According to Whitehall documents reportedly ‘seen’ by several news outlets (i.e. leaked to them as a way of testing public perception), it appears that the grand reopening of retail in the UK is provisionally scheduled for mid-April, subject to ministerial approval. If these reports do turn out to be accurate, it isn’t quite what the majority of specialist toy shop owners have been hoping for…but I guess they will take it.
On the one hand, it will be a shame for them to miss the Easter sales opportunity. However, if we can all agree on one thing, it is that this ideally needs to be the last lockdown. If we need to be patient for just a little longer to ‘break the cycle’, it may be turn out to be the better option in the long run.
We’ve been speaking to a selection of indies for our March Talking Shop section, and there seems to be remarkable consistency in terms of how they are feeling and their experience of lockdown 3.0. Right now, they’re unsurprisingly fed up – they want to open their shops and see their customers again. But they also seem sanguine enough to appreciate that going too soon may see us slide back in the inexorable loop we have been stuck in for so long.
Most of the indies we spoke to have set up websites or boosted their social media presence (Facebook and Instagram is apparently a winning combination), and while the orders currently being generated appear to be steady rather than spectacular, they now have that facility as a permanent fallback option, should it be required at any stage in the future. Encouragingly, all were brimming with passion and positivity about prospects for the summer months and the second half of the year, especially those in tourist destinations. And each retailer spoke about the personal experience of bumping into customers in the street, who have told them that they can’t wait to be able to come back into their stores. This is the beauty of specialist retailers in smaller towns: the close-knit connection to the local community, and the loyalty their customers feel towards them because of that.
That loyalty (and their abiding passion for selling toys) may yet prove invaluable: so many observers have speculated that consumers have become so conditioned to the benefits of online purchasing during the pandemic, especially older consumers, that the habit will continue long after things return to normal. While this is inevitably true for some consumers, I also believe that there are many people who can’t wait to get back into shops and enjoy the personal interaction and hands-on experience once again.
Sadly, not all retailers will make it through to that stage. We reported this week that Spanish toy retail chain Imaginarium is to close all but two of its 41 Spanish stores. The toy retail situation in Spain is complex – our March issue includes a special article on the Spanish toy market, written by a couple of contributors who know it far better than I do. It certainly makes interesting reading and, as we have found with the positive reaction to our Letter from America columns, written by popular US independent retailer Rick Derr of Learning Express, it is fascinating to compare and contrast the experiences of specialist toy retailers from across the globe. Metaphorically speaking, we are not an island.
The good news is that NPD’s latest update suggests that the UK toy market is once again performing remarkably well in lockdown, with the last three weeks of January and the first week of February all posting healthy increases over the corresponding period last year. There is more detail of the overall numbers and the categories which are driving these impressive lockdown sales in the NPD article which will be appearing in our March issue. Thankfully, it appears that 2021 has started where 2020 left off – confounding expectations, in a good way. Even in the immediate post-Christmas period, it seems that there is still tremendous demand for toys and games, which augurs well for the coming months.
Retailers are not the only people eagerly awaiting news of the proposed roadmap out of lockdown; event organisers will also be watching next week’s announcement closely. One trade show organiser recently circulated a questionnaire to gauge people’s thoughts about travel (domestic and international) and their appetite for attending events this year, while I have spoken privately to other organisers about their plans. It wouldn’t be appropriate to pre-empt any official announcements, so I will keep my counsel for the time being. However, it will certainly be interesting to see how the event space plays out this year and in 2022.
Elsewhere this week, we’ve been delighted to share news of some major new ranges launching onto the market in the coming weeks, including Lego’s exciting new Vidiyo and MGA’s latest L.O.L. Surprise! Series Dance, Dance, Dance. It appears that music is going to play a big part in some of this year’s hottest new launches. No surprise really, with TikTok taking over the world and dancing round our living rooms the best exercise many of us can hope for at the moment. (Important disclaimer: this week’s Blog headline should in no way be interpreted as any indication that I am, in fact, a Barry Manilow fan. Especially not that song. It just fitted the context of this week’s Blog. I don’t particularly like Jamiroquai either, even though I appropriated ‘Virtual Insanity’ a few weeks ago).
Another brand which the indies we spoke to were hugely excited about is Pokémon, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – an incredible achievement for a modern property. It only seems like yesterday when I used to play ‘name the Pokémon character’ with my eldest daughter before bedtime, using the poster on her bedroom wall (she is 26 now). She also used to hide my plush Psyduck when she was cross with me. I am sure that Character Options, Asmodee and all the other licensees are looking forward to a strong year.
As, indeed, are we all. Starting with the roadmap announcement next week, let’s hope we can start to plan for better days ahead.