Slow and steady wins the race …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 17th November 2023

In last week’s Blog, I suggested that a little patience was needed, and that I remained quietly confident that an upturn in sales was coming, after a lacklustre October for the UK toy market. I headed into my local town centre (Watford) last Saturday, and as soon as I hit the ring road, traffic was noticeably heavier than it had been for weeks. By the time I reached the High Street, it was clear that many more shoppers were out and about. I gather the same was true on Sunday. I messaged a few retail friends based across the UK, and they confirmed that they had experienced a similar increase in footfall across the weekend.

It’s a small sample base, and purely anecdotal – nevertheless, I do feel that we have passed the watershed and are now properly into festive trading season. We’re collectively a little way back from where we would ideally like to be at this stage, but we’re up and running. Don’t forget, December wasn’t that great last year, after the success of the consumer messaging about buying toys early in case stock ran out. So, we may be in a bit of a ‘tortoise and hare’ scenario here: we went out like a train last year and tailed off the closer we got to the finishing line. This year, we started slowly but the pace is picking up. I have no idea where we will end up, but I still believe it is too early to write the year off just yet.

We have Black Friday next week, an event which has expanded way beyond the confines of the Amazon platform. Retailers across the spectrum have looked at how they can take advantage of consumers in the mood for deals, and there undoubtedly will be plenty of tempting promotions on offer. The fact that everyone does it now has probably taken the edge off Amazon’s Black Friday performance, but it will still be interesting to see if it has more impact than the rather underwhelming Prime Big Deals Day in October (certainly as far as toys is concerned).

Amazon has been in the spotlight again this week, after well-known toy stalwart Nico Blauw wrote a post on LinkedIn which laid bare the challenges he and many other toy companies are facing with providing proof of IP ownership. Since the new rules came into force earlier this year, it seems to have become increasingly problematic for suppliers, as Nico points out: “Despite the clear proof of IP ownership and a copy of executed license agreement, Amazon claims that is not enough. They want the brand owner to send them a LOA. I thought this is what licence agreements are for? Getting a visa for North Korea seems less time consuming than getting approval to sell your very own products on Amazon. But not necessarily if you are in the business of selling counterfeits, as we continue to see tons of knock offs appearing on the platform.”

Herein lies the conundrum: it appears that legitimate companies are coming under increasing pressure, yet the knock-off merchants appear to still be getting away with it. I wonder if this is simply because it is easier to go after legitimate companies. They have proper contact details (and don’t change company name or address when challenged) and are more willing to engage with Amazon directly than dodgy dealers. I suspect there could also be an organisational issue: an established retailer’s buying team would have a pretty good idea which suppliers were legitimate, and which could potentially be dodgy. I guess the sheer breadth of Amazon’s seller base makes that almost impossible. However, it does appear that there is no-one internally who is willing or able to point the Amazon Inquisition in the right direction when it comes to potential counterfeiters, or to put in a good word for reputable companies.

In terms of Black Friday as a whole, I hope it drives sales without sending a wrecking ball through pricing. Although rather intriguingly, when I talk to indies about some of the most brutal price cuts in the market, it’s not necessarily the grocers, Amazon or even the likes of B&M or Home Bargains that they mention, but instead large specialist toy retail chains. And on the subject of the grocers, I hear there are some big changes afoot at the head of one of the toy buying teams – more news in next week’s Blog. Always seems to happen just after buyers have been conducting previews for some reason…

There’s lots more brewing as we head towards a new Year: Zuru has appointed AB Gee as its exclusive UK distributor for accounts other than the majors, which is a smart way of broadening availability for Zuru’s range in retail channels that aren’t able to buy FOB directly. I also hear whispers that some retailers are looking to expand their FOB commitment next year, as the fight for margin and differentiation becomes increasingly important.

Today is also a big day for many indies, as Series 2 of Ravensburger’s Lorcana is released – I gather there were queues outside some stockists at 7 am this morning, so they look set for a good day. And kudos to Ravensburger for giving the specialists a two-week window before it goes trade-wide – at least they know those retailers won’t do anything daft on the pricing and they’ll really appreciate having something which really boosts footfall at this crucial time.

Amidst the cut and thrust of festive trading, it is heartwarming to see that the toy community continues to be generous in giving back to help those kids and families less fortunate than us. This week alone we have announced the return of both The Entertainer’s Big Toy Appeal and Lego’s brilliant Build to Give campaign, now in its seventh year; plus, we highlighted Crayola’s support for the wonderful Spread a Smile charity and also a world record jigsaw attempt which is aiming to raise £10,000 to donate puzzles to a selection of local charities including Sheffield Children’s hospital. And, of course, in a couple of weeks’ time, we have the Fence Club Christmas Party to look forward to, a great evening of festive celebrations which raises valuable funds for the children’s charities which the Fence Club supports. I am sure there are many more charitable initiatives going on across the toy community right now, and many families that will be immensely grateful for the toy community’s support in challenging times.