The past two weeks’ Blogs have been the most widely read of the year so far – who knew the subject of shipping and logistics could be quite so enthralling? However, there isn’t much new to report on the shipping front this week – on the plus side, Yantian Port is pretty much back to full operation now, although the backlog is likely to take weeks to clear and the disruption has now spread to many neighbouring ports. Prices are still fluctuating wildly – securing a container has become more like currency speculation or share buying…you almost need a separate screen open constantly to monitor the situation.
So, let’s turn to some of the other main talking points of the week, which has seen two of my very favourite companies in the news. First up, it’s Disney – strong rumours have emerged that staff at Disney Stores across the UK have been handed their notice, with the suggestion that the flagship store in London will be the only branch left standing after the ‘consultation’ has been concluded. While the news hasn’t come out of the blue – an official announcement in March spoke of significant store closures across the globe – the scale of the cutback does appear to have escalated rapidly over the past few months. The Disney Store website hints at “new Disney destinations with various retail partners” – could we be about to see a ‘store-in-store’ approach similar to that which has been established at Target in the US? While that’s entirely possible, it also seems likely that online sales will attempt to fill the gap left by the closure of the stores (although quite how they will be able to replicate the ‘magic’ of a Disney store in the digital realm remains to be seen). I also wonder whether some specialist toy stores will look to to take advantage of the disappearance of a direct competitor from the High Street by ramping up their Disney selection.
The other company I’m focusing on this week is Amazon. I’m not even going to make more than a passing reference to Prime Week: it was early – very early – this year, so I doubt it has had too much impact on the wider toy market. Judging by what I saw, it was a good opportunity to move on some of last year’s stock at attractive prices, but the timing has precluded many new items from getting caught up in proceedings. So, in many ways, that’s good.
However, rather than dwell on what amounts to a 2-day clearance sale, Amazon has been making headlines this week for other reasons – all the wrong ones, unfortunately. First up, ITV News shone a spotlight on Amazon’s questionable approach to dealing with unsold stock, as it uncovered proof that the retailer is still destroying millions of new, unused and perfectly serviceable items each year. A former employee at the Dunfermline fulfilment centre admitted that the “target was to destroy 130,000 items a week.” Amazon attempted to downplay the accusation, claiming that the products filmed were destined for ‘energy recovery’ rather than landfill, but the evidence appeared damning. Given the public’s increasing awareness of sustainability and the regulations which apply to bricks and mortar retailers and suppliers, it does seem surprising that Amazon can avoid responsibility for what happens to these goods. And offering suppliers the option of returning an item at a cost of £17 or destroying it for 13p does seem like a bizarrely imbalanced choice.
Sadly, Amazon’s dubious business practices don’t end there. We were contacted by Mike O’Shea, co-founder of online toy retailer Wicked Uncle, who has become increasingly frustrated by Amazon’s attempts to hijack Wicked Uncle’s online listings. It started with Amazon bidding on the trademarked ‘Wicked Uncle’ name for Pay-per-Clicks advertising. After Google was alerted, it temporarily stopped this happening, but Amazon simply adapted its tactics: now when people search ‘Wicked Uncle Toys’ on Google, it brings up ads for Amazon, complete with the words “Low Prices on Wicked uncle toys.” When clicked, the Amazon ad takes users to a landing page of toys and games, some of which are Wicked Uncle best-sellers.
Is this practice illegal? That will be for the lawyers to decide, but it undoubtedly will cost big bucks to test (Amazon knows that and has very deep pockets). Speaking to another major toy retailer which Amazon has targeted in the same way, he admitted that while it was deeply frustrating, his preference was to reluctantly shrug and turn a blind eye – what he actually said was “We just ignore the ****ers.”
In fairness, I can see why a retailer would choose not to take on Amazon over this – I am sure some reading this will be saying: “Leave it, John. It’s just Amazon doing Amazon things.” Indeed, I am under no illusions that highlighting any of this behaviour will stop it from happening – but equally, that shouldn’t stop us from drawing attention to it. The toy community is a close-knit one: I would like to think that we should all apply whatever pressure we can to at least make them feel a modicum of embarrassment…but then again, I guess algorithms and bots don’t have a moral compass or feel shame. Ultimately, I suspect it will be down to the government to apply pressure via legislation to bring about meaningful change.
Mind you, if the government team responsible for negotiating the bewildering FTA with Australia is the same one dealing with Amazon, no wonder nothing ever changes. If only they had watched the episode of Father Ted where Ted explains perspective to Dougal – “Near. Far away.” – we might not have to be placing our hopes on trade with Australia replacing all the lost business with the EU. It does take special skill to agree a trade deal which produces less trade….