Timing in life is everything…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 14th August 2020

It may help if you read this first paragraph in a heavy Geordie accent…” Day 146 in the covid house. Housemates are gathered in the kitchen, moaning about the weather. It’s been too hot, no-one can sleep and everyone’s melting. Now it’s raining too hard and we need the underwater car from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me to get home from the office, or we’ll have to order pizza and sleep under our desks for the night. Everything is cancelled.” Welcome to the summer of 20 – I bet Bryan Adams won’t be immortalising this one in song like he did with the summer of 69 (even though he was only 10 years old that summer, so he made the whole thing up…).

Despite the overwhelmingly surreal nature of the year so far, there are signs that we’re edging out of the mire. Retail sales were up in July, and toys continue to be one of the stronger-performing markets – a lot of other retail sectors have it far tougher than we do. Reports have suggested that many retail head office employees will soon be heading back to their offices, including those at Tesco, Primark and John Lewis. Even though there is no Argos catalogue this year, the retailer still decided to be first out of the gate by issuing its prediction for the top Christmas toys last week, just as the UK hit peak tropical heat / monsoon season naturally.

Our piece about the Argos top 12 was comfortably our highest read story of the week, suggesting there is still considerable interest within the UK and global toy community as to which items the retailer is tipping for festive success. Yet I didn’t feel that the story quite achieved the same traction across consumer media that it traditionally does: there were a few bits of press coverage, but I saw or heard little in the way of TV or radio interest. I was invited to appear on a radio show to talk about the list, only for the item to be cancelled a few hours before broadcast. I guess the media has got more urgent things on its collective mind right now – in the case of my cancelled appearance on TalkRadio, they seem to have preferred to give politicians the chance to shout at ice cream rather than focus on something uplifting and positive like Christmas toys. Oh well, each to his own…

As they say, timing in life is everything. Perhaps the November time slot for the DreamToys event will work in its favour this year – surely, by that stage, even the murkiest denizens of the media will be craving some positivity and normality. It was announced this week that DreamToys, like so many other trade shows and media events, will transition to a virtual event this year. Indeed, had you started this year with a bingo card featuring all the trade fairs and events, you would pretty much have a full house crossed off by now. This week we’ve seen Dream Toys, New York Comic Con, Harrogate Nursery Fair and the Halloween & Party Expo in Dallas all called off completely or replaced by virtual versions. The Halloween show is an interesting outlier, as it wasn’t due to take place until January – but like CES, which was called off a few weeks ago, the organiser has reached the conclusion that the situation won’t change sufficiently in the US for the show to be able to go ahead.

So where, you may ask, does this leave all of the traditional January Toy Fairs? Undoubtedly, we all want them to happen as normal – but what if they simply can’t? One answer surely lies in the virtual realm; an increasing number of suppliers and retailers are replacing face-to-face contact with digital meetings. This week saw Asmodee announce its forthcoming AsmoFair, while I gather that a very major retail account recently invited all the major licensing companies to virtually pitch for ‘gold standard’ cross-category support for their properties in 2021. It’s completely understandable that companies are taking the proverbial bull by the horns and getting on with the selling and selection process in the best way they can. Apart from a handful of millennials, very few people are pretending that these virtual events can fully replace their physical counterparts – but it’s unquestionably better to be pro-active, rather than just sitting around waiting and hoping for something to change.

Like many, my first forays into digital meetings were slightly awkward, but it’s been a while since I heard the words “John, I think you’re on mute….JOHN!!” accompanied by frantic finger pointing at the screen. There is still some reluctance to fully embrace the digital arena: US toy commentator Richard Gottlieb recently wrote a brutally frank takedown of virtual meetings and presentations which I’m sure many people would sympathise with. But we’re all getting better at working out how to make the best of the medium – and anyway, needs must. In 2020, contact, dialogue and even negotiation take many forms.

The BTHA has written to exhibitors with an update on preparation for the show – sensibly, it advises exhibitors to wait as late as possible before commencing stand build projects, while it has also reassured exhibitors that if the show cannot take place, all monies received for stand space would be reimbursed. I am sure that exhibitors will be hugely reassured to hear that. Spielwarenmesse recently amended its standard contractual terms to offer its exhibitors the same commitment.

When I’ve written about trade shows in recent weeks, I’ve received several emails suggesting that there may even be an argument for postponing, rather than cancelling, the January shows. Obviously, this is an incredibly complex issue, and one that would take several rather long Blogs to explore fully. But I do wonder, if it became a choice between deferring a show for a few months or having no show at all, what the general consensus would be. I appreciate that there would be a broad range of opinions, and larger suppliers and retailers would probably have a very different view to the rest of the toy community. There may even be different views across the globe, related to the buying cycles of retailers in each country. Then, of course, there are the practicalities to take into consideration, such as venue availability and fluctuating travel restrictions. However, I’d be interested to hear what people think of the idea, especially if it becomes clear that the January/February period really isn’t a viable option for shows to be held across the globe. As a one-off response to what we all hope is a unique global situation, could it be worth exploring?