Lockdown has clearly gone on far too long. If you need evidence, look no further than controversial TV presenter Piers Morgan, who this week dedicated a section of his morning show to shouting at a toy potato. Poor Mr Potato Head had already attracted an avalanche of social media coverage, following Hasbro’s announcement that it would be dropping the ‘Mr’ soubriquet from its overall branding. Unfortunately, the nuance of this move escaped many people, who felt strangely compelled to turn a simple rebranding exercise into the coming of the apocalypse. Whether this was a clever PR strategy from Hasbro to drive engagement or just a simple misunderstanding by some rather uptight individuals – after all, the company will still sell both Mr and Mrs Potato Head as individual SKUs, along with a new set that allows children to create whatever family unit they choose – the announcement swiftly became headline news.
Initially, I was asked by the producers if I would like to appear alongside Piers to ‘debate’ the development. However, by the time I had decided it might be quite fun, they had elected not to include any guests, to allow Piers full rein to vent his frustration on a spud he certainly didn’t like. Maybe it was for the best that I wasn’t there to point out that he was perhaps lacking a sense of perspective: I had briefly begun to warm to the presenter, who has been one of the few prominent TV hosts prepared to hold the government’s feet to the fire for their handling of certain elements of the pandemic. But this week, rather than taking the government to task over losing a person who has brought the Brazil variant into the UK, fearless Piers decided to have a go at a potato toy instead. A return to normal life can’t come soon enough.
That return is edging closer, as the global vaccine programme continues to pick up pace: this week, the US has announced plans to vaccinate all adults by the end of May, although some might suggest that is a trifle ambitious. Mass vaccinations should be a game-changer in terms of travel – international and domestic – and it certainly would give events and trade shows a greater chance of going ahead. The timing of the return of mass gatherings remains hard to call; San Diego Comic Con has announced that it will not be taking place in July as planned, and we wait with interest to see whether toy and licensing trade fairs scheduled for July and August can proceed.
I do believe that people want the opportunity to meet in person again, but the traditional timing of these events wasn’t random – they took place at a certain time for a reason. The big question is whether an event that has been moved back by anything between two and six months is still commercially relevant and viable in its proposed new time slot. Some certainly will, others may not…
Meanwhile, as we edge towards stores re-opening, retailers across the globe have been looking at their head office and store estate infrastructure and, in some cases, making some dramatic changes. Last week, Asda announced that 5000 jobs were at risk, although that would be mitigated by the creation of 4500 new jobs, principally aimed at boosting the retailer’s online service. That was followed this week by the news that Sainsbury’s is planning a restructure that could see 1150 jobs disappear, including 500 at head office. In addition, chief executive Simon Roberts described the new plan as “putting food first” – rather worrying for toy suppliers, who have been concerned about some of the things happening at Argos for a while. I, for one, have my popcorn at the ready and will be keeping a very close eye on Ian Chaplin’s LinkedIn feed over the next few days – he tends to have an interesting perspective on the way Sainsbury’s has handled the Argos brand and team, and may well be in full-on ‘I told you so’ mode after this announcement.
Of course, retail restructuring isn’t just happening in the UK – over in the US, Disney Stores has announced that it will be closing 60 outlets, equivalent to 20% of the retailer’s worldwide store estate, as it focuses on growing its ecommerce offering. This may actually turn out to be quite good news for specialist American toy retailers, who would probably count Disney Stores as a direct competitor. In a wider context, I just wonder whether this rush to close physical stores is a tad premature: we don’t yet know whether consumer shopping habits have been permanently affected by the pandemic, or whether bricks and mortar retailing will bounce back strongly once restrictions are lifted. It seems that some retail operations have already placed their bets – perhaps those who still firmly believe in physical toy stores will see this as a welcome reduction in competition.
For those toy retailers who are looking to freshen up their stock selection ahead of re-opening, the March issue of Toy World landed on desks this week, providing lots of inspiration for new lines to carry. This edition includes big features on Action Vehicles and the Science and Nature category, and given the time of year, it inevitably showcases a huge number of new outdoor lines. We like to use the word ‘comprehensive’ when describing our features as one of the key things that sets Toy World apart from its competitors, and that certainly describes our coverage of the outdoor category this month. Incredibly, outdoor toy sales increased in January – snow and all – so it looks like another fantastic year lies ahead for the sector. And while we’re on the subject of print issues, just a quick plug for our April edition, which will be closing shortly – arriving 10 days before stores re-open, the timing is perfect to capitalise on stores topping up their shelves ahead of the big day.
Finally, as we all start to think about our plans to travel internationally once again, it seems that some countries have found a novel way to discourage people. Thanks all the same guys, but I think I’ll stick to Hong Kong…