Last week’s Blog and the comments I made on the prevailing situation in Hong Kong seem to have struck a chord, not just here in the UK, but right around the world. I am going to return to the subject, as events at the end of last week almost threatened to make the previous Blog redundant within a matter of hours.
Early on Friday I received emails from contacts in the US, who seemed to appreciate the fact we had chosen to adopt a pragmatic stance. I certainly didn’t want to write anything sensationalist that would potentially exacerbate an already fragile situation. By that evening, the same people were emailing me to tell me that they had started to receive a steady stream of cancellations from certain US buyers. One American website even went so far as to name a selection of retailers which it claimed would not be making the trip. The danger of such an approach was highlighted by a comment posted on the site shortly afterwards, which suggested that the post had been “irresponsible”, saying: “I know of three companies on this list that are very upset that this has been posted. They are still planning on going and will not make their final decision until mid-December.”
This was precisely why I was reluctant to name names, and still am – chiefly because there is plenty of time for things to quieten down. Indeed, in the wake of last weekend’s elections, things seem to have been far calmer in Hong Kong this week. The trickle of buyers pulling out appears to have been stemmed, rather than turned into a torrent, which it threatened to do last Friday. At that point, there was a real touch of the ‘Chicken Lickins’ about the way some US buyers appeared to be running around believing that the sky was falling. Seven days on, reports from locals indicate a very different mood and for the record, I am picking up few reports of any UK toy people cancelling their trips. I did hear one big rumour earlier this week, which would be huge if true – but if the past week has taught us anything, it is important to be 100% sure that a decision is final before announcing it. If the buying team in question doesn’t go, I would imagine their competitors will be delighted, as it would – theoretically at least – give them first dibs on new lines. I spoke to a good supplier friend and asked him if he was still going; the look he gave me suggested it was one of the dafter things I have ever asked him.
The truth is that a handful of very large US retailers and suppliers have the clout to pull out of the trip, as their suppliers or customers will be prepared to travel to see them individually if necessary. However, that approach wouldn’t be viable for the vast majority of medium and small suppliers, as well as many global retailers. The very fact that everyone comes together in one place at one time is what makes the whole trip work. And don’t underestimate the practical issues: most companies only have one set of samples to work with at that stage. That said, I do believe that there are certain people within the US toy community who would love to cut one or two Hong Kong visits out in favour of home grown events, with the October trip potentially at risk due to the growth of the LA show.
One UK retail team with a question mark over not just the Hong Kong trip but all Toy Fairs is Harrods; I hear from credible sources that pretty much the whole toy buying team has ‘moved on’ simultaneously.
The other big talking point of the week has been Black Friday. There has been so much price activity in the UK toy market in recent weeks -far more than we have seen in recent years, according to most suppliers and retailers I have been speaking to – that it hasn’t really left much wriggle room for many retailers. Indeed, Which? claimed this week that as few as 5% of the deals it tracked were actually at their cheapest on the day itself. While this is probably no great surprise to most people in the trade, it is equally true to say that Black Friday has morphed into a very different proposition than its original concept. Not only does it stretch over a month rather than a long weekend, judging by my over-flowing inbox it has become a bandwagon jumped on by every man and his dog. Mind you, if French MPs have their way, there may be changes next year; keep an eye on draft legislation to ban some Black Friday promotions as part of an anti-waste bill which also aims to end false advertising of discounts. One MP backing the legislation wrote: “Stop overconsumption and communications that trick consumers.”
Speaking of Black Friday, I attended an Amazon Black Friday event on Thursday – yes, they really did let me in! I left perplexed rather than blown away; perhaps surprisingly, toys represented a relatively small – some might even say inconsequential – part of the event. Neither was there any hint or suggestion of specific promotional offers on the toys on display over Black Friday weekend; I had naively assumed that the event might highlight any such deals. In keeping with tradition, as far as I am aware, no Amazon buyers were present; if they were, they certainly didn’t make themselves known. In fairness, there is evidence that Amazon is slowly changing its ways – check out a new initiative currently underway on the Amazon France site, where official brand logos are being added to hero images. And I appreciate that the sales numbers Amazon is capable of delivering are crucial for a growing number of toy companies. I just wish they were a little more communicative and responsive, a bit more ….human.
Finally, as Hornby releases its latest set of results, I would like to doff my proverbial cap to Sky News, who crammed more puns into its report than I have ever seen before; all the old favourites were present – “recovery on track”, “sales steam ahead” – but Sky went the extra mile with phrases like “a platform of profitability”, “light at the end of the tunnel” and “journey to profitability” Hornby’s business engine was said to be “purring nicely” after “pulling the handbrake” on its discount strategy. Some of you may have noticed that we often shoe-horn song titles and lyrics into Toy World’s columns: toys may be a serious business, but there’s no harm in having a bit of fun along the way.