Virtual Insanity…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 5th February 2021

For one year only (hopefully), Toy Fair Season has been replaced by Virtual Toy Fair Season, which is still in full swing. Collectively, the toy industry has come a long way from the days of “you’re on mute” and “sorry, I can’t actually see that on my screen.” Presentations no longer constitute ‘death by power point’ either; they’re fun, engaging and immersive, full of clever little twists. We’ve been treated to our own personal magic show by Marvin’s Magic, walked through a magical character-filled garden scene courtesy of Golden Bear, seen Schleich presenters miniaturized to the same scale as their figures (Honey I shrunk the brand manager), found ourselves in the digitally replicated showrooms and trade fair stands of Asmodee and many others, and generally found the experience far more entertaining and user-friendly than some may have anticipated. Virtual previews have also given us the immortal line: “Guide your unstable monkey…”, which is something I never thought I’d hear in a  toy context. Although if someone could find a way to make ending the call less awkward (instead of a nervous wave until the screen goes blank), that might be good.

Toy companies seem to have taken onboard the ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ mantra and kept previews to a sensible length. Younger readers won’t fully appreciate this, but a tour of some stands at Toy Fairs used to take half a day, while full day previews at offices were not uncommon. Few people have time for that these days, either at a trade show or in the course of their daily working routine. Just as toy companies eventually came to realise that hiring an out of work actor to deliver a cheesy five-minute monologue wasn’t the best way to introduce a new product on a stand (especially when the actor tried to ‘engage’ stand visitors to play along, which could be excruciating), so a ‘cut to the chase’ strategy appears to pay dividends during online presentations.

Most companies also seem to have grasped that having a myriad number of presenters chipping in and talking over each other doesn’t work in the virtual realm, especially when we’re often pushing our home broadband to its limits (or in the case of one buyer I was told about this week, his nan’s broadband).

To be fair, I’m sure that many retailers reading this will have attended far more virtual previews than the Toy World team, so I’m curious to know how you have found the experience. What worked well? What could companies have done better? What should be avoided at all costs? All feedback gratefully received, because I have a sneaking suspicion that virtual previews aren’t going away any time soon – not that I see them replacing physical trade shows and previews at all, but I can see a future where the two strands complement each other to offer a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario.

On the subject of Toy Fairs, the BTHA will be opening the booking process for Toy Fair 2022 towards the end of March. Deposit payments have been reduced and will be fully refunded should the show not be able to take place, while space costs have been frozen – all of which is tremendously reassuring for exhibitors. And even though the show couldn’t run this year, it was great to see that the Toy Trust Media Auction still raised a fantastic £72,000 for the Toy Trust – a great start to the year’s fundraising efforts that will enable it to support many small UK charities again this year, which is more important than ever in the current climate.

In the meantime, suppliers are discovering other tangible benefits to the creation of virtual previews: many suppliers are a long way further forward with assets than they would traditionally be at this stage of the year. Lifestyle images and brand decks are ready to be used in marketing activity or to support online sellers. We have heard the phrase “Sorry, we don’t have any images available yet” a lot less frequently this year.

And as I have alluded to previously, the fact that people are at their desks for the whole of January and February has delivered the added bonus of moving dialogue forward a little earlier than usual. I’m told that some large retailers are already ‘done and dusted’ for autumn winter, which – if true – is a lot earlier than we’ve seen for a while.

Conversely, there is a contingent of buyers who remain on furlough; I’ve certainly heard of department store and garden centre buyers, as well as London-based toy store teams, who are not yet back in the saddle. On the assumption these buyers didn’t manage to finalise their autumn winter selections before they started furlough, this could extend the selection period beyond its traditional parameters – another tick in the virtual preview box. When those buyers return, they can catch up on what they missed via the virtual presentations, which will make their lives a whole lot easier.

Once stores are given the green light to re-open, there should hopefully be plenty of pent-up consumer demand to get them off to a strong start – and retailers will want their shelves to be looking full and attractive. No-one wants to return to shopping in-store only to find that it resembles a Polish supermarket from the 1980s. All of which points to this month being the lull before the storm in terms of order writing– hopefully those retailers with an online presence will be able to use the lockdown period to move through any excess Christmas stock, so they can present a fresh, reinvigorated retail offering when the doors are flung open once more.

If you’re looking for inspiration on new lines to excite your customers, may I humbly point you in the direction of our February issue, which landed on desks earlier this week. It features all the latest news, a host of exciting new products and a selection of new companies entering the UK toy market this year. And with sustainability continuing to be a hot topic with consumers, the issue includes our first-ever dedicated Green section, focusing on some great eco-friendly companies, brands, products and initiatives. Judging by the engagement the Green section has generated across our social media channels this week, there seems to be a growing enthusiasm to embrace eco-friendly, sustainable principles. It’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day: preparing the toy industry for a greener future is very much a journey, but every journey has to start somewhere. As the great Sam Cooke once sang: “A change is gonna come” …that change is undoubtedly underway, and I have no doubt that we’ll be returning to the subject regularly in the future.

But for now, it’s back to zoom to see if anyone has managed to crack the ‘how to end a zoom call with a flourish’ conundrum…maybe we could take inspiration from the world of movies and run a blooper/ outtake reel to bring proceedings to a close…?!