The week started in the way most weeks do at this time of the year. We’re very busy, but certainly not complaining about that – 2022 is coming up rapidly in the rear-view mirror. Mattel and Hasbro released their Q3 results, with both companies posting strong numbers, despite the obvious global supply chain challenges – Hasbro even admitted that it had missed out on $100m of orders during the quarter due to an inability to fulfill them, and yet still announced solid growth.
It was great to see another important step on the road back to normality, as registration opened for the London Toy Fair next January, while ticket sales have also commenced for the Nuremberg Toy Fair. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Chinese official apparently told the FT that the removal of quarantine restrictions in Hong Kong could be delayed until November ’22, after the communist party conference. The FT isn’t given to printing rumours without having a credible source, so assuming this is plausible, it would not only rule out any trips in the early part of next year, but even call into question the prospect of international visitors heading there next autumn and even – whisper it quietly – in January ’23. It’s all speculation at this stage of course, but I would imagine that the Hong Kong exhibition sector, as well as companies with showrooms there, must be tearing their hair out in frustration.
So far, so typical. Then came an almighty curveball. I woke up on Wednesday morning to an email announcing that Toys R Us would be returning to the UK market, courtesy of a deal with Toys R Us ANZ, the company running the brand in the Australian market.
When HMV owner Doug Putnam acquired Toys R Us Canada a few months ago, he made a cryptic comment about the possibility of bringing the TRU brand back to the UK market – a sort of ‘never say never’ remark. Jo Hall, who heads up Toys R Us Asia, knows the UK toy retail market better than just about any international retail figure. Both would have been favourites to spearhead such a move, yet the company tasked with moving forward with the project has had no previous involvement in the UK retail sector, albeit they have enjoyed tremendous success in the domestic market.
Inevitably, as soon as the story broke, I was inundated with questions from UK suppliers about the new UK operation. The press release contained a relatively decent level of detail for an announcement of this sort, but there were still many unanswered questions. So, this morning, I headed into the office early, where I spent the first hour of my day talking to Dr Louis (pronounced Lewis) Mittoni, the man behind the return of TRU to the UK. As a result, I have done something I rarely do – I have hastily rewritten today’s Blog to incorporate just a small part of that hour-long conversation. It turns out that Louis is an engaging personality and hugely passionate about toys – and, of course, the Toys R Us brand. He describes the plan as “not so much a relaunch – it feels more like the brand is coming home.”
So, here is what we know so far. The agreement covers both physical stores and a digital presence. Louis refers to the company’s strategy as a ‘digital first’ model, which makes perfect sense: the Australian outfit has a strong record in the digital space – before TRU, Louis ran his own eCommerce business Hobby Warehouse, the infrastructure of which was used to set TRU up. The company has also invested heavily in its state-of-the-art Australian warehouse facilities, which feature cutting edge robotics. All of this technology is very much transferable, and will give the retailer a strong base to build from.
However, I suspect that the ‘physical store’ aspect of the plan is going to come as something of a surprise to many in the toy community. Sensibly, the thinking is not about how TRU has approached its store estate in the past, but how consumers shop now and how they will shop 5-10 years into the future.
So, forget warehouse-style 40,000 square foot stores on retail parks across the country. Louis’ plan involves a far more experiential physical store environment – a concept he describes as ‘the endless aisle.’ A quick way of describing it would be to imagine a massive, state of the art DC (200-300,000 square feet) – and bolted on to the front of it, a 20-30,000 square foot retail space. The idea is that consumers would spend time getting hands-on with the toys and nursery goods, then be able to order any one of 30-40,000 products, which would be delivered to you within a minute via the cutting-edge robotics integrated into the facility.
It’s certainly an ambitious vision – but I’m sure that consumers will be fascinated by a place where they can touch, feel and try out product, and then order from a vast range.
Unsurprisingly, Louis has received a deluge of request to connect, with people wanting to find out more about the plans and timescales. So, I can exclusively reveal that to in order to record and respond to the immense number of supplier enquires (toy, baby, 3PL, services etc) that have been flooding in, a dedicated ‘expression of interest’ page has been set up for potential partners to register their interest, which is http://eepurl.com/hL38FL
Louis is keen to hear from former suppliers to TRU, new and upcoming companies, service providers and anyone else who want to be part of what sounds like a fascinating journey. The previous TRU philosophy of supporting new vendors and new ranges is very much still in place – one of the key elements which many suppliers told me they missed when TRU disappeared.
I gather the next phase will be to set up a similar page for prospective staff, which we’ll let you know about when it goes live. In fairness, the new operation isn’t hanging about – in addition to creating a way for interested vendors and staff to get in touch, they have also been exploring ways to start supplying the UK market with product. It sounds like they are very much hitting the ground running, and we’ll bring you more details as and when they are available.
Hang on to your hats folks…