Should old arrangements be forgot…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 11th September 2020

This week has seen a combination of surprising news, tantalising rumour and further uncertainty – in many ways, a microcosm of the year so far.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that planning this year has been like building on quicksand. Well, the sands have shifted again this week – on multiple fronts. Here at home, gatherings of more than six people have been outlawed once again, with a suggestion that this edict could last either until Christmas or even as late as March. I watched the PM’s press conference live, and even then, I didn’t emerge with any feeling of clarity as to the timescale. Just a few short weeks ago, it was all “Get back out there. Enjoy yourself. Here’s a tenner – knock yourself out.” Now, it’s back to “Where do you think you’re going? Stop it now.” It’s like being a teenager all over again.

On the face of it, the ‘rule of six’ would appear to put many arrangements in jeopardy – Christmas parties and family gatherings, sporting events and of course trade fairs. The trade fair pilot trial originally scheduled for October – intended as a dry-run to see if shows could be held safely – has seemingly been put on the back burner, with no specified date for its return. Yet schools are back, while the message to workers appears to be ‘get back to the office if you can’, so maybe trade shows will fall in line with that edict rather than the headline-grabbing message?

However, I’m delighted to report that at least one major event has successfully taken place this year, as our eldest daughter was finally married in a small but beautiful ceremony yesterday. Yes, we too “pivoted”, and a further, larger celebration is planned for the future, which we hope can happen sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, over in the ‘mother of all parliaments’ (never a truer word), a no-Deal Brexit is looking increasingly plausible – with all that potentially entails. On one level, I’m sure we’re all looking forward to New Year’s Eve this year, so we can kiss goodbye to 2020. On the other hand it looks like, this year, we may have to replace the traditional words of Auld Lang Syne with ‘Should old arrangements be forgot’, as we head into yet more uncharted territory.

But don’t take my word for it: Richard Burnett of Road Haulage Association told the Brexit select committee this week that he fears “significant disruption” at borders over Brexit, that they “still don’t know what lorry parks are for”, that he doubts the UK can recruit the 50,000 customs agents in time and there are not enough heat-treated pallets. That’s just for starters…and yet a press release accompanying the Internal Markets Bill contained this priceless quote from Business Secretary Alok Sharma: “Now is not the time to create uncertainty for business with new barriers and additional costs that would trash our chances of an economic recovery.” You think so, Alok? It looks like we may have to change the words of some other classic British tunes, maybe in a “specific and limited way” – ‘Land of hopeless Tories’ anyone? Or even ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia waives the rules’…

To be fair, it’s not just the UK business community which is being affected by factors way beyond our control; as of 15th September, US visitors arriving in China will now need to provide a negative virus test result taken within 72 hours of the flight to be allowed entry. Not being familiar with the US medical system, I don’t know how practical this requirement is, but I have my suspicions that it may put a considerable spanner in the works.

Even before the introduction of this measure, many international visitors have been avoiding Hong Kong and China, with the majority of buying trips and trade fairs cancelled or postponed so far this year. In turn, this is now apparently having an impact on the permanent showroom district: one of my Hong Kong-based contacts told me that “the number of TST toy showrooms that are now empty is amazing.” Interestingly, in his view, suppliers need the fairs to survive – ironic in some respects, given the number of international visitors who never make it beyond Mody Road over to the official show. In addition, my contact’s workload has gone through the roof, largely because – in his words – “many buyers have been paying fortunes for samples and not receiving what they had been shown on the video.” It seems that video footage isn’t entirely a viable and trustworthy replacement for personal contact and actually seeing ‘the genuine article’ in the flesh – who’d have thought it, eh?

All these curveballs just add an extra layer of complexity into what is already an unpredictable trading environment – we just need to be able to focus on the important stuff, without getting waylaid by unnecessary complications.

I mentioned surprising news at the start of the Blog – and it doesn’t come much more surprising than Ian Edmunds parting company with Toymaster after 20 years. I received a flurry of calls, emails and messages yesterday, asking me what had happened? I’m afraid I can’t shed any light beyond the official email announcing the parting of the ways. I’ve always found Ian a pleasure to work with, and I wish him all the best with whatever comes next.

The tantalising rumour I mentioned concerned Reliance Brands and the prospect that it could be selling a $20b stake in its retail arm to Amazon – now, wouldn’t that be a fascinating tie-up? Of course, like all rumours of this nature, who knows how much truth there is in it, or indeed whether a deal will come to fruition. But for Bloomberg to print it, they must believe the story is credible, and the move certainly make sense if you look at the Indian market. The intriguing by-product, of course, would presumably be that Amazon would potentially end up with a significant stake in Hamleys. As ever, more news if and when we have it.

Finally, with the football season starting tomorrow, a reminder that you can join the Toy World Fantasy League by using the code smaaxi. We’ve got almost 90 people on board already, so obviously the ‘rule of six’ there won’t be any opportunities to meet up face-to-face to discuss tactics, but we can still come together in a virtual sense – something we’ve all had to get used to this year.