How to win friends and influence people… it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 9th February 2024

I was due to visit Spring Fair this week, but sadly I was struck down with a post-Nuremberg lurgy (Nuremblurgy? Nurembug?), so I wasn’t able to make it. Thankfully, another member of the Toy World team was able to make the trip and reported a steady show, with several toy exhibitors happy with the level of retail interest. The dedicated Kids & Play section seems to get smaller every year, but there was also a healthy representation from toy companies in adjacent halls so, overall, there is still a respectable presence from toy companies looking to reach different retailers – small gift shops, garden centres, zoos, theme parks etc – than the accounts that come to London Toy Fair. It’s not for everyone, but for those with the right product (and the right margin capacity), there are certainly opportunities.

However, unfortunately not every visitor had a positive experience. Midco Toys’ Dave Middleton might have thought that winning the Independent Toy Retailer of the Year award would see suppliers welcoming him with open arms (that and the fact he’s a successful retailer who can shift decent volumes of product), but one particular Spring Fair exhibitor obviously didn’t read the script. If you didn’t read Dave’s LinkedIn post about his experience, it is well worth checking out. Essentially, the tl:dr is that Dave was treated appallingly by the reps from Jellycat, who made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want to engage with him in a prolonged, fairly unpleasant exchange. I have to be honest and say I wasn’t surprised when Dave told me what had happened: this company has ‘previous’ for excessive snobbery and rudeness. I gave up even bothering to try to talk to them years ago. Under Dave’s post, which has been viewed by over 30,000 people, there were numerous comments from people who have had a similar experience with this particular company (it’s obviously part of its DNA), plus a neat Mean Girls reference from Dave, and Vivid’s Darrell Jones comparing Dave to Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman…seriously, it really is worth reading the entire thread.

I genuinely struggle to comprehend why anyone would pay £50k++ for a stand at a trade show to adopt a sales prevention mentality and tell people they can’t open an account unless they practically beg. Maybe it’s a reverse psychology thing – treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen? Perhaps that used to work in the bad old days, but I’m not sure it’s still a winning strategy.

And what must the show organisers think – they can’t be happy with visitors having such a bad experience. I appreciate that the Jellycat team can run their business however they see fit – that’s their call. But given all the bad publicity that has followed one poor interaction (30,000 viewers and counting), I would be amazed if the company didn’t revisit its trade show policy. And if they don’t, I am sure they will reap what they have sown. I suggested a few weeks ago that I would periodically be highlighting disappointing behaviour by retailers under the ‘twit of the week’ heading (I gather the inaugural inductee was apparently less than thrilled with its nomination, but when asked “but did you do it?” had to admit it was all true). Although not a retailer, I think Jellycat has fully earnt a place in the ‘twit…’ hall of fame this week. Inspired by Dave and Darren, I’m also going to throw in a pop culture reference of my own: “Jellycat, Jellycat, what are they feeding you? Jellycat, Jellycat, it’s all your fault.”

Another retailer who – going on past form – is almost certainly going to be in the running for a ‘twit’ nomination on a semi-regular basis is our old friend Amazon, who this week has been warned by the government to unfreeze seller funds it has been withholding as part of campaign of stricter VAT checks. In theory, this whole matter should be relatively straightforward. All online sellers should pay VAT where legally applicable – if not, they are avoiding / evading tax and negatively impacting the NHS, education, family support, roads, infrastructure projects and a host of other areas where government funding is essential. That said, the process for Amazon to check this should not take as long as it is doing – it doesn’t seem that a sufficiently rigorous process is in place, or there aren’t enough Amazon employees to implement it. I have a VAT number and records of quarterly VAT returns that can be provided in minutes – how can the validation process take as long as four months? I was contacted by several toy companies saying they have had substantial amounts withheld for prolonged periods, and who have even received threats of account closure – in one case, because a company tried to add a new employee to the portal and his ID was rejected. Frankly, that’s just not good enough. Three words Amazonians: Sort. It. Out. Or you’ll be next into the ‘Twit’ Hall of Shame.

Thankfully, not everyone has had a bad week. Mattel must be delighted with its Q4 and annual results, which were unveiled a few days ago. While the US market declined -8% in 2023 and the major European markets were down -5%, Mattel had a stonking Q4 (+16%) which saw it end the year flat – and as I said a few weeks ago, “flat is the new up” (apparently someone quoted that phrase to Circana in Nuremberg last week, so it’s good to see some people are keeping an eye on my ramblings).

The Toy Association is also emerging from a turbulent period, with fresh impetus and new directions. I caught up with Interim president Andy Keimach this week, after the news that the Association has secured a building in LA from which toy companies can conduct previews in September. As Andy described it: “this year is a test drive to a permanent solution for both April and September moving forward.” It seems like the LA juggernaut won’t be slowing any time soon, and El Segundo will be its epicentre. Heck, I may even need to go along for the ride, although I do wish something could be done to streamline and solidify the dates. Most of us – including the people in the buildings that are springing up in El Segundo, plus retail and distributor visitors – will find it difficult to be there for 3-4 weeks (or more), and most of us are struggling to find where the sweet spot is when the greatest number of people will be around. Hopefully all will become clear in the fullness of time…