You had one job…it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 28th August 2020

We may be approaching the tail end of summer, but the toy community’s collective thoughts have already turned to the ‘business end’ of the toy year. The first half of the year has been far better than many would have anticipated given the circumstances, but we all know how important the next four months will be in determining how the year will ultimately be remembered (from a trading perspective at least).

Normally, this time of the year is dominated by conversations about how ‘early reads’ from the Argos catalogue are shaping up. Of course, this year there is no catalogue – and several suppliers have been in touch this week, concerned that their year-on-year Argos sales have seen a significant decline over the past month. Naturally, their suspicion is that the absence of the ‘laminated book of dreams’ has resulted in dampened sales. I’d be curious to hear from other suppliers as to whether they’ve noticed the same trend. It would be a shame after the fantastic start to the year that Argos has enjoyed, but equally it would be perfectly logical to expect initial sales to be slower without a catalogue to stimulate demand for new items. Of course, many suppliers used to run advertising campaigns when the catalogue was launched to drive early sales, in the hope that this would result in greater stock ordering for the festive season – not just by Argos, but all other toy retailers. With no catalogue to focus marketing activity around, perhaps there have been fewer July marketing campaigns this year – could that also have impacted the numbers? It will certainly be interesting to keep an eye on the situation.

On the positive side, there have been several good news retail stories in recent weeks, with ecommerce playing a key role in most of them: etailer Very’s annual revenue has exceeded £2b for the first time, with a return to profit expected to follow, while Studio Retail saw revenues rise 42% to the end of March, with toys singled out as one of the key drivers of this excellent performance. Meanwhile Tesco has announced that it will be creating 16,000 new jobs, principally to support growth in its online business.

By way of contrast, it’s sad to see that the department store sector continues to struggle. Fenwick’s annual loss deepened to £49m – and that was only up to 31st January. Unfortunately, Toymaster’s Ian Edmunds was unavailable for comment. Elsewhere, Jarrold made 90 people redundant this week, including CEO Minnie Moll (is it just me that thinks she sounds like the latest collectible doll or a rapper…). Jarrold has some great toy departments, so I hope toy sales have at least managed to hold up despite the retailer’s wider challenges. And as for Hamleys…. I received another ‘on the spot’ report from someone in the toy industry this week, who had popped in for a store visit. Looking at his pictures, I asked him whether he had arranged for a private visit with all other customers banned, like a modern-day Michael Jackson. Given the visit took place on a weekday lunchtime, the shots of empty aisles were a sad reminder that, for now at least, central London remains a pale shadow of its former self.

Hamleys owner Reliance Brands appears not to be too disheartened, as it has promised extensive funds to refurbish the Regents Street store, as well as opening new stores or pop-up concessions in Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.  However, the chief executive of Reliance Brands won’t be drawn on a monetary figure for the investment, simply saying the sum will be “worthy of a brand that is 260 years old.” It’s possible that he may have been talking lessons in obfuscation from our government – if it all goes wrong, he will probably end up blaming a ‘mutant algorithm’. I think most would agree that the Regents Street store is in need of a good ‘wash and brush up’ at very least, so hopefully the investment will be forthcoming sooner rather than later.

We also reported on the sad loss of a couple of industry stalwarts this week – Martin Ingram and Wilf Shorrocks. I have personal reason to be grateful to Wilf. He played a valuable role in my toy trade career – in fact, if it wasn’t for him, Toy World may never have existed. In 1982, I was working at Toy Trader magazine and, being completely honest, not enjoying it. I had started to look around for another job, which would almost certainly have been outside publishing and not connected to the toy trade. Wilf’s company Acamas Toys had arranged a launch for a new product called Urlup – a twist on the classic spinning top. The event was on a Saturday at the Café Royal in London. As it took place at the weekend, neither of the Toy Trader editors were keen to go, so I was sent along to represent the magazine. Also present at that event was Malcolm Naish, who had originally hired me at Toy Trader, but had left a few months later to set up his own magazine. We chatted at the event, and on the following Monday, he called me to offer me a job. As I was on the verge of leaving Toy Trader anyway, I figured I may as well give it a try. The rest, as they say, is history. Rest in peace Wilf – and thanks.

Finally, I’ve suggested in previous Blogs that the John Lewis ‘Never knowingly undersold’ promise was an anachronism no longer suited to the times. So, I wasn’t remotely surprised to hear that the retailer will be replacing it with a new slogan later this year – it will be interesting to see what they come up with. Hopefully, they don’t entrust it to the person in charge of the Official Greenwich Council twitter account, who sent a tweet to encourage people to visit the Icon shopping outlet at the O2 as part of the borough’s ‘Royal Greenwich – it’s time’ festival. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the message – “Shop ‘til you drop at Icon Outlet” – was necessarily the ideal slogan to attract shoppers during a pandemic. You had one job…