Summertime and the living is easy (for some)…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 3rd August 2018

As the Southern European toy industry prepares to close down en masse for the month, here in the UK we soldier on regardless. It may be that seagulls are melting right outside our window, but inside the office it’s a case of ‘keep calm and carry on’ – as long as you are lucky enough to have bought a decent fan a month or two ago, before stocks ran out (two days after the hot spell started). Americans may find this surprising, but I would suggest that few business premises in the UK are equipped with anything approaching adequate air-conditioning. A fan and a bag of ice is the best many can hope for.

The excellent weather has certainly resulted in strong outdoor toy sales – there has been plenty of carry-over stock for the past couple of years, but I suspect only the real dregs are left now. It will be good to approach 2019 with a clean slate and some optimism around the outdoor category.

Elsewhere, the ongoing House of Fraser saga has taken a turn for the worse, with Hamleys owner C.banner pulling out of a proposed deal to buy the ailing department store chain. Whether it is complete coincidence that Hamleys credit insurance limit has allegedly been reduced is unclear, but either way, it doesn’t sound like C.banner is in any position to inject the £70m cash it has promised.

The latest name to be linked with a possible bid for House of Fraser is the owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Philip Day, while Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley’s name has also been thrown into the ring. None of this affects the toy market to any great extent, but it is another piece of unsettling retail news for the media to fixate on. In that context, it was good to read the Telegraph’s interview with Gary Grant last week; it was encouraging to see a media outlet running a positive retail story for once, with Gary revealing that a further 16 new Entertainer stores are in the pipeline before the end of the year, and that his sons ultimately want the operation to extend to 1,000 stores. An ambitious target, and one which would presumably bring The Entertainer into conflict with other specialist toy retail operators in terms of store locations. However, given the retailer’s recent track record, you certainly wouldn’t bet against further expansion, both here in the UK and abroad.

I was also pleased to see another observer talking up the opportunity for independent toy retailers in the wake of Toys R Us’ demise: this time it was our former contributor Lutz Muller, writing on the Seeking Alpha website about the US retail landscape. Much has been made of the increase in toy space at Wal-Mart and Target, but Lutz shares my belief that TRU customers primary focus was on choice and quality rather than price, and the switch to another specialist retailer (providing there is a suitable one in the vicinity) is just as plausible as shoppers simply migrating to Amazon. Unlike the UK, not all big US toy companies have valued the ‘specialty’ sector in the past, so it will be interesting to see if some of them decide to adapt their strategy to form relationships with these stores, or whether they continue to write them off as being too complicated and costly to deal with. Mind you, if Trump really does increase tariffs on Chinese-made goods to 25% and toys are included, it will make dilemmas like that almost redundant – along with thousands of Americans. It certainly puts the UK’s post-TRU challenges into perspective.

Back here in the UK, the Argos catalogue has been released: long gone are the days when sales directors had to take this week off on holiday to avoid an irate phone call from other toy buyers (a certain Mr Shaer in particular), seeking a gentle, friendly, not-at-all heated conversation about pricing disparities and iniquities. These days, opening pricing gambits are rarely that controversial; we don’t know yet what will happen in the coming months, but the Argos catalogue is no longer the ‘light the blue touch paper and stand well back’ publication of yore. That said, today sees Argos launch its first festive ‘3 for 2’ toy promotion; while not encompassing its full range, the promotional blurb suggests that ‘thousands of toys’ are included in the offer, including several which featured in the Argos top toys for Christmas list. Shoppers are being encouraged to “get some early Christmas shopping out of the way,” which I am sure is just what everyone is thinking in this tropical heatwave.

The August issue of Toy World also landed on desks last Friday and Saturday – you can access the digital version of the issue here. The summer used to be perceived as a quieter period for the toy market, although having produced 100+ page issues in both July and August, I think we can confidently say that the days of nothing happening in the toy industry over the summer are very much a thing of the past (unless you are lucky enough to work in Italy, Spain, France etc).

Consumers are still buying toys, companies are still marketing their products, retailers are fine-tuning their festive strategies and people are still changing roles; this week we revealed that WWE VP of licensing EMEA Warwick Brenner will shortly be leaving to head up McLaren’s business globally. As a dedicated ‘petrol head’, it was obviously too good an opportunity to turn down, and we wish Warwick all the best in his new role. I wonder if he will get an amazing company car. I am also hearing on the grapevine that there may be further changes at WWE to come…watch this space.

There’s just time to remind you that with the Premier League season starting next Friday evening, you can join the Toy World Fantasy Football League by visiting the website and entering League Code 114891-37891.

Finally, those of us in the toy community are well-versed in the value of play and all its benefits. But how to we communicate that to the wider world in a fun, engaging way? Maybe this man has the answer; if only he had been given a shape sorter as a child, he might have been able to avoid looking like a complete numpty…