Yeah right, pull the other one…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 26th March 2021

Salespeople can be extremely creative when they need to be – for instance, when they need to explain to a retailer why their order hasn’t been delivered. When my wife was a buyer, her favourite ‘excuse’ was that a ship had inadvertently sailed the wrong way round the world, resulting in a later arrival for the products than had been promised. That was certainly a great example of someone thinking on their feet.

Fast forward several decades and I would imagine buyers and suppliers have been having many conversations along similar lines recently. From what I am hearing, quite a few product shipments have been delayed, as a perfect storm has hit the shipping industry – and in some cases, a literal storm.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the news of the giant cargo ship stranded in the Suez Canal this week. If you have somehow contrived to miss the story, a meme at the end of this Blog will give you a handy visual representation of the problem. I am aware of at least one toy company which has a 40-foot container on the stricken ship – and there may well be more. I just wonder if buyers will believe it when they’re told that’s why their delivery is running late, or whether they will be as sceptical as Anita was when told about the ship sailing the wrong way. I am waiting for the first retailer to reply: “Yeah right, pull the other one.”

Being stuck in the Suez may well be the most surreal fate for containers so far this year, but there have been plenty of other potential hazards and obstacles – and that’s if you can get a container in the first place and are prepared to pay the exorbitant rates that have been charged since the turn of the year. Believe it or not, our most read story of the week focused on the recent spate of containers dropping off ships into the sea – who knew that the toy community was so fascinated by things bobbing around in the briny?

Although it is no joking matter – apparently more containers have dropped into the sea in the first quarter than in the whole of 2020. It could be purely coincidental, but equally it could be the result of older containers being pressed into service due to container shortages, coupled with inclement weather hitting shipping routes (the literal perfect storm I referred to earlier). Either way, these logistics challenges are certainly not helping the smooth flow of goods across the globe, and no-one needs any additional impediments to trade right now.

Another potential spanner in the logistics works could come in the form of France being added to the ‘red list’ of countries, which would require quarantine for anyone arriving on our shores. That would surely have a significant impact on lorries using the Calais to Dover crossing, so it’s certainly something to keep an eye on in the coming days. Indeed, far from being over, the Covid saga rumbles on across the globe, with unpredictable twists and turns on a daily basis: this week has seen Hong Kong suspend vaccinations after a batch was deemed to have been supplied in potentially faulty vials, while Germany has been playing the Hokey-Cokey lockdown game – one day it was announced that the country would face a 5-day shutdown at Easter, the next day it was called off, with Chancellor Angela Merkel taking personal responsibility for the volte face after widespread criticism from religious leaders and retailers (who clearly have far more clout in Germany than they do here in the UK).

There has also been considerable speculation this week as to when Brits might be allowed to fly abroad; most conversations have centered around the ability to travel abroad for holidays, although there is clearly a knock-on effect for international business travelers who don’t meet the current stringent criteria to be deemed ‘essential travel’ (i.e. the vast majority of us). Some believe that come the end of May, restrictions will be unilaterally lifted, while I have also seen more cautious predictions, suggesting that we won’t realistically be allowed to fly abroad until the autumn.

All of this serves to underline one key point: that making firm plans remains extremely difficult, and uncertainty will remain the order of the day for a while yet. Travel plans are especially fraught with difficulty: when a country can be added to the ‘red list’ at short notice, and lockdowns can be announced and cancelled in the blink of an eye, it’s not easy to plan to a trip to visit international customers or trade shows.

It’s likely to be a few more months’ before we get clarity on many of these points. In the short term, we only have to wait a little over two weeks until stores re-open here in the UK. Independent stores located in smaller towns will be heartened by the recent Barclaycard survey which suggested that more than nine out of 10 of people who have been shopping locally during the pandemic say they will continue to do so. Conversely, we now know the locations of the eight John Lewis stores which will not be re-opening, including four full-size department stores. Not just a blow to the John Lewis staff involved, but potentially to other stores situated close to the affected branches – with Debenhams already gone and John Lewis cutting back to only 34 stores nationwide, many High Streets have lost powerful footfall drivers.

Let’s just hope that pent-up consumer demand for toys, and for visiting physical stores in general, sees a healthy surge of customers after 12th April. We don’t have long to wait now. And with any luck, shelves and aisles across the land will be replete with exciting new lines that have somehow avoided all the bear traps and managed to make it to our shores.

Above all, fingers crossed that they manage to free that bloody ship in the Suez Canal soon…