Let’s be honest, for much of this year, trying to make a firm plan has often felt like building on quicksand. Conditions have continued to shift constantly – witness the revisions we’ve seen to the UK’s virus control strategy in recent weeks, not to mention our hokey-cokey approach to travelling abroad. This week, a large number of people very nearly had to pretend they would be celebrating their 49th birthday this year – thankfully, the whole batsh*t crazy ‘over 50 lockdown’ idea was swiftly kicked into touch before we all started trying to forge our birth certificates.
However, we are beginning to see a few encouraging signs that suggest we are moving slowly forward: the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, while arguably controversial on an economic level, has undoubtedly been a success, in that many high streets and shopping centres have welcomed back more people this week as a result of the initiative. As well as helping out the hospitality sector, I hope it has also helped out toy retailers, by boosting footfall and normalising the concept of going back out for many people.
The UK is still lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to returning to the office. Almost double the number of UK workers are still working from home five days a week compared to the European average: 83% of French office workers are back at their desk at least part of the week, 76% of Italians and 70% of Germans, but just 34% of Brits. It’s not for me to say when it’s the right time for any company or individual worker to return, but there is clearly a knock-on effect to the economy of having such a large percentage of the population housebound.
This was just one of the points made in comfortably the most talked-about email of the week, sent by Toymaster’s Ian Edmunds. An impassioned plea for some suppliers to do better, I think it’s fair to say that it ruffled more than a few feathers amongst the supplier community. However, it has certainly got people talking – and maybe even made some wonder whether they’re one of the supportive companies, or one of those which prompted the missive. While controversial, the email makes some very valid observations: many Toymaster members have indeed come out of lockdown – to quote Ian’s words – “far better placed financially, physically, mentally and geographically than we would have dreamt possible in March.” This is certainly something we’ve found when speaking to indie retailers for our Indie Show Off feature in September – and not just UK retailers, but many specialists across the globe have fared better than they could have hoped at the start of lockdown.
Nevertheless, indies still need all the help and support they can get – you only have to look at the Amazon Q2 numbers to see what they are up against. Amazon’s Q2 sales increased by 40% and net profits doubled to over $5b. Clearly, the online giant has been invaluable to toy suppliers and even many toy retailers across the globe, but equally we must not forget the little guys. There is a pivotal line in Ian’s email – “we buy and sell toys, the rest is just b*****ks – at present there is far too much b*****ks” – which I am sure many of us can sympathise with. The K.I.S.S. acronym that makes up the email subject line has always been a perfectly reasonable philosophy around which to build any business, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve said it before, but we do all need to support each other through these crazy times. Just this week alone, Green Elephant (UK distributor of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty) has announced that it will be closing after six years, while the AIS plaY-room show has accepted that it won’t be possible to run an event at the end of September as it had hoped. Retailers which previously looked in good shape are now considering CVAs, as we saw this week with fashion retailer River Island. For a proud family-owned company, this would normally be a last resort, and it shows just how tough conditions remain out at retail.
Travel continues to seem a daunting prospect: someone sent me a video taken at Singapore airport of a group of travellers heading to China – the vast majority were dressed in full hazmat suits. And there was me worrying about whether I could stand to wear a cotton mask for the duration of a flight.
As for John Lewis, chairman Sharon White has written to staff suggesting that moves into providing private rented housing and renting out products are being considered as potential future directions for the business. I had to read the article twice and check that it wasn’t dated 1st April before believing that it was genuine. On so many levels, we are about as far from normal as can be. And without a doubt, there will be more disruption to come.
That said, as I mentioned earlier, we’re also seeing plenty of positive news emerge, welcome reminders that we are not completely through the looking glass. Toy Brokers Holdings, parent company of John Adams, has announced the acquisition of Peterkin, (although I understand that Andrew Moulsher will not be part of the operation moving forward). And credit to the Spielwarenmesse organiser for nailing its colours firmly to the mast and announcing that as far as the Nuremberg Toy Fair is concerned, the show WILL go on in 2021. You can read about some of the measures that the organiser has put in place to allow it to make this confident statement here.
Of course, there are some key factors which help: as the Spielwarenmesse team owns the Messe showground, it has full control over the space and how it can be adapted to suit the new conditions, The German government has also issued clear, concise guidance throughout the pandemic– contrast that with our own government’s ‘what are we feeling this week, boys?’ strategy.
As for the US, the president and his team will presumably be getting right back to us to propose guidance when they can find the time in-between criticising Barbie and starting totally unfounded rumours about Paw Patrol and Lego. I mean, it’s not as if they have more important things to worry about at the moment (insert eye-roll emoji here). Frankly, if I had the choice of voting for Campaign Barbie or Team Trump, I know where I would be putting my cross…