I must admit, it felt strange not starting off the year with a trip to Hong Kong. Like many people in the global toy community, I should have been there last week and this week. However, Hong Kong remains firmly locked down – indeed, the draconian restrictions have been ramped up again in recent weeks, so much so that some locals are even concerned about next year’s January trip! It really is a mess, and lays bare the long-term impact on business of pursuing a zero-Covid strategy.
On the plus side, I will be fresh as a daisy when the London Toy Fair opens in ten days’ time, not battling the effects of jetlag and ten days of working hard in Hong Kong – so that’s a major bonus. The UK has adopted a very different approach to Covid, preferring to ‘ride it out’ and live alongside the virus. That strategy understandably has its vocal critics at times, and I appreciate that it may not be ideal for everyone, but there is no doubt that it is infinitely more business friendly. The government has repeatedly made it clear that there are no impending lockdowns, international travel restrictions have been eased and mass events are still taking place (football matches have seen 60k crowds turning up in recent days, while bars, restaurants and nightclubs remain open). As a result, it is largely down to individuals and companies as to how they choose to operate, and businesses can at least plan with some degree of confidence.
Given the prevailing situation here in the UK, there has been little speculation about the fate of the London Toy Fair at any stage of the past few months – a handful of exhibitors have pulled out (including Playmobil yesterday), but the vast majority that I have spoken to are looking forward to meeting their customers in person for the first time in several years. I really hope the UK retail community chooses to support the show, as the organisers and exhibitors have gone to great lengths to put on a safe event. I attended several shows last autumn (Autumn Fair, BLE), while the Fence Club Christmas Party and even the Licensing Awards took place without incident (and if anything was going to be a super spreader event, it was that – the licensing community is very ‘huggy kissy’).
Sadly, the situation is not the same elsewhere across the globe. This week saw the cancellation of the Nuremberg and New York Toy Fairs, in both cases less than a week after the respective organisers had issued statements claiming that the events were definitely still going ahead. There had been rumblings about both shows since the turn of the year, with reports of key exhibitors pulling out and major buyers cancelling appointments. Both show organisers did all they could to give the shows a fighting chance of going ahead, but in the end, time and the virus conditions in Germany & the USA were against them. It must be immensely frustrating and disappointing to have had to cancel the show for a second year in a row – I really feel for them, just as I feel for the HKTDC which organizes the Hong Kong Toy Fair. However, these cancellations are very much down to ‘events beyond their control’.
As a result of these cancellations, I suspect we may now see a last-minute influx of European – and maybe even some global – buyers coming to London, as it is now the only (toy) show in town. I had a couple of calls from international visitors who were already thinking about a trip to London before the Nuremberg news broke late yesterday afternoon. Looking at social media and WhatsApp groups yesterday evening, I get the impression that many more are now contemplating a visit. If you are one of those people, I can guarantee that the show will go on – I spoke to the BTHA first thing this morning, and they have reassured me that there is no prospect of cancellation. There was a naughty rumour on LinkedIn last night that I hope I nipped in the bud – I don’t know how these rumours start, but if there was any risk at all to the London event taking place, I would know (trust me) and moreover, I would tell you. London is open and ready for business – if you feel comfortable coming, you’ll be most welcome.
Away from the shows, there have been some other major developments this week: Neil Bandtock has left MGA to seek new opportunities. We wish Neil all the best with whatever comes next, and it will certainly be interesting to see who succeeds him at MGA. It was also announced that the Retailer of the Year and Toy of the Year awards will be unveiled digitally on the first day of the London Toy Fair – a different way of doing things for sure, but a reflection of the times we live in (it will be interesting to see if The Hand & Flower will still be rammed each evening…).
Finally, the festive trading results from Sainsbury’s Argos didn’t make for pretty reading: food and drink played a blinder, but general merchandise had a shocker (down 16%), with toys specifically cited as an under-performing category. Even the desperate last-minute 25% sale clearly wasn’t enough to save them. I’m sure lots of the readers of this column will have their own thoughts as to how and why that happened – indeed, some of them made their opinions crystal clear in messages to me (including the ‘controversial’ suggestion that “answering their emails and calls would be a start…”). Suffice to say that Argos’ loss was undoubtedly other retailers’ gain, and while I believe a strong Argos is good for the UK toy market, if it does take its eye off the ball, there is no shortage of competitors eager to pounce and take advantage (and market share). And with one 70% up and the other 16% down, do we finally have the answer to the question I posed in the Blog back in December – Argos or Dave? Looks like we might have a winner folks…