I feel an extra responsibility when I’m at a toy industry event and dozens of people come up to tell me how much they’re looking forward to the Friday Blog this week. No pressure! I certainly spoke to plenty of people this week at the Toymaster May show, an event about which I have made no secret of my affection and admiration in the past. On a personal level it is always a joy to attend, not to mention an incredibly productive three days of work and play. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the sense of camaraderie is clearly evident; I never cease to make new friends and contacts at the show, and I’m sure that’s true for other visitors too.
I always make a conscious decision to attend the evening functions: I appreciate that there may be better dining options elsewhere in Harrogate (although the Wednesday night meal was very good), but spending the evening in the company of retailers – some old acquaintances, others I met for the first time – is a great way of finding out exactly what’s happening at the sharp end of retail. Not only are the indies the most hands-on of business owners, they are also amongst the most honest – no hiding behind the corporate line or beating around the bush, they tell it like it is, which is incredibly refreshing. A spade is very much called a spade around these parts, and a journalist can’t ask for anything more – even if I can’t always print what I hear.
But it’s not just a three-day social whirl – far from it. The Toymaster show is a well-run, professional event – and importantly, retailers actually write orders. There are too many trade shows (a subject I will no doubt return to in the not too distant future), and arguably some have become flag-waving exercises where companies exhibit out of FOMO (fear of missing out) rather than any genuine, tangible commercial benefits. The Toymaster show is different: suppliers offer attractive deals and members and non-members scratch the pad. It’s not rocket science, but it works.
After any trade show, the role of a journalist is to attempt to sum up proceedings without resorting to clichés (“there was a great buzz, everyone was upbeat”) or unwarranted hyperbole (“best show ever!”). It isn’t always easy; in a group of 250 members, some are going to be finding trade better than others. The same will be true with suppliers; some will have left the show with a fistful of orders, others may have found it harder to secure commitment.
It’s not just about certain retailers or suppliers being more switched on or pro-active (although of course that can help) – it is more complex and random than that. Conditions on the High Street are challenging, and it certainly isn’t just the toy market which is being affected. In a week where British Steel, Jaguar, Arcadia and Thomas Cook have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and the pound has taken a fresh battering, I think we can all agree that it’s not easy out there, regardless of your chosen field of business.
Some retailers have pointed to a noticeable dip in footfall in their locality: just about everyone I spoke to at Toymaster had no doubt where to put the blame – and yes, we’re back to the B-word. Regardless of your political affiliation or stance on Brexit, it is hard to disagree that it is having a major short-term impact on consumer confidence and spending. One very switched-on retailer estimated the decline in footfall at her location at around 33%: intriguingly, she felt that many grandparents have been noticeable by their absence (indies tend to notice things like that immediately, where it would take Kantar or the like six months to spot the trend). The irony that a fair proportion of customers may well have voted for Brexit – and are possibly claiming it hasn’t affected their spending – was not lost on either of us. Decline in footfall is obviously a major issue for a bricks and mortar retailer; in the end, you can’t sell anything to people who aren’t coming in to your store.
In terms of business on the ground, the lack of a brand new craze has been well-documented; maybe we’ve been spoiled in recent years? Go back a few years and we often had to wait three or four years between really hot crazes; we’ve had a fantastic run, but maybe we’re reverting back to the mean? It is also no great secret that licensed merchandise has been a bit in the doldrums of late, but I spoke to one Irish retailer who was telling me that Toy Story 4 has got off to an absolute flyer in his store. I just hope that aggressive price promotions don’t derail its momentum; I noticed that Smyths is running a particularly generous deal this weekend, whereby ‘selected’ Toy Story 4 products are being offered at 20% off, with a further £6 off a £15 spend. Or, to put it another way, that means a savvy consumer can get a £20 product for £10. That’s a hot deal in anyone’s language, but when a successful and switched-on toy retailer like Smyths is effectively offering 50% off a current, popular range, I think that tells you all you need to know about the state of retail right now.
The Toymaster show’s other strength is that it is very much a ‘people’ show, something reflected in its newly-introduced Toby Awards presentations. Wisely focusing on people and milestones rather than ‘best products and companies’ (which can sometimes be highly subjective and contentious, especially for the companies which don’t win), some very deserving individuals were recognised – you can see the recipients here. Throw in a couple of Golden Teddies and it was very much a feel-good evening that fitted nicely into the overall proceedings.
Ultimately, for those retailers and suppliers wondering ‘is it just me?’, a gathering like the Toymaster show allows them to appreciate that others are in exactly the same boat. Perhaps that’s why the general mood at Toymaster belied the current trading conditions, or maybe it’s just that people realise that the vast majority of the problems are beyond our control, so it’s not anything that we are – or aren’t – doing as an industry. With Brexit still seemingly some way from being resolved either way, it’s now very much a waiting game – hopefully we won’t have to wait too long…