Some things are just beyond your control….it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 8th February 2019

We meet and greet so many people during trade show season, it’s no wonder many of us return with all manner of unpleasant ailments. In hindsight, how I wish I had not bumped into the unknown person who passed on a particularly nasty bug – probably Norovirus -towards the end of my Nuremberg trip, which subsequently wiped out me, my entire family and some of the Toy World team. Not the ideal way to end a very arduous week, but I guess it is just one of those things which is beyond your control. Like the poor person who took 24 hours to arrive at her home in Devon after leaving Nuremberg due to heavy snow back in the West Country, sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do.

Thankfully, nasty bug aside, it was a very productive trip to a thoroughly successful show. The official attendance numbers really don’t matter, although kudos to the show organiser for admitting in its post-show press release that there was a slight fall in attendance, with visitor numbers said to “mirror the process of consolidation underway in the toy market.” Credit to them for having the integrity to say what we could all see with our own eyes – maybe some other show organisers could follow their lead? As I have said before, the absence of packaging designers, licensing teams the size of small armies and people who have come up with the idea for a new fishing game has no great bearing on the success of a trade show. The odd anomaly aside – the Asda toy buying team was allegedly a no-show, as it was in London, although I suspect this says more about them and the way they view their future than the respective shows – the right people were there, and that is what ultimately counts.

I did, however, feel sorry for the grocery-based toy buying team who learnt during their trip to Nuremberg that a number of their roles were being placed into consultation. Not exactly what you want to hear while away working hard on this year’s plans, and I know that suppliers had every sympathy not just with their situation, but in particular the timing of the communication.

Nuremberg was followed by a whistle-stop visit to Spring Fair on Monday. I’ll be interested to hear what the official numbers were (gentle hint: see above). Spring Fair is a very different show to the three mainstream January toy fairs. Speaking to a group of independent toy retailers in the aisles, they were rhapsodising about finding ranges of bamboo coffee cups they had placed orders for. That is very much the nature of the show: in the main, toy retailers aren’t visiting to find core toy product, but more the kind of quirky, ‘margin builders’ which you can come across in Birmingham. Based on what these indies said, margin builders will be more important than ever this year; whilst a certain large specialist independent chain (I’m sure you can guess…) has increased its margin requirement for suppliers, the indies told me that they are facing significant tightening of the margins on offer this year, particularly from some of the larger toy companies. Three points or 10% may not sound a horrendous drop in isolation, but with margins already tight and the increase in the minimum wage about to kick in (one of the retailers told me that it will cost him an additional £20k across his entire work force), it is undoubtedly going to have an impact. It has become fashionable for toy companies to claim how important the independent channel is to their business, but as I said last week, sometimes actions speak louder than words.

I opened this column with a mention of things beyond our control. On which subject, as we get closer to the Brexit deadline, I have noticed how it is becoming more of a conversation piece than ever before. It’s interesting to hear how retailers have very different strategies to cope with it: one indie told me at Spring Fair that she has cut back heavily on her stock levels, while minutes later another told me he was stockpiling his more successful ranges, buying double what he would normally buy for the season. Only time will tell which has the right approach. With less than two months to go, we’re all in search of answers: I have items in my fridge that can be used beyond the Brexit date, yet there is still little in the way of certainty and clarity. Will toy suppliers be required to introduce a temporary product safety mark in the event of ‘No Deal’? If UKCA does end up replacing the CE mark, what will be the period of grace for implementation? Presumably products made here in the UK which could be exported to the EU will have to be stamped with both marks, one for UK customers and one for EU clients – time-consuming and expensive. And could it really be true that lorries will simply be waved through customs after filling in a simplified form online in advance, with duty paid later. Sounds simple and uncomplicated, but does this give us (any) control of our borders whatsoever? And what happens if someone takes the UK to WTO for not applying zero tariffs on all imports from across the globe? Suddenly it doesn’t sound quite so simple….

Mind you, some companies do love to make things as complicated as possible. I mentioned last week how certain licensing embargoes are getting ridiculous. It turns out that I didn’t realise just how ridiculous; one exhibitor at Toy Fair was told that it would have to get its stand cleaners to sign NDAs in order to be able to clean the room which contained the ‘secret’ Frozen product! How paranoid is too paranoid? I think we may have our answer…