Sound judgement…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 15th November 2019

This week has seen the annual DreamToys media event taking place. Over the years, DreamToys has established itself as an important fixture on many toy companies’ festive promotional schedules. However, just as the retail landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, so too has the media arena. Many toy retailers release their own festive lists, often much earlier than DreamToys – it’s become a very congested, competitive field, and there is a limit to how many stories the media will feature which essentially cover the same ground.

In addition, the broadcast media are now largely conspicuous by their absence from DreamToys. To make matters worse, a previous strong supporter of the event – This Morning – went rogue this year by compiling its own Top 12 list and broadcasting a segment last week, thereby removing a valuable piece of coverage from the event. I can only imagine the disappointment at Bastion and the BTHA when they found out about This Morning’s plans – I doubt this would have happened when our prime TV partners had closer, personal relationships with the toy community (shame there is no Clive Crouch figure to fight our corner at ITV these days).

But taking all this into consideration, DreamToys still performed valiantly, generating a substantial amount of positive coverage for the toy industry, both on the day and over the following days. OK, the occasional media outlet fell into the ‘bah humbug’ category – particularly the BBC’s curmudgeonly piece which focused heavily on the decline in UK toy sales so far this year – but most adopted a more festive tone and helped to spread the good word.

Every year, the first question everyone asks me when I meet them in the hall is what I think of the Top 12 list. I sympathise with the judges: if you gave everyone in the room a blank piece of paper and asked them to write down their own choices, I doubt there would be any two lists exactly the same. We all have products we feel should have made the list, and others we were perhaps surprised to see there. This year, the absence of a game from the list was perhaps the most frequently-made observation. But ultimately, the most important thing DreamToys can achieve is to focus the consumer on the toy industry as a whole, generate interest in the latest toys and bona fide toy retailers, and galvanise those consumers who have been holding off from spending. And this year, more than ever, there are some consumers who may need a firm nudge in that direction.

The thing which does seem to be freeing up consumer purse strings right now is a bargain – or at least the perception of a bargain – as is evidenced by the huge number of customers who have descended on Mothercare over the past week in search of deals in the closing down sale. Apparently, despite the fact that discounts are only set at 10-20% at the moment, huge volumes of product are being shifted – so much so that queues are forming around blocks and some suppliers are having to redeploy stock to keep stores topped up. Gordon Brothers must be making an absolute killing! Ironically, many of the products being snapped up in their droves were actually cheaper a few months ago as part of the retailer’s standard promotions – so much for savvy customers. And I am reliably informed that many consumers currently stripping Mothercare bare are bemoaning the loss of the retailer to in-store staff, while at the same time cheerfully admitting that they haven’t stepped foot inside a Mothercare store for years. I sometimes wonder whether some people understand the concept of irony – or appreciate the ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’ conundrum that affects every bricks and mortar retailer.

The short-term sales blitz at Mothercare will be welcomed by suppliers, but they will be only too aware of the gaping hole that will be left when the doors finally close for the last time early next year. As for anyone holding out hope that a white knight may yet come along to save the day, I have it on good authority that isn’t going to happen.

News also broke this week that Mothercare head office staff have not been paid for their last month’s work, and will have to make a claim for their wages to the Redundancy Payment Service (RPS). I’m not sure it was an entirely sound judgement call. I remember distinctly when a major retail figure observed at the height of the Toys R Us debacle that the way the directors behaved during the wind-down of the company would determine what happened when it was time for them to seek their next role. The message was clear: reputations – both good and bad – have a habit of sticking. The fact that Mothercare directors who had just taken bonuses totalling over £500k told staff that they weren’t prepared to pay their wages takes some cojones. And lest we forget, if it does fall to the RPS to cough up, that money is coming out of the tax purse – so in a way, we’d all be paying. Thanks to the Mothercare board for that Christmas present to us all.

Another retailer bedevilled by less that sound judgement this week was Harrods, one of those rare retailers not driven by price considerations – so much so that it felt sufficiently confident to announce that it would be continuing to limit access to its Christmas Grotto to customers spending £2,000. The inevitable online backlash led to some hasty back-tracking – of sorts. The retailer has apparently now freed up a few slots for urchins and the great unwashed to be able to visit the Grotto, if they are lucky enough to win one of a handful of places available via an in-store lottery (providing, presumably, they doff their caps and are prepared to be ever-so-humble while they’re about it). I’m not fully convinced this counts as an admission by Harrods that the initial policy was elitist snobbery at its finest, but hey, it’s a start.

Finally, despite the bruising trading conditions, one retailer is celebrating already. The latest leader column in another toy magazine contains a pull-quote which refers to “The Entertainers (sic) STELLA performance”. I’ll be honest, I always thought Gary was more of a fine wine buff than a Stella drinker myself.