“How’s my diary looking? Hang on, let me see…” …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 24th July 2020

And so, we reach the end of another topsy turvy week, which has seen some encouraging signs of a return to normality, while several other notable developments have reminded us just how far we still have to go.

On the positive side, we have seen several retailers announce that their buying teams will soon be returning to their head offices, including Asda and Morrisons. Admittedly, Asda’s team will only be spending ‘part of the week’ in the office, while Morrisons’ new arrangements include a four day week, plus one Saturday shift each month (it will be fascinating to see how staff feel about that…). So, not exactly a complete return to normal, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, US toy sales have mirrored the UK trend, with NPD announcing a 16% increase over the first half of the year. Frankly, an amazing result, and one which few would have predicted four months ago – a most welcome springboard for what lies ahead in the second half of the year.

We’ve also seen companies continuing to use the lockdown ‘downtime’ productively, with both Toymaster and Tandem Group – owner of MV Sports – announcing major board restructures this week. Congratulations to MV’s Phil Ratcliffe and Jim Shears on their new joint MD roles and also to JAC Stores’ Chris Blatcher, who takes over from Ciaran Fitzpatrick as chairman of Toymaster. I’m sure they are all looking forward to their inaugural virtual board meetings…

Walmart has even decided that the time is right to revisit the possibility of selling a stake in its Asda operation: it will be fascinating to see what appetite the private equity sector has for investment in the current climate, but now may be a good time to at least test the water.

However, inevitably, there is a corollary to these welcome green shoots. The ‘new (ab)normal’ working conditions don’t just include the prospect of retail buyers having to give up one Saturday a month: at Tesco, workers at 2,000 stores are being asked to take on cleaning duties after contractors were axed. Nice timing: it’s not as if cleanliness is a major issue or anything, and why wouldn’t hard-pressed shop floor workers do a better job than dedicated, professional cleaners. I’ve already bought our sales director Mark his own mop, bucket, marigolds and an industrial quantity of disinfectant in preparation for his new extended duties.

We’re also seeing more events and trade fairs accepting that now is perhaps not the time to press on regardless. This week saw the announcement that the Brand Licensing Europe (BLE) exhibition will be transitioning to a virtual-only event for 2020. I completely understand and respect the rationale, outlined by show organiser Anna Knight in the first virtual press-conference I have ever attended. Based on both international and corporate travel restrictions currently still in place, the company felt that it wouldn’t be able to deliver a show of the high calibre it is known for, and has therefore decided to throw its considerable weight behind a four week virtual Festival of Licensing instead.

There were a few comments on social media following our announcement about this development, suggesting that the virtual realm might be the way forward for trade fairs as a whole. However, while I respect that everyone will have their own views on this subject, I tend to disagree with this suggestion. I don’t doubt that it will be interesting to see how virtual events fare, and there is every chance that they will become a valuable complement to trade fairs and international buying trips, but I’m not sure I see them being a long-term replacement for physical shows. Yes, I am old school and proud, but a trade fair is about so much more than the planned appointments: the many impromptu, unscheduled meetings and conversations in the aisles or coffee shop queues are often some of the most valuable. Even those little chats at the airport, on the plane or at a bar or restaurant can be gold – these are the kind of spontaneous interactions that it will be a challenge to replicate in the virtual realm.

Sadly, in addition to trade fairs, we’re also seeing a number of large-scale industry social events being called off for this year. The Fence Club announced this week that its legendary Christmas Ball won’t be happening this December. It’s a great shame, but I totally agree with the decision: things would have to change pretty dramatically to allow any massive parties to go ahead in December. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good industry social event as much as the next person. But when so many people aren’t allowed to hold face to face meetings, travel on business or even return to work in their offices, I’m not sure how attending a good old knees-up would realistically be justified.

That said, without doubt, we are all hoping that the next six months will bring about a significant improvement in the situation: I am sure that we would all love the Toy Fairs to take place in January as usual. From a business-critical perspective, they’re in a different league to award ceremonies and parties – they can genuinely make a tangible difference to the fortunes of so many businesses. We’re all adapting and making the best possible use of virtual options in the meantime, and I don’t doubt that these will remain part of everyone’s business framework long after the pandemic has passed. But I genuinely hope that we can reintegrate face to face meetings, trade shows and events into our business schedules sooner rather than later – when it is appropriate to do so. How I long for the day when someone asks me “how is your diary looking” and I can honestly reply “Pretty full, let me see what I have available,” rather than “Pick a time – literally, any time.”