Innocent until proven guilty …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 12th August 2022

I’m going to get the bad news out of the way first: despite last ditch attempts on Monday to avoid industrial action, the Unite union has apparently rejected the latest pay offer from the port of Felixstowe and strike action is scheduled to go ahead from the 21st- 29th August. The likelihood is that there will be significant disruption to services calling at Felixstowe during this time. Just what we all need right now…what we would all give to the turn the clock back to more normal times when all we had to moan about was a grocer knocking the latest hot movie line out at 25% off on the day the film launched.

Hopefully there won’t be too much of a knock-on effect on Christmas stock arriving – our most read story of the week covered the John Lewis festive Top 10 (people do love a list). As has been the case for several years, JLP was first out of the blocks, releasing its predictions while UK consumers are still sweltering in practically tropical temperatures and battling drought conditions. Personally, I am not sure that Christmas could be further from anyone’s mind at the moment, but I guess someone has to be first. There were no great surprises or curveballs on the list, but then you wouldn’t necessarily expect that from a traditionally safe retailer.

In other retail news, Lego unveiled its revamped Leicester Square branch this week, now the largest Lego store in the world. Toy World’s assistant editor Sam was there for a sneak peek the night before it opened and was suitably blown away – as was her 12-year-old son. One of the truly great things about Lego is its wide generational appeal – and if it can keep teenagers (and grown adults) interested in toys, that can only be a good thing. Frankly, we need all the customers we can get right now.

I am sure toy specialist retailers across the world will echo that sentiment – and the last thing anyone needs is additional obstructions put in the way of trading. So, I was disappointed to hear this week that eBay is employing what can only be described as rather heavy-handed, draconian measures against retailers which it *believes* are selling counterfeit products. An established, completely legitimate retailer (you know, the ones who have to demonstrate they have all the relevant safety markings and certificates) told me that he has been accused by eBay of selling counterfeit products, and when he protested his innocence, was told he had been found guilty and there was no right of appeal. He even offered to send them a letter from the MD of the company whose products were the subject of the accusation, confirming that the products were genuine; eBay’s response was effectively “Oh we don’t doubt that you might be buying some legitimate products from them, but that doesn’t mean these ones are genuine.”

Now I know that platforms have come under attack in the past for being far too relaxed about letting infringing product be sold online and too slow to act when a product was found to be dangerous – but this seems to be going to the other extreme. Clamping down on the cowboys is very much needed, but surely it would be more effective if it was done in the right way – going after bona fide retailers, accusing them of selling illegal product and offering them no redress or right to appeal seems rather unfair. Whatever happened to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’…?

Meanwhile, over in the Far East, there has been some slight relaxation in the quarantine regulations for Hong Kong. Sadly, judging by numerous comments on my LinkedIn post explaining the new rules, it doesn’t seem that the changes go far enough for the global toy community. On the plus side, quarantine has been reduced from seven to three days. However, further ‘medical surveillance’ is required over the next four days, including a daily PCR test (which I suspect won’t be cheap). During those four days, visitors are not allowed to enter bars or restaurants, curtailing the opportunity for networking and socializing, where many valuable relationships are forged. Overall, it still feels like they’re not exactly rolling out the red carpet and welcoming international visitors back with open arms.

Virtually every comment on the story came from people who said that they would only return when restrictions are lifted completely, not eased slightly. On that basis, a return to Hong Kong in January 2023 is looking debatable. Some have even questioned whether the days of the toy community heading to Hong Kong in September and January will ever return. Perhaps the most honest / brutal assessment came from toy stalwart Kim Carter, who said: “This has changed forever. The really important buyers have their offices there, which take care of the business they need to do with the factories with whom they are established. The others have managed for two years now working with local suppliers. In the short term, FOB purchases will be restricted because of the global economy. In terms of international business, Nuremberg will be king in the new year and come next September LA & New York will have taken over. Remember much of the creativity is still either North American, Western Europe or Australia driven. Time for everyone to move on.”

Is he right? On a personal level, I hope not. I have very much enjoyed visiting Hong Kong over the past 15-20 years, and I have always found the trip to be productive and worthwhile. However, times change, and as we have seen in recent years, if something disappears for a prolonged period of time, it is much harder to bring it back (that has certainly been the case in the trade magazine market, for example…). Of course, it’s not impossible – London Toy Fair missed one year, Nuremberg has missed two years, and they have both came back strongly. However, if the January Hong Kong trip doesn’t happen next year, by ’24 it will be four years since the last one – and that is a sizeable gap. I would love to believe that the Hong Kong government appreciates what needs to be done – let’s see what happens over the next few months.