In some quarters, normal service is slowly being resumed; as always, UK major accounts are in the process of finalising their spring/summer 2021 selections, albeit after conducting virtual previews to replace the usual face to face meetings or trips to the Far East. And despite the fact that they have already had an extended break from the office, I am reliably informed that toy companies based in southern Europe are still planning their traditional 3 or 4-week summer shutdowns. However extraordinary the situation we find ourselves in, and however much people talk about the ‘new normal’ and things never being the same again, clearly some old habits die hard.
If you looked at our list of ‘most read’ stories of the week, it displays a broadly familiar pattern that would not look out of place in any given year: major retail developments (the John Lewis store closures, the cancellation of the Argos catalogue), ‘people’ stories (Play-Room’s Miles Penhallow’s early retirement, the very sad news that former Woolworths’ trading controller Phil Green passed away this week), plus an exploration of what may lie ahead for future trade shows and events – albeit what may be round the corner next year is very different to the usual concerns anyone might traditionally have about a forthcoming trade fair. The difficulty of getting a hotel room or a direct flight to Nuremberg or the Hong Kong dollar exchange rate are clearly not going to be the most pressing issues next year. Never before has it even crossed anyone’s mind that a toy show might not physically be able to take place – let’s hope the next six months is kind to us in that respect.
The reality is that despite pockets of welcome familiarity, in other respects, everything we thought we knew continues to change, and as planning for next year starts in earnest, we have some complex challenges ahead – and not just because of the ongoing coronavirus situation. As the pandemic took hold, you will doubtless have seen a lot of social media posts which were essentially variations on a theme, namely “Do you remember the good old days when all we had to argue and worry about was Brexit? How I wish we could get back to simpler times.” Well, we got a glimpse at those ‘simpler times’ this week, and I am not sure they’re that appealing after all. Plans have begun to leak out about the revised UK customs and border arrangements that will come into force on 1st January, and they don’t make pretty reading for UK business owners. It has been predicted that over 200 million new customs forms will be generated, at a cost to business which has been estimated at between £7-13 billion. That is over half the cost of our EU membership just to get lorries out of Dover.
Instead of the Garden of England, it looks like Kent will henceforth be known as ‘Farage’s Garage’: in a few short months, Kent residents will truly know the meaning of the phrases ‘tailing back control’ and reaching ‘braking point.’
There is also bad Brexit-related news for Amazon UK sellers, after it emerged that the UK’s FBA operations will be separated from the rest of Europe after 1st January, which could lead to a huge part of their online audience disappearing. But to be fair, we knew what we were voting for…
Meanwhile, our old foe ‘rona’ continues to play havoc with schedules around the world. Over in Hong Kong, the Book Fair, a mammoth event which traditionally attracts over 9,000 exhibitors and close to 1 million visitors, was cancelled at two days’ notice – TWO DAYS! – as a new wave of cases forced the authorities to reintroduce the tighter lockdown measures which had been relaxed only weeks beforehand. This also raises the question of whether the current Hong Kong international travel ban will be extended past its current September cut-off point: a further three-month ban would take us perilously close to the end of the year…
And for those toy companies which have already been in a dialogue with trade fair organisers about next year’s events, the reality of what these new shows would potentially look like is beginning to sink in. We also have to take into consideration the fact that most buyers across the globe remain ‘locked down’ themselves: few have returned to their offices yet, while face to face client meetings and international travel are still off the menu, until at least the end of the year by most accounts. The big question is what it will take for those buyers’ bosses to relax their stance come January 1st…
Back here in the UK, we have finally caught up with much of the rest of the world and made wearing face coverings mandatory in shops – maybe Dominic Cummings has just realised he knows someone who makes face masks (although they’re probably a pest control company or a confectionery wholesaler…)? There is a strong argument that we should have been wearing masks all along, but I am pleased that with its trademark decisiveness, the government has finally reached the conclusion that we must act without delay…starting next Friday. Maybe they will also be announcing that all stable doors must be closed at the same time?
To be fair, there is a mature debate to be had over whether the mandatory face covering rule will inspire confidence or perhaps undermine shopper sentiment, although most polls I have seen on the subject suggest that the majority is in favour, or at very least prepared to accept that it is both courteous and a sign of the collective will of the people to fight the spread of the virus. Naturally, there are a few numpties who are banging on about this being an act of ‘control’, but I don’t count that sort of contribution as part of a mature debate.
If I have any concern at all, it is over the government’s suggestion that it is retailers who will bear the brunt of enforcing the new rule. I think that’s a lot to ask – putting the onus on the retailer seems a slight abdication of responsibility, but maybe rather than risking confrontation, the answer for retailers lies in the sign below. Hopefully, displaying this prominently would encourage even the most reluctant shopper to don a mask without unnecessary fuss….