Tale as old as time…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 15th January 2021

Shall we start this week with some good news? The UK toy market was 5% up in 2020. As they say on twitter: “That’s it. That’s the tweet.” A simple sentence, behind which lies 12 months’ worth of of twists, turns, sleepless nights, headaches, heartaches, elation and joy. Take yourself back to last March – could you ever have imagined you would be reading those words now?

What the UK toy market achieved last year is nothing short of miraculous. And let’s not forget the context of this performance: UK retail sales in 2020 were the worst for 25 years. The British Retail consortium estimates that non-food sales as a whole fell around 5% last year. It also suggested that physical non-food stores saw sales drop by a quarter compared with 2019.

Against that backdrop, the UK toy market’s performance was remarkable – posting an astonishing £3.3bn sales, the UK maintained its position as the largest toy market in Europe and the fourth largest globally. Our government continually refers to our world-beating capabilities – this is one area where they would actually be right, given the size of our nation in comparison to many countries below us on the list.

NPD’s announcement of this stellar result contained some fascinating details, not least the fact that purchases by adults and teens now represent 27% of toy sales here in the UK. We’re a nation of toy lovers, and that doesn’t diminish as we grow old – as we found ourselves with time on our hands last year, it is amazing how many ‘grown-ups’ turned to toys for comfort, entertainment and amusement.

Naturally, the online numbers are scary – online sales represented almost half of all toy sales last year. And for once, thankfully, Christmas came early – the 11% increase in November helped the final figure enormously. Indeed, a drop of only 9% in December feels like quite a result when you consider how many stores were closed for the crucial final week.

So, all in all, the UK toy community can be immensely proud of how well it coped with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune last year. Which is just as well, because I suspect a few more arrows will be heading our way in 2021. However, we are prepared this time: we know what to expect and what we need to do. In my experience, people are just getting on with it: retailers are planning for Easter, or the summer, or autumn winter, while suppliers are gearing up their marketing efforts and ensuring their supply chains are robust. By all accounts, many retailers are even further ahead with selections and plans than they would traditionally be at this stage of the year – not just here in the UK, but in many other territories across the globe too (I’m told many US major retailers have locked down plans earlier than ever this year).

Of course, there are going to be some curveballs: forget the confiscated ham sandwiches, there are going to be far larger post-Brexit bigger issues for suppliers and retailers to grapple with over the coming months. Several suppliers got in touch this week to highlight the challenges they’re facing when it comes to shipping products to Ireland – a country that one described as having been “cut off overnight.” A Brexit-supporting DUP MP pointed out this week that it couldn’t be Brexit causing these issues, as they weren’t happening in Scotland, Wales and England – until someone with a rudimentary grasp of the situation helpfully pointed out that none of those countries share a land border with an EU country. I genuinely wonder who votes for some of these people…

We also have an issue brewing with the current click & collect regulations: Scotland has decided to ban the practice for non-essential retailers from this weekend, while John Lewis has voluntarily abandoned its click & collect service, putting pressure on other retailers to follow suit. However, I am not sure it is quite as clear cut a decision as some might think. Playing devil’s advocate, was John Lewis’ decision purely altruistic, or were they just struggling to generate enough orders to cover costs? We will never know, but we do know that if many specialist retailers are forced to abandon their click & collect orders, it will be a massive blow for them. It will also presumably drive larger crowds to already over-crowded supermarkets. Providing click & collect services are structured safely (for both customers and staff), I think a ban would be overly draconian and possibly even counterproductive.

Specialist retailers are already frustrated that supermarkets and certain value retailers – the ones that have “2 metres of crisps, a metre of sweets and a fridge…in a 20,000 square foot shop” according to one of my retail friends – are allowed to stay open selling toys. Depriving them of offering click & collect facilities may be the final straw: no-one wants to see them paint their faces and turning up shirtless, wearing a fur hat with horns storming their local Home Bargains (although to be fair, Home Bargains probably has better security than the White House, which fell to the cast of Duck Dynasty last week…).

So yes, another year of challenges awaits – but I have every confidence in the toy community’s ability to triumph over adversity once more. New ranges are looking good and buzz is already building around some new potential crazes – Among Us is being talked up massively, so Darran Garnham must be delighted that his new Toikido venture has picked up global master toy rights for the brand. Suppliers and retailers are coming off the back of a year that turned out far better than anyone could have anticipated. And, above all, kids (and adults it seems) have an abiding love of toys. Take this quote from an article printed in The Telegraph last week: “There was a hopeful feeling for a busy Christmas, for…even if people are economising generally, they can always show generosity when the happiness and enjoyment of the children are involved.” Truly timeless sentiments…literally timeless in fact: the quote came from an article first printed on Saturday November 20th, 1920 – 100 years ago. You know that adage we all learn shortly after we come into the toy market about parents making sure their kids don’t go short at Christmas – it’s actually a century old. Tale as old as time…