Businesses thrive on clarity, visibility and certainty. So, it’s good that we finally have some idea of the road out of lockdown. At this stage it is important to have a time frame to allow planning and preparation, and every retailer we spoke to this week is hugely relieved that we now have firm (ish) dates to work towards.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that some of these dates may yet turn out to be slightly more fluid than has generally been reported: the crucial caveat being the words ‘no earlier than’, which were placed before each date read out during the PM’s announcement. Inevitably, we quickly saw those crucial words omitted from media reports, so 12th April and 17th May have morphed into absolute tent poles, rather than being the earliest dates from which things might happen. Crucial difference. Very much a case of terms and conditions apply – read the small print (READ IT AND UNDERSTAND IT JACKIE).
So, with a bit of luck and a fair wind, we should see English toy stores re-opening on 12th April. I gather those on the Isle of Man and Jersey are already re-opening, while Scottish retailers will have to be patient for a couple more weeks, with 26th April the proposed date north of the border. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has extended its lockdown until 1st April, although non-essential retailers can resume click-and-collect services from March 8th. The country’s Stormont Executive has said it will publish its road map out of lockdown on 1st March. Wales’ lockdown rules were also extended last week and will remain in place for at least another three weeks. The Welsh Government confirmed it will be looking at the restrictions around non-essential retail and close contact services as part of its next 21-day review, which ends on 12th March. Whatever happened to the ‘united’ kingdom…?
Obviously, toy retailers would have loved to have been open in time for Easter, but the ones we spoke to were very much adopting a ‘glass half full’ perspective – some had begun to anticipate a much later opening date (the end of April or even the middle of May), so they don’t seem too disappointed with the eventual outcome.
Children returning to school in just over a weeks’ time will help those categories which thrive on the concept of ‘playground currency’ – collectibles, trading cards and stickers, pocket money toys and the like. It will also be a huge boost to stores situated in larger towns and city centres when workers return to offices: this was something of a grey area in the so-called ‘road map’, but I wonder if the re-opening of stores will in turn see more companies elect to start the gradual process of returning to the office. I’ve certainly spoken to a few companies this week which are thinking along those lines.
But most of all, it will just be great to welcome children, parents, families and everyone else back into toy stores – I’m sure they have missed the opportunity to visit a toy shop just as much as retailers have missed seeing them in person. Not long to wait now – as The Entertainer has been saying on its recent social media posts, #PlayIsNeverCancelled. And so say all of us.
Slightly more complex is the effect of the proposed time frame on trade shows and events. I believe that most of us are looking forward to the return of these industry gatherings. The six-million-dollar question is WHEN they will be able to return – and it’s worth looking beyond the headline at the small print once more. The devil is most definitely in the detail. Our report about the potential return of exhibitions explains some of the caveats; notably, although shows may be able to start again from 21st June, the government will only give the go ahead seven days in advance subject to infection rates. I would imagine that would present some significant challenges with regard to getting insurance, not to mention commitment from exhibitors and visitors for a show that may get called off the week before. That would appear to pretty much rule out anything for the first half of the year. And that’s before you take into consideration the extremely vague situation regarding the feasibility and appetite for international travel – which, of course, includes Ireland.
We have already seen AIS announce new dates for the International Toy & Gift Show, which moves from its traditional date in April to the second week of September. I am sure that other toy event organisers have been speaking to exhibitors and visitors this week to gauge their thoughts on the best time slot. At this stage, it looks like the second half of the year – from late summer onwards – is shaping up to be the time when we can all start to meet up again in person. I’m certainly looking forward to being fully dosed up with the vaccine and raring to get out and meet people by then.
I do wonder whether domestic events will be the first to return, with international events following a little while after – or whether we’ll all be feeling gung-ho and desperate to get on a plane as soon as the shackles are off. There is still talk of some companies adopting a no travel (especially international) policy for 2021- and not just the large multi-national corporations we’ve all heard the rumours about. As a business owner, I appreciate that we have a responsibility towards our staff, and we have to take decisions based on what is right for the business and what is right for our people. It can be a delicate balancing act.
As well as the imminent re-opening of retail doors, there are other positive signs to reassure the toy community about prospects for the year – in particular, I gather that container rates are starting to come down, to the great relief of the supplier community. There is probably still a way to go before the supply/ demand balance is fully restored, and whether rates fall to last year’s level is still up for debate – some in the logistics community feel that perhaps rates have been artificially low for a few years, and that a degree of rebalancing was both inevitable and necessary. But hopefully we’ll see rates returning to a more equable level where shipping companies and their customers can feel equally comfortable.
For now, let us be glad that retailers can start sprucing up their stores and topping up their stock ahead of the grand re-opening of High Street UK – another crucial step on the long road back to normality.