Toy Fair round-up…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 25th January 2019

As I sit in the (very) early morning light to write this week’s Blog, I haven’t had too much time to reflect on this week’s hugely enjoyable London Toy Fair, which finished late yesterday afternoon. As a result, this week’s column is very much an instant gut reaction to proceedings, based on the feedback I received during three intense, hectic days.

First and foremost, the buoyant mood which characterised the Hong Kong trip was still very much in evidence in London – regardless of where the official 2018 sales figures finished up (more of which later). There are no official attendance figures for the show yet, but my instinct is that visitor numbers were strong: all the buyers you would expect to see were present and correct, and even the traditional last afternoon drop-off didn’t seem to happen this time round – my final appointment finished at 5.00 and some stands were still busy even then. The first day was the busiest, probably driven by an influx of influencers and bloggers. Thoughts on that another time, but maybe it would be better to invite them on the last day, rather than the first, to avoid the possibility of inconveniencing retail buyers on a key day of the show?

2018 was described several times during the show as “one of the most challenging and disruptive years the UK toy trade has ever seen”, but in fairness that wasn’t reflected in the mood of the buyers and suppliers I spoke to, which remains largely positive. Yes, there is some trepidation over Brexit, although if the decision over the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger can be delayed by two months to ensure they get it right, maybe the postponement of a far more complex and historic set of negotiations might yet benefit from some additional breathing space?

On paper, the 2018 sales numbers don’t make for pretty reading: an ‘adjusted’ decline of minus 7% is the headline figure NPD has settled on, with loss of sales from TRU the driving factor, along with a below-par performance from the grocery channel. However, with the specialist, online and discount channels all growing very healthily, it demonstrates the advantages of having a product offering that can cover all bases. As suggested in previous Blogs, Christmas came late, with weeks 51 and 52 representing over 8% of the year’s total toy sales. Holding your nerve right to the end has never been more important. Unsurprisingly, the £10-£20 price bracket grew heavily, helped by the enormous success of L.O.L. Surprise!, which accrued eye-watering sales of over £100m (let that just sink in for a minute).

No great surprise then that L.O.L. Surprise! picked up the Toy of the Year award, while The Entertainer took home the Retailer of the Year Award. There were many other worthy winners; you can see the full list here in case you’ve been too busy to read anything this week. I asked Andy Laughton if Isaac Larian was delighted with his award (and the other two which MGA picked up on the night) and he admitted that while that was indeed the case, Isaac was also keen to know who had beaten him in the other categories. I guess that unquenchable drive to win is just one of the many reasons why he is so incredibly successful.

NPD also confirmed what most of us suspected, that sales of licensed toys fell for the fourth year in a row. In 2015, licensed toys represented 29% of total toy sales – that number fell to 23% last year. While a comeback year is being predicted in many quarters, with a strong film slate across the year, some residual nervousness remains. Many people stopped me at Toy Fair to tell me how much they enjoyed my recent Licensing Blog, which highlighted some of the challenges facing the category. Nothing sums up the disconnect between the toy and licensing communities more than the licensing company which put on a screening of its new movie right in the middle of the first day of Toy Fair and invited its major licensee partners (and me) to attend – they even seemed surprised when the invitation was politely declined, as if the first day of the UK toy community’s most important event of the year was somehow less important than watching a film. Priceless.

There have been a few big licensing stories breaking this week: we exclusively revealed that Warwick Brenner has joined Hasbro to head up its EMEA licensing division – Warwick told me that while he was enjoying his role at Mclaren, this was just too big an opportunity to turn down, and who can blame him? Elsewhere Epic Rights – owner of the Fortnite brand – has been acquired by Bravado (I can only imagine how many noughts were on that cheque), while Ashley Holman has moved on from Nickelodeon. I also gather that Anna Chapman has changed roles at Disney – she arrived back from Hong Kong to find that she is now in charge of operations. Her replacement was described to me by one licensee as “someone from finance…”

There are also a few moves on the toy buying side to report: Sarah Harding leaves Mothercare today, while her colleague Clare Loxley will also be leaving in April. Toy World columnist David Ripley will be taking on a new category director role at Groupon, with Alan Dardis taking over on the toy side. Ian Chaplin will also be joining Groupon next week, heading up the Home & Garden categories.

All in all, it has been a fantastic week; my voice is completely shot to pieces, and a very lazy weekend beckons to recharge the batteries before next week’s trip to Nuremberg – however, there is no doubt that it has all been worth it. Thank you to everyone who carved out time in their busy schedules to see the Toy World team at the show, and for all your kind comments about the magazine and the website: there will doubtless be a lot more to say about recent developments in the toy trade press in the coming weeks, as disruption is touching our world just as much as everyone else’s. But rest assured, whatever you may have been told at Toy Fair, print is categorically not dead – very, very far from it. We’ve just had our best year, and published our biggest-ever Toy Fair Preview edition – actions speak a whole lot louder than words. We’ve tied up some great new content partnerships at Toy Fair (more news soon), and whatever lies ahead this year, we are ready and waiting to meet it head on. Yes, it will continue to be disruptive and challenging – but it will also throw up plenty of opportunities in the process. Have a great weekend, see you in Nuremberg next week.