Things can only get better…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 3rd January 2020

I’ll start by wishing everyone a Happy – and prosperous – New Year. I hope you’re all suitably refreshed and raring to go for Toy Fair Season, which for some has already begun. I’ll be flying off to Hong Kong this evening, with a packed schedule to look forward to.The mass boycott of Hong Kong which was briefly threatened in November appears to have dissipated; there may be the odd absentee, but I get the impression that it should largely be business as usual for most people. More on that in next Friday’s ‘Hong Kong Blog’.

I hope you all had a splendid Christmas and that trading lived up to your expectations (whatever they were). An indie owner texted me on the Friday before Christmas to say: “So, this is when Christmas kicks in these days. It will be Christmas Eve next year at this rate.” So yes, it was late, but at least it did kick in eventually; there were some who wondered if Christmas ‘19 ever would reach the levels traditionally expected over the festive season. To what extent the last few days’ business helped to claw back the 9% decline the UK toy industry was facing in early December, we’ll have to wait until NPD releases its year-end data to find out.

We’re in the process of conducting our own anecdotal survey of the pre and post-Christmas toy retail trading landscape, so if you have any thoughts or observations to chip in, you can call our editor Rachael  on 01442 502406. The feedback will appear in our first-ever standalone February issue, which will be published on 22nd January. Official reports suggest that Boxing Day trading was significantly down on last year; retail data analyst Springboard announced that footfall saw the largest decline since 2011, dropping by 8.6%, suggesting that the Boxing Day opportunity isn’t what it was. Admittedly, the weather was bad, which wouldn’t have helped. But equally, I suspect that online shopping played a major part in the decline, while I also believe that some shoppers share my concern at the plight of workers, especially those who had to arrive at 2.30 in the morning for a 4.00 am opening, as Matalan workers were asked to do. I’m sure that the directors and management who came up with that great idea were right there alongside their store staff, opening the doors and manning tills at 4.00 in the morning…not! Springboard reported that more consumers visited high streets in the early evening than during the day, so it looks like Matalan got that one completely wrong.

That said, I completely understand that retailers have to take every opportunity to increase sales in the current climate; wherever the final festive trading numbers end up, I think it’s fair to say that we’re all hoping for a better year in 2020. According to the Centre for Retail Research, over 140,000 jobs were lost on the UK high street last year, an increase of 20% over the previous year. 38,000 roles were lost due to retailers who fell into administration, while a further 26,000 came as a result of CVAs. A further, 78,000 jobs were lost through rationalisation, as part of cost cutting programmes by large retailers or independent shops closing down permanently. When you see those numbers written down in black and white, the enormity of the task facing the retail channel is inescapable. And these are not just statistics; they are real people, many with families who would be potential toy consumers.

Last week, I shared a post from a US retailer on LinkedIn and it got a huge amount of traction. Although the retailer in question – Richard Derr from Learning Express – is based on another continent, I think the sentiment is universal, wherever in the world you are based. This is what the post said: “I have been thinking…Toys R Us received kudos and credit for a relaunch. Major vendors supported them in an attempt to showcase their toys in an experiential setting, maybe even paying for display space, staff and offering consignment. But wait…. isn’t this what we (independents) do every day, with every customer? Rather than just sell us products as an afterthought and then say good luck on price, wouldn’t it be more beneficial and profitable to treat independents as your showcase – as an educated extension of your sales force?  I promise you that with sufficient product, competitive costs and receiving new product at the same time (street date), I will outsell the closest big box near me.”

It reminds me of the famous Peter Brown speech at a Toy of the Year awards ceremony many years ago, when he advocated positive discrimination for the independent sector. Many queued up (privately of course) to declare how impractical this suggestion was, but I can’t help thinking that Peter made a valid point. If we want the indies to survive and thrive in the 21st century, perhaps we collectively need to embrace a strategy that capitalises on the strengths of the independent sector as a 365 day a year physical showcase for the best the toy industry has to offer. On a visit to Hemel Hempstead High Street on my first day back in the office, the Toys UK branch was festooned with ‘Closing Down’ notices, while we lost some very smart, astute toy indie retailers last year (Toytown Seaford, Toy Hub and many more). It’s not that they need charity to survive, more that there is a very real opportunity for suppliers if they approach the channel in the right way, not just as an afterthought. I loved a Facebook post from one toy retailer at 3pm on Christmas Eve: “Not even Amazon Prime can help you now. Shop local!” We need to give consumers more reasons to visit the indies all year round, not just in the final few hours of trading. Many suppliers already recognise this – I hope a few more join the party in this year.

I look forward to catching up with as many people as possible over the coming weeks, starting this weekend in Hong Kong. A fresh year, a fresh decade, a fresh start – after last year, things can only get better….surely?!