London Calling…it’s the Friday Toy Fair Blog!

Published on: 24th January 2020

This is traditionally one of the trickiest Blogs of the year to write. I usually sit down on a Thursday afternoon to pull together my formative thoughts for the week’s Blog, with the Friday morning acting as a safety net in case I decide in hindsight that anything needs reworking or removing. Yesterday afternoon, I was still trying to cram a last few stand tours into my packed London Toy Fair diary. I am genuinely amazed that some people feel that a single day at the show suffices; I didn’t quite get to see everyone I wanted to in three full days, starting before 9.00 every morning. And as for those who don’t go at all….I’ll come back to that subject later.

As ever, I was able to see a lot of people and a huge amount of new products across the three days, as were each of the Toy World team (divide and conquer definitely being our preferred strategy for covering the show). I don’t have the luxury of being able to attend as many previews as some buyers, so in many instances, this was my first opportunity to get up close and personal with this year’s big new launches. There are far too many to cover in a 1000 word Blog, but suffice to say that the whole Toy World team saw many interesting new items and we’re looking forward to sharing more details of those with you over the coming months.

Let’s address the ‘elephant in the room’ at the start; for some, the show arguably felt slightly quieter, especially on the last day. But when I pressed exhibitors as to which buyers hadn’t turned up, about the only name that anyone put forward was Debenhams – and in many cases, people felt quietly relieved, as it saved the awkward conversation about the challenge of supplying someone they can’t get credit insurance on. A few others mentioned smaller teams from a couple of major accounts or of the majors spending less time at the show, which in some cases was noticeable, as was the absence of huge tribes from certain licensing companies – times are certainly changing in that respect. Toymaster suggested that around 75 of its members were present, a very small decline against last year’s number – but again, in their words, “the main ones were here.” So assuming you measure a show by the quality of buyers seen rather than the quantity (and let’s be honest, there are simply fewer accounts around than there were years ago) and the quality of the meetings themselves, then I would suggest it was a decent show. But every exhibitor will have a personal view on that based on their own experience.

Considering the bruising year many experienced in 2019, the mood was a mixture of relief that last year is firmly behind us and cautious optimism – that 2020 surely has to be a better year. The annual NPD presentation was sobering on a number of levels, offering a balanced post mortem on the events of last year. A 6% drop in both volume and value – the third consecutive year of decline in a row – was expected; the concentration of sales at the very end of the year offered major food for thought. £1 in every £10 spent across the whole year came in weeks 51 / 52. Looking at the calendar, that trend could reasonably be expected to continue this year; many people will break up for Christmas on Friday 18th, giving them a full week of shopping before the big day. Many consumers will feel that gives them plenty of time to make their festive purchases, so may feel comfortable leaving it until the last minute again. Whether suppliers and retailers feel equally comfortable about such a huge volume of sales going through that late in the day is another matter entirely…and logistics managers and teams will already be planning for a frantic end to the year. On the plus side, it appears that  retailers didn’t over commit to stock in the run-up to Christmas, so many suppliers have started the year with a decent order book; NPD reported that there was a 7% sales increase in week 2. Nothing to get carried away with just yet, but it’s a start.

Another noticeable statistic was that 37% of toys were purchased on promotion in the UK – up from 34% the year before. Without these promotions, the market would have been down by double digits. But this fierce promotional landscape makes the UK a deeply challenging and competitive market in which to operate. Someone observed in Hong Kong a few weeks ago that the UK is probably the most competitive market for pricing in the world, and that even some suppliers who can comfortably work with Walmart can find it difficult to make it work in the UK. Even the winners and nominees at the Retailer of the Year awards illustrated this point; it was no great surprise to see Smyths pick up the Retailer of the Year award, despite it not being a vintage year for them (the rumour is that they were flat last year, with a significant reduction in margin), while Argos’ nomination raised a few eyebrows, given its own admission that the lacklustre performance of its toy division contributed to a significant drop in non-food sales. I was, however, pleased to see Special Recognition awards for both B&M and Toytown’s Alan Simpson; in the case of B&M, the retailer has been quietly revolutionising its business model for the past few years, and is now a hugely valuable trading partner for many suppliers. In Alan’s case, any retailer growing by 30% in last year’s unforgiving retail environment can count themself very unlucky not to have been nominated for the main award, so his recognition was only fair. The full list of retail winners – featuring some excellent indies, including regular Toy World contributors Toy Barnhaus, as well as Very, which had a great year in the online sphere – can be seen here.

Equally, few could argue with the product category and overall winners of the Toy of the Year awards, which you can see here. At this very show a year ago, a number of people were loudly proclaiming that LOL had passed its peak and would struggle to get anywhere near the numbers of the previous year: those people are keeping rather quiet right now. Personally, I love the informal format of the evening, and even the occasional equipment malfunction led to some entertaining banter – somehow, that just seems in keeping with the close-knit nature of the UK toy community. There is no room for pomposity or self-importance here; that’s not the way we work at all.

Gossip has been relatively thin on the ground, save for the impending departure of Chris Isitt, as I gather he is to leave Rubies at the end of February. I am sure there is a story there, but I haven’t quite been able to get to the bottom of it just yet. It was also great to exclusively announce The Entertainer’s latest major move in the international market – a tie-up with Reliance Brands to open a chain of Entertainer-branded stores in India. You can read all about the deal here – 18 stores are planned in the next 18 months, an ambitious move for a retailer which continues to push the boundaries at home and abroad.

Now that the show is over, I think back to standing on the balcony on the first morning before the show opened, looking down on the show floor before visitors enter. At that moment, you get a real sense of the effort – not to mention the investment – which the industry puts into Toy Fair. Which leads me back to those few who don’t put in an appearance. I am sure each has their own reasons for not attending, but I genuinely believe they are missing out. For those who “leave it to the Toymaster Show,” it’s a fantastic event, but almost half the year will have gone by that stage. Reps and agents with catalogues are just not the same as getting hands-on with the product either. Previews are fine, but a lot can change – Character Options had at least four major new items which had been added to the range since I saw them at previews. And the toy section at Spring Fair is now so ‘focused’ (i.e. small), surely it’s worth the extra effort of coming to London to see a far broader selection of new toys? That said, it does make my heart sink when I hear a retailer (with five stores for what it’s worth) telling me that he and his managers were turned away from a few stands because they didn’t have an appointment – as a community, we should be making retailers feel welcome and not feeling that they have made the effort only to not be able to see what they want. But these are little gripes which as a community we can collectively work on.

For now let’s look back on another job well done by the BTHA team– and savour the brief time we have to start working on all the follow up before many of us start all over again in Nuremberg next week. The prospect of getting up in the middle of the night on my birthday to drive to Stansted for a dawn flight isn’t thrilling, but we do what we have to do. And come Friday night, many of us will be on one of the last planes to land back from Europe before we cease our membership of the EU at midnight. At least, I hope we will be – I’ve seen that Tom Hanks movie where he has to live in an airport terminal for months because he is effectively stateless, and have to say that I don’t fancy making Stansted my home for any length of time. Wish us all luck…