Retail’s back, baby …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 9th April 2021

Here in England, we only have a couple of days to wait before specialist retailers can once again open their doors to the public. Hopefully, the wait will have been worth it and pent-up consumer demand will result in a healthy sales bounce over the coming weeks.

By all accounts, that is exactly what has happened in Israel, where restrictions were lifted a few weeks ago. I had a Zoom call earlier this week with someone based in Israel, who confirmed that sales have gone through the roof since stores re-opened there. Not just shops, but bars and restaurants have apparently been rammed, and a general air of post-lockdown euphoria has swept the country.

While it may be a tad optimistic to expect the same response here, we can certainly be thankful that things are moving in the right direction. Shortly before I spoke to my friend in Israel, I had a Zoom call with someone based in Brussels, where the contrast couldn’t be starker: apparently they still have to apply for a permit if they want to leave the house to visit a shop, even for basics such as food and household essentials. It sounded pretty grim to be honest.

The Toy World team returned to the office this week, having been working from home since Christmas. The team has been magnificent in keeping the magazine and website running exactly as it would in normal times – we’re fortunate to have a business that can be operated remotely. However, whilst we’ve not missed a single day’s email newsflash or a single monthly issue – and how many other magazines can say that over the past year – it will be even better now the gang is back together. We have a very large May issue to finalise over the coming weeks, so a return to covid-safe premises just felt right.

With the UK gradually easing its way out of lockdown, a conversation about covid passports has begun, with the suggestion that they may have a valuable role to play in removing restrictions. Personally, I am fully in favour of introducing some form of certification when it comes to international travel – that makes perfect sense. I also wonder whether mass events – including trade shows – may benefit from such a scheme, although remembering the chaos that ensued at one trade show a few years back when it changed its ticketing system, I can foresee significant challenges if it becomes mandatory.

However, I do think the suggestion that you might need a covid passport to enter a shop is completely ridiculous. I just cannot see how it would work in practice, especially in smaller stores. Not only would it set up potential confrontation between shoppers and store staff, it would also act as a major deterrent to browsing and those unplanned, casual store visits which account for so many impromptu sales. The British Retail Consortium has come out firmly against the proposal, which doesn’t even have the backing of many in government. Undoubtedly one of the dafter post-pandemic ideas.

Toy stores have been relatively fortunate to have fared so well during the lockdowns (in the main). Sadly, there have been casualties too, and there is no doubt that we need to do all we can to help bricks and mortar retailers get back on their feet again over the coming months. While I feel that Theo Paphitis – whose warehouse we overlook here at Toy World Towers – may have gone a little over the top when he claimed  this week that it’s ‘Goodnight Vienna for physical retail without rates reform’, there does need to be a collective will across government and the public to support physical stores. Otherwise, we will be left with eCommerce monoliths whose delivery drivers – male and female – are forced to urinate in bottles in the back of their vans, due to horrendous workloads and unconscionable pressure from unscrupulous, faceless corporations. And if you think I am exaggerating, it’s worth watching the recent Newsnight report which exposed the terrible conditions which Amazon drivers currently face – it’s an eye-opener. And if anyone is currently designing a model Amazon delivery vehicle, maybe it should include a selection of bottles as accessories…?

Of course, there are many fantastic – and scrupulous – online businesses that will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the toy market moving forward, and I am sure they are equally horrified when they see reports like this – I doubt this is a brush they would want to be tarred with. And despite the online boom of the past year, it’s also worth remembering that not all online sellers are rampant successes: a couple of suppliers have contacted me recently to ask whether other companies are having a problem getting paid by a certain online account. An abundance of caution (not to mention the libel laws) preclude me from naming the account in question – I don’t want to set off a chain of events that sees them disappearing off the face of the earth to avoid everyone asking for their money at once. But if what I am hearing is accurate, they may well end up featuring on the next series of Rogue Traders….so it might be worth checking your accounts payable list, just in case anything jumps out at you.

It might also be worth checking your freight insurance, after it emerged this week that the owners of the stricken Suez ship Ever Green had declared General Average. If you don’t know what that is (I certainly didn’t), it might be worth reading our report. Basically, when the sh*t hits the fan at sea, ship staff don’t have time to carefully make a note of which containers or stock has to be sacrificed, so they declare General Average and everyone with containers on board takes a share of the hit. In this instance, although there is no evidence of containers being lost, it appears that the ship owner may be attempting to load salvage costs onto everyone who had stock on board. It also means that stock may not released until the insurance assessor has completed its investigation. All in all, just another logistics headache that no-one needs right now – especially with trade hopefully about to kick up a gear or two.

Good luck to everyone re-opening their stores next week – it’s been a long wait, but it’s great that we can finally move on to the next phase. Retail’s back, baby…let’s hope it won’t be General Average (or even Captain Cr*p), but Major Bounceback.