When your world is full of strange arrangements…. it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 12th June 2020

It’s almost as if ABC’s Martin Fry had a time machine when he wrote the opening line to The Look of Love, which begat this week’s Blog title. I am sure that most of our worlds are full of very strange arrangements right now: the 30 second commute from the bathroom to the home office, the zoom calls that may or may not feature a goat (seriously, it’s a thing – livens up even the dullest meeting), putting on a mask to go shopping, queues to match peak holiday lines at Disney World everywhere you go, kids who can go to a zoo but can’t go to school …if a time traveller turned up from January, they’d wonder how on earth things could have changed so dramatically in such a short space of time.

Thankfully, some tiny semblance of normality is beginning to return to our world. With stores starting to re-open across the UK in a matter of days, hopefully this will mark a turning point on the road to retail recovery. There have certainly been encouraging signs from those countries which have been able to re-open retail stores ahead of us. Overall, UK toy sales have held up surprisingly well during lockdown: it’s true that there have been winners and losers, both in terms of companies and categories, but we really can’t grumble. When you consider the wider economic damage caused by the pandemic – the US has added $1 trillion of debt in just 40 days, while the UK economy shrunk by 20% in April, the largest monthly contraction on record – then we’ve got off lightly. As a community, we’re a bit battered and bruised in places, but largely unscathed…so far.

Preparations for shops to re-open to the public have been underway for weeks: there will certainly be some strange arrangements waiting to greet consumers in-store. We’ve been speaking to a host of retailers and buying groups to hear how they’re planning to emerge from lockdown – you’ll be able to read all about that in our July issue (wait until you find out about Sally the social-distancing Spinosaurus and her special sanitising station – truly a stroke of genius!). From fewer FSDUs – especially in smaller indie stores – to trestle tables at the entrance for a store owner to conduct transactions or even retailers who are prepared to open their stores outside normal trading hours to allow individual customers to shop safely, I think it’s fair to say that our January time traveller would find a very different toy store experience to the one they were accustomed to.

High Streets will look a little different too: in my local town of Watford, the Debenhams store has closed permanently. The store was hailed as a glimpse into the future of Debenhams when it opened in September 2018 as part of a £180m extension of the Intu centre. Fast forward a mere 18 months and it is indeed sadly indicative of the future of Debenhams: the retailer has been unable to reach an agreement with Intu over rent and the flagship store has been well and truly scuppered. I can’t imagine how many millions have effectively been poured down the drain because the two parties weren’t able to reach a compromise; it shows just how brutal some landlord / tenant negotiations are going to be in the coming months. But then I guess if you are over £4bn in debt as Intu is, you need to play a bit of hard ball.

It has just been revealed that the Fenwick and Bentalls department store group has resigned from Toymaster. You can read precisely what Toymaster has to say about it here. On this occasion, there is literally nothing for me to add.

It’s not just in-store where our mythical January time traveller would find things have changed beyond all recognition. What is going to happen with trade shows? With three UK-based events scheduled to take place in September (Toymaster, Autumn Fair and AIS), the time is fast approaching when decisions will have to be made as to whether they can go ahead as planned. I completely understand why each organiser wants to leave it as late as possible, but there comes a point when a final call will need to be made. French gift show Maison & Objet is the latest September show to take the decision to cancel.

The organisers of all three UK events are faced with tough choices: go ahead with a smaller show which would almost certainly turn out to be less well attended than usual, scrap it altogether (with all the attendant financial losses) or hope that things change sufficiently in the next few months to allow a half-decent event to happen. I totally understand why they would choose the ‘hope’ option. With any luck, there will be a way to take some of these events forward, but if they do happen, they will surely look very different this time round.

It’s not just UK trade events which are being affected: we’ve received plenty of feedback to the question of whether people will be heading to Hong Kong this October. Out in the lead currently is ‘Not sure, we’re leaving it as late as possible to make a decision’ (do you see a theme emerging here?), followed closely by ‘No, I’ll be zooming instead’ and ‘Absolutely – if I can.” The word ‘if’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that phrase: as things currently stand, the travel ban precludes visitors to Hong Kong, nor will corporate insurance cover you for any trip, at least until the Foreign Office changes its stance on international travel and maybe even beyond. I am not sure I’d want to take a trip without travel insurance in the current climate. As well as the Hong Kong trip being under threat, given the situation in the US, how many international visitors will realistically fancy a trip to LA this October? At least LA is largely held at company’s regular premises: I wonder how the situation in Hong Kong is affecting tenancy renewals in TST? Companies fund permanent showrooms by amortising the cost over several trips – do they remain cost-effective if it just comes down to one trip in January?

That said, one of the many challenges of replacing trade shows and face-to-face meetings with zoom calls (goat or no goat) is that seeing and handling a product, literally feeling the quality and checking it actually works, is a huge part of the toy buying process. Waving a new line around in front of your laptop camera isn’t quite going to replicate that experience. I am sure the industry is full of scrupulously honest and decent salespeople, with no charlatans to be found, but even so, it’s nice to handle the merchandise just to be on the safe side.

So, good luck to all those opening their doors for the first time in a while next week – it will be fascinating to see how quickly shoppers return, and interesting to see what impact lockdown has had on their finances and how it will affect their buying behaviour. But at least we are finally moving forward – onwards and upwards people, onwards and upwards.