We’ve made it through to the last month of the decade: very soon, we’ll be ‘back’ in the roaring twenties. As far as 2019 goes, we’re very much in the closing stretch of what has been a rollercoaster year – no doubt many will be relieved that the finishing line is finally in sight. There are only two and a half more weeks left to make the most of this year’s festive period, and from what I am hearing, warehouse doors are showing no signs of closing just yet. Retailers are still very much chasing the winners, placing orders and taking in stock – for now at least.
Overall, Black Friday has been hailed a success, although I am still waiting for specific data illustrating its impact on toy sales – in the end, it doesn’t matter a jot to any of us how many electrical or tech items were sold. Many people have attributed the success of this year’s Black Friday event to its timing – a week later than last year, coinciding with pay day for most people. Encouragingly, it wasn’t just online retailers who apparently saw the benefit; high street footfall was said to be up by 3.3% on the day itself, while shopping centres saw visitor numbers increase by 6.5%. There have even been anecdotal reports of a post-5PM surge in footfall, as people left work to join the Black Friday fray. However, there have been suggestions that the event not only dampened sales in the preceding weeks, but is also likely to result in a lull over the next few weeks, before a last-minute surge is expected over the final weekend. That said, while it is always dangerous to generalise, it appears that the positives of Black Friday far outweigh the negatives as far as most suppliers and retailers are concerned.
Timing is also going to play its part in the first quarter next year; I gather that Chinese New Year falls two weeks earlier in 2020. What that means in practice is that Chinese factories are likely to start winding down between 10th-15th January, before being closed for a month as usual. It certainly doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre in the supply chain; those suppliers and retailers not fully organised may find themselves coping with a few challenges over the Easter period.
In addition to a million emails promoting Black Friday ‘deals’ of varying levels of authenticity, we also had the now infamous ‘How to Spend it Well at Christmas’ TV programme to chivvy up consumers this week. As ever, the show didn’t disappoint, although not all the toys featured came out covered in glory, and the dress-up segment was particularly ridiculous – most kids would surely be dressing up for a party, rather than a spin round a muddy army assault course. However, 60 minute thinly-veiled advertisement for a strong selection of the latest toys can only be a good thing for the industry. Among the products which garnered plaudits from the testers were Tomy’s Rizmo, John Adams’ Bank Attack, Jazwares’ Roblox, Spin Master’s Monster Truck and a stretchy piece of poo from HTi for £1.99. Never let it be said that the programme doesn’t reflect the glorious diversity of our wonderful trade! I suspect quite a few items saw a healthy spike in sales after the show aired, which is great news for all concerned.
Another group of people who have finally got something to smile about are Star Wars licensees; to be fair, it’s been a bit of a slog for some of them in recent years, but there may finally be some light at the end of the tunnel after the breakout character from The Mandalorian, The Child – or Baby Yoda as everyone is calling him – became a viral sensation almost overnight. There have been more Baby Yoda memes on my social media timelines than Boris Johnson memes this week, which really is saying something.
There has been some chuntering from retailers frustrated by the fact that merchandise for The Child won’t be arriving until early summer next year, and on the face of it, you can see why they feel it is a missed opportunity. I’ve also had several media outlets contact me in the hope that I would say something uncharitable about Disney for its launch strategy. On this occasion, they were disappointed. Unlike Frozen the first time round, it’s not that Disney didn’t know what it had on its hands; they know exactly how big this could turn out to be. It’s also not true that shortages are being cynically manipulated to massage demand; from what I have read online, the demand out there is going to be massive whenever product hits shelves. And contrary to what some journalists believed, I don’t believe that demand will dissipate over the next six months. Sure, it would have been great to add some incremental sales in 2019 – every little really would have helped this year. But Mandalorian director Jon Favreau was apparently adamant that he wanted the programme to lead the way, not the merchandise, and he clearly won the argument on this occasion. In a sector where commercial decisions frequently outweigh artistic or creative considerations, and where merchandise can sometimes seem more important than the film or show itself, I actually think this little victory might be one we should all quietly celebrate. Patience, young Jedi…
Star Wars aficionados should also keep an eye out for a programme which sees Palitoy employees at the time of Star Wars’ initial success in the seventies being interviewed about the phenomenon. The show, ‘Toy Empire’, will be aired on BBC East Midlands on Monday at 7.30, with a further showing on BBC4 scheduled for 16th December. For those around at the time, I’m sure it will bring back great memories. For newbies, it will be a brilliant history lesson – although I suspect that the legendary Coalville ‘landfill’ story won’t make the final edit. John Nicholas, who kindly got in touch to let me know about the show, is featured talking about a £1m order he received from Bill Lindsey of Menzies. Bearing in mind this was the late seventies, that was some order: now there’s a little piece of history that I’m sure everyone wishes would make a welcome return (spoiler alert: ain’t gonna happen).