Something to look forward to…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 31st July 2020

There are certain fixed points in the calendar around which my year traditionally revolves, with the summer months being no exception. Kids break up from school in the third week of July – while mine are long past that stage, it does mean that my journey into the office becomes infinitely easier for six blissful weeks. Then, in a normal year, there are family holidays, trade shows and business trips to juggle over the summer months: each a tentpole in its own way, something to look forward to and to plan around.

Sadly, 2020 has seen the natural order of things thrown into disarray: kids haven’t been in school for months; one by one, trade shows and business trips have fallen by the wayside, while the family holiday bit the dust months ago. Even the good old Argos catalogue, a summer staple for the past 48 years, is no more: several months after we exclusively revealed that the catalogue would be cancelled this year, Argos has finally gone public with the news. While it represents the disappearance of an industry icon, it’s hard to argue with the rationale described by Sainsbury’s chief executive Simon Roberts: “Removing the printed catalogue helps us to flex our range and offers and to be more competitive on price.” In an age where flexibility and reactiveness are key to retail success, perhaps the catalogue tied their hands just that little bit too much?

Those who had planned to go ahead with their summer holiday to Spain were dealt a blow this week with the implementation of a 14-day quarantine period for returning travellers. Whether by accident or design, this move is likely to deter many from travelling abroad this summer – not just to Spain, as there is now a risk that any country could be added to the list at a moment’s notice. I know we’ve all enjoyed a good game during lockdown (our family favourite has been Big Potato’s Which Came First?), but I’m not sure whether I fancy a game of quarantine roulette. On the plus side, this may increase the number of staycations or UK-based holidays, which in turn could offer a welcome boost to domestic toy retailers.

We’ve been speaking to a host of indie toy retailers recently, and it’s encouraging to hear how many of them have been pleasantly surprised by the level of business that they have been enjoying since they re-opened. More people staying in the UK over the summer can only help that trend continue. Of course, there is a corollary to that: some retailers which depend heavily on international tourists are finding the going tough. An indie retailer on a day trip to the big smoke last weekend sent me some pictures from Hamleys – it looked like he had managed to sneak in through the back door before the store had opened, as the aisles were literally deserted. The West End in general is, I understand, still incredibly quiet, but pictures of a totally empty toy store are always a sad sight.

Thankfully, this doesn’t appear to be the picture across the whole of the UK: smaller towns in particular seem to have benefitted from the number of people working from home and shopping local. Official ONS data suggests that footfall is currently around 60% of the level it was a year ago, but almost all the retailers we have spoken to have suggested that there are fewer people just browsing and that customers are spending well, so footfall numbers are not the only arbiter. It’s also good to hear from indies that there has been no problem with the introduction of the mandatory face covering rule: it appears that most consumers are happy and willing to comply. No sign of a maskless Anne Widdecombe roaming toy stores terrifying small children thus far, which can only be a good thing whichever way you look at it.

Larger towns and cities may see some improvement soon: while working from home arrangements are still in place for many people, other companies will be returning to their offices in the coming weeks. This week saw the team return to Toy World Towers for the first time since the end of March – it’s great to have the gang back together. I even had my first client meeting / lunch since lockdown this week.

What hasn’t changed in recent months is our uninterrupted publication schedule: the August edition of Toy World has been landing on desks in recent days. Another belter of an issue, including some compelling exclusive interviews and features, and a host of exciting new products launching this autumn. With trade shows cancelled and international buying trips temporarily off the table, we’re delighted to keep toy retailers abreast of all the latest developments, as we have all the way through lockdown. No need for us to announce a comeback – we never went away. You can read the digital version of the August issue here.

The August issue also features the first in our new Show Off features – just like retailers, magazines need to be reactive and flexible to stay one step ahead of the competition. As the feature strapline says, ‘Even though the shows are off, you can still show off your product’. There will be further Show Off features over the coming months: in September, we’ll be aiming to fill the gap left by the cancellation of the Toymaster show with our Show Off Indie Special, while October will see our Show Off Licensing Special helping to keep licensees and retailers up to speed with everything happening in the licensing arena, in the absence of a physical BLE.

I would love to say that we’d be able to retire the Show Off format after that edition, but the realist in me wonders whether it may yet become a fixture beyond the next few months. Events in Hong Kong this week have raised further cause for concern: stricter lockdown measures have been introduced, including the closure of bars and restaurants and a maximum of two people able to meet up, according to our ‘man on the ground’. Add to that the fact that one major global retailer has been sending round an invitation to a webinar instructing suppliers how to prepare for its Virtual Buying Tour, while there are rumours that a couple of major UK accounts may not be planning to go, and a question mark is beginning to hover ominously over the January trip. The fact that tech show CES, which is held in Vegas in January, has already announced that it will be virtual-only next year raises another red flag. My guess is that we should get an idea of how things are looking for all the January shows by September or early October at latest.

I am crossing everything that I can cross in the hope that the measures being taken by governments across the globe will get the situation under control and allow trade shows and international trips to take place in the New Year. It has been hard enough losing those fixed points in the summer calendar: how reassuring it would be if my January schedule could be the same as it always is. I will never moan about Hong Kong jetlag, the car parking situation in London or the snow in Nuremberg ever again. I even booked our hotel for London Toy Fair this week (cancellable of course): it really is important to have something to look forward to.