How do you measure a year?…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 12th March 2021

Next Tuesday, it will be one year to the day since the first UK lockdown began – 525,600 minutes, as they helpfully point out in the musical Rent. My Facebook memories over this past week have reminded me that I was still attending the theatre and visiting family just days before, when ‘normal life’ was still going on despite the ominous portents looming in the background. Some people were even among the quarter of a million strong crowd at Cheltenham races, merrily oblivious to what was to come or their unwitting role in it. Suffice to say my Facebook memories of the past 12 months from here on in are going to look very different…

On the positive side, it finally feels that we are beginning to make progress and moving towards the time when normal service will be resumed. It’s taken longer than most of us ever thought – who remembers discussing the ‘traditional’ January Toy Fair Season ‘21 last summer, thinking “surely it will all be over by then.”

Having seen the pace at which the situation can change, it’s impossible to make any firm predictions about the time frame for events to return – all the rescheduled shows will inevitably have an air of uncertainty hovering over them for a little while yet. The phrase ‘covid permitting’ is certainly cropping up in a lot of conversations right now. However, a few decisions are beginning to emerge; as we reported a few weeks ago, the AIS Independent Toy & Gift show has announced that it intends to move from April to September this year. There will also be news about what’s happening with the Toymaster show very soon…as they say, watch this space.

This week, we announced that Distoy plans to move from its traditional June slot to the end of October. Speaking to organiser David Potter, he feels that the extra five months will allow the global vaccine rollout to render the show viable. International visitors should hopefully be comfortable visiting the UK, providing they are permitted to travel by that point. Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that many other countries are currently lagging behind the UK on the vaccine rollout front – that could yet have an impact on all shows across the globe which cater to an international audience. But David remains hopeful that there will be an appetite to meet in person by that stage and is confident that he can deliver a worthwhile event.

In addition, retail stores will shortly re-open here in the UK – but we are already seeing the toll the past year has taken on the retail sector. John Lewis unveiled a disappointing set of results this week, while sadly re-iterating that not all of its branches will re-open after lockdown, which chairman Sharon White admitted would have “implications for our supply chains.”

It isn’t just ‘struggling’ retailers who are looking to make big cost savings: long term ‘friend’ of the Blog Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group is said to be cutting over 300 jobs at Evans Cycles and moving the hundreds of remaining store staff to zero-hours contracts, despite the huge demand for cycles over the past year.

There are also big changes underway in the grocery channel: Asda is said to be looking to reduce grocery floor space in stores by a quarter to make way for “cafes, takeaways, and nail & beauty bars.” Quite what this means for its toy aisles remains to be seen, and toy suppliers will be keeping a very close eye on Asda’s trial partnership with The Entertainer to see if it offers clues to the presence of toys in its aisles going forward.

Arguably, of even greater concern for toy suppliers is the news that has been coming out of Sainsbury’s Argos in recent weeks. I referenced some of the developments announced by Sainsbury’s in last week’s Blog, although I was unsure to what extent these moves would impact the Argos business. Let’s just say the implications have become a little clearer over the past week. A now-deleted social media post suggested that that Infant Toy & Nursery buyer Matthew Stent will be leaving the business after 14 years. Meanwhile, conversations with several toy suppliers have highlighted cancelled plans, a hold on listings for new brands and an air of concern from the Argos buying team over the impact of the proposed restructure of the general merchandise business.

Regardless of whether Argos is still the number one toy retailer in the UK or if it has been overtaken by one of its rivals such as Amazon or Smyths, it remains pivotal to the UK toy market and these latest developments will undoubtedly be causing more than a ripple of concern throughout the toy supplier community. Let’s just hope that things settle down and there is clarity sooner rather than later – although, as I always say when reporting on developments such as this, other toy retailers will be watching the situation closely, hoping opportunities might open up for them as a result of the turmoil. The pandemic may have heralded many changes in the retail arena, but it hasn’t altered the fact that one retailer’s loss is invariably another’s gain…

As an industry, we’ll have plenty of other post-pandemic challenges to face, not least of which is a rapidly declining birth rate over the past 12 months – it turns out that those people who predicted a lockdown baby boom couldn’t have been more wrong if they had tried. Looks like we found other ways to amuse ourselves while we couldn’t leave the house – personally I blame Lego, whose stellar results over the past year were unveiled this week. With a whopping 13% rise in sales being partly attributed to families at home building together, it seems some couples were more inclined to get creative on the kitchen table with Lego than turning to other forms of recreation.

But just as we’ve met the challenges over the past year, so I have every confidence that the toy community will meet the challenges yet to come. I will be joining the ranks of the vaccinated on Monday afternoon – as near as dammit 525, 600 minutes after we first entered the twilight zone, I am both excited and relieved to be taking the first step on the road out of it. Onwards and upwards…