orders. Suppliers should have fully worked through their own stock holding issues by then, so should be able to offer immediate delivery on orders placed at the show. In theory, everyone is a winner.

We just have to hope that retailers – not just independents, but stores of all sizes – will make it safely through the lockdown period, however long it turns out to be. Somehow, I doubt that Debenhams and Cath Kidson will be the last retailers to go into administration to protect themselves from legal action from creditors. It’s not all doom and gloom: there are some encouraging signs, but it’s also important to keep a sense of perspective – unlike some international media reports over the past few weeks, which may have given the impression that sales of toys are at record levels and we will all be retiring to a desert island with Richard Branson on the proceeds of this amazing year. I spoke to NPD’s Melissa Symonds yesterday to get some clarity and up-to-date numbers, as I have become increasingly perplexed at the inherent contradictions and lack of context within some of these reports.

To start with, it is important to bear several things in mind: these stories generally refer to sales data from at least a couple of weeks ago – and in the current climate, two weeks is a very long time! Most of the numbers are coming from stock retailers already held, hence the apparent disparity between current trading trends and cancellation of outstanding orders. And, of course, March is traditionally a low sales period, so even modest increases can have a significant impact on percentage growth.

That said, the March numbers for the UK – reflecting three weeks when stores were open and a week of lockdown – were extremely positive, reaching the levels normally associated with Q4 in some categories. March saw a healthy value growth of 9%, bringing the UK market into modest growth for Q1 overall (+2%). The last two weeks of the month fared even better, with a massive 24% increase in value sales. However, at the same time, volume sales declined by 20% – essentially, fewer toys were sold, but at much higher prices. Winners included Lego Technic and outdoor items such as Swingball, trampolines, swings and so on.

Here is where the context comes in handy: this welcome trend is clearly unsustainable, for a variety of reasons. First, these are predominantly ‘one-off’ purchases; secondly, many of these purchases have been brought forward from Easter or even May Bank Holiday, as parents rushed to make early preparations for kids being at home. In France, Spain and Italy, there were significant drops in sales the longer lockdown continued – parental purchases there were ‘front-ended’ with parents planning for the coming weeks, making it unlikely that these numbers can be sustained across the remainder of the lockdown period. The April data will be fascinating….keep a look out for NPD’s exclusive article in the May issue of Toy World, which should hopefully be able to give us an updated picture based on several weeks of April trading.

In addition to a huge growth in the outdoor category, games & puzzles also saw a massive uplift in the UK in March, which matches what we are all hearing anecdotally. One saving grace for the UK is how sophisticated our online sales channel is – bear in mind that 38% of toy sales in 2019 were made online. Southern European countries are nowhere near as developed in this area, which has been reflected in a far greater decline in short-term sales as stores shut. If the UK figure for last year was 38%, one wonders what it will be at the end of this year…

And finally, isn’t it mildly amusing that suppliers are now complaining about some online retailers taking advantage by selling certain products at inflated prices, rather than bemoaning the fact that they are undercutting bricks and mortar retailers…how times have changed.

Happy Easter everyone – enjoy the long weekend and I hope you’re not going anywhere nice.