Heroes, villains and paradoxes …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 4th August 2023

I’ve written extensively about the success of the Barbie movie in recent weeks. The good news is that I am reliably informed that the huge box office numbers are also translating into strong sales of Barbie merchandise, including toys (even though Mattel opted not to release a specific movie range of toys). One major retail owner described his sales as “phenomenal” – and he isn’t prone to exaggeration. That said, it is just as well Barbie is performing as well as it is, because the market certainly needs some quick wins right now.

I have written several Blogs and columns recently suggesting that the UK toy market was holding up reasonably well thus far this year: this viewpoint was very much based on the Circana data up to and including June, which saw the market down by a mere 2%. But that was then, this is now – life comes at your fast in the toy market. I have it on pretty good authority that the July numbers fell quite a way short of that level. From what I hear, the market was down every week in July, with the last three weeks all experiencing double digit declines.

Of course, the inclement weather hasn’t helped – I would imagine outdoor sales slowed up dramatically in July. But even allowing for that, I get the impression that even a normal level of outdoor sales wouldn’t have been able to turn the figures around – even though that might have softened the blow for retailers, the underlying trend remains some way behind last July’s numbers. And as much as I try to accentuate the positives when it comes to the toy market, I have always maintained that honesty and candour are important elements of the Toy World content strategy. There’s no point in pretending everything is rosy when there are evidently challenges.

As ever, though, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective: July is traditionally a solid month – better than February or even March without an Easter holiday in it, but not exactly Q4 either. And thankfully there are some bright spots: in addition to Barbie, we now have another blockbuster movie driver in the form of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem film. I saw a preview screening last Sunday and was once again impressed with the way in which the film delivered a fresh, modern take on an iconic toy brand. It’s without doubt the best Turtles movie since the original (“waaaay better than that Michael Bay rubbish” was the succinct summary of one toy retail superfan). I loved that it portrayed the Turtles as ‘real teenagers’, with all the sass, bravado and vulnerability that entails – kids will both relate to and aspire to the characters. There were also some nice ‘easter eggs’ for the diehard fans, and the animation was a refreshing change from the wall-to-wall CGI we’ve become accustomed to; it gave the movie an edgier, cooler vibe that aligns perfectly with the brand. And crucially, the movie will sell toys – it showcases the heroes, villains and vehicles with plenty of wit and panache, without being overly commercial. Like Barbie, I gather that the toys are already selling well, so let’s hope that the ‘hero’ summer movies will help to make the August numbers a little more palatable.

I also understand that we finally have a potential craze bubbling under; keep an eye on the Loom Band situation. Unbelievably, it is nine years – NINE! – since Loom Bands were at their peak, and several retailers have indicated that sales are starting to accelerate nicely again. They may not quite hit the giddy heights of the first wave, but a healthy resurgence would still be most welcome.

There was more good news for the UK toy community this week in the form of another screeching U-turn from the UK government, which has sensibly decided that it will allow British companies to carry on using the CE mark after all. Thank goodness common sense has prevailed. This volte face is very good news for UK toy companies, saving them a lot of money, time and hassle in the long term (albeit I feel sorry for those companies which have already spent a fair bit preparing for the switch to the UKCA mark). However, why the government even contemplated changing the system in the first place is beyond me – we just have to be glad they listened to bodies like the British Toy & Hobby Association, which has been trying to persuade them they’d got it spectacularly wrong. Yet another Brexit own goal that could have cost companies millions had it not been scrapped – and once again evidence of the paradox that Brexit only really works when you don’t implement it.

The August issue of Toy World has been arriving on desks and online this week – you can read the digital version here. In addition to all the latest news and a treasure trove of new products that are about to hit shelves ahead of the autumn winter season, it also has several thought-provoking articles that I hope everyone will read, including a plea from Midco Toys’ Dave Middleton for suppliers to give the specialist channel a fair crack of the whip when it comes to new product launches. He’s not asking for preferential treatment, just a level playing field to give the indies a chance to share in the success of hot new lines.

I am old enough to remember the reaction to Peter Brown’s speech at a Toy of the Year awards event several decades ago, when he put forward the idea that toy suppliers should positively discriminate in favour of the indies to help them survive. Numerous suppliers came up to me afterwards to say how impractical that would be in practice, and that they wouldn’t dream of potentially upsetting their major customers by doing that. Yet decades later, many still remember that speech as an important intervention by a key industry player to stop things from going too far in one direction. Arguably Mattel has shown with Barbie that it is possible to keep everyone happy with effective channel management – and undoubtedly an indie retailer will always remember those companies which have been fair and even-handed. Support goes two ways – as it always has and always will.