Time to make the magic happen …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 27th November 2020

By the time you read this, if you’re based in the UK, you will know which of the infamous tiers you are now located in. Ahead of the announcement, I imagined a process somewhat akin to the televised draw for the next round of the FA Cup: “So it’s Ian Wright to draw the location ball, and Roy Keane to draw the Tier ball. Right, so first up we have Manchester…and that’s in Tier Three!” (Full disclosure: this may not be the actual process the government used…but arguably it might as well have been).

The good news is that regardless of which tier you fall into, ‘non-essential’ (their description, certainly not mine) retailers will be able to open once more. Thank goodness for that – let the countdown to Christmas truly begin. There are still a few festive foibles to work out, not least the complex issue of family bubbles (‘Fubbles’? Coincidentally, the brand name of a new range of bubbles which will be making its debut in the December issue of Toy World, which will be landing on your doormat early next week). And, of course, whether or not you can watch your football team play on Boxing Day (Watford fans were secretly hoping we’d get placed in tier 3)?

However, the most important thing as far as this column is concerned is that specialist toy retailers can throw open their doors once more and welcome shoppers as they frantically finalise their festive purchases. I received a message several weeks ago from an independent retailer, asking if I thought stores would be able to open again after 2nd December – and you could tell the trepidation which accompanied his request. Being closed for November has unquestionably been a pain; but it wouldn’t have come close to the pain of being closed for December. So, thank goodness we don’t have to face that prospect. Onwards and upwards – time to make the magic happen. Let’s just hope that shoppers feel confident enough to hit the high street in their droves (socially distanced droves, of course).

It isn’t just retailers who will be relieved: after a strong year of sales for many toy companies, suppliers had stocked up in anticipation of a bumper Christmas period. Many online retailers have inevitably had a field day during lockdown, but there are limits to what even they could have achieved in December, the peak month for deliveries. And for those who may have assumed that the grocers have been cleaning up as a result of being allowed to stay open, I am told that hasn’t necessarily been the case. That may not be as counter intuitive as it sounds: if a visit to the supermarket has ever been a relaxing, enjoyable event (questionable), I doubt many would feel that is still the case at the moment. You get in, you get your shopping, you get out – all the while avoiding the sort of people who don’t seem to be fully embracing the concept of social distancing and the courtesy of wearing a mask (if I see one more numpty wandering the aisles with his mask hanging off his chin, or with his nose poking out…). I am not sure that loitering down the toy aisle, gently perusing the myriad options for what to buy little Derek or Delilah, has the appeal it perhaps once did.

France went a step further, ‘encouraging’ (and by encouraging, I assume that meant applying serious pressure to) Amazon to postpone its Black Friday event until ‘non-essential’ stores could re-open. That is brave governance – it’s just a shame that our government talks a good game about level playing fields, but so often fails to follow it through. The Northern Ireland government should also be applauded for promising to give each household a £200 voucher to spend on the high street, to help stimulate post-Christmas demand. I have seen some store owners expressing disappointment that the voucher won’t be available before Christmas, but perhaps it will turn out to be even more helpful to drive customers into stores in the New Year? Either way, it is still a bold initiative and arguably better targeted than showering multi-billionaire business owners with government subsidies that just get passed on to shareholders (mentioning no names, but if you google the AO CEO, he does a great job of naming and shaming some of the guilty parties…).

Speaking of stimulating demand, I am reliably informed that last week’s ‘How to Spend it Well at Christmas’ was as effective as ever in driving sales, as several people whose brands were featured in the show were delighted to confirm this week. And as one happy camper pointed out: “And it cost me nothing! Now that’s what I call the best PR…. ever.” Catalogues are also said to be making a big comeback – with families stuck at home, prospective shoppers have far more time to browse catalogues, and are probably looking for a good excuse to tear themselves away from the screen for a while (maybe it’s not just kids who should have their screen time regulated…?). Great for those retailers who persisted with a printed catalogue – and further proof (if proof were needed) that print is a long, long way from being defunct.

Finally, as the festive season swings into gear, one toy shop owner in Cork was surprised to find that he had been banned from selling certain items from his Facebook shop, as they ‘violated’ the platform’s trading policy. What toy horrors could possibly have fallen foul of the Facebook algorithm (given the some of the material it deems acceptable to publish)? It turns out that one offending item was a kid’s wooden sword and shield, which does seem rather draconian – but not as funny as the Brio Train Station being on the naughty list, because it apparently violates the policy of “ticket selling” on the site. Great to see the Facebook algorithm is working so well – if only they could get it to recognise and root out hate speech rather than obsessing over kid’s toys, eh? Tech giants – gotta love their sense of priority.