Your flexible friend …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 22nd January 2021

This week should have seen the UK toy community heading en masse to Olympia for the London Toy Fair. My Facebook memories over the past few days have all involved a table at Sticky Fingers covered with cocktails for some inexplicable reason. I have seen numerous social media posts from industry friends saying how much they are missing the chance to catch up with the wider toy community, and I can only echo that sentiment. This would have been my 41st consecutive London Toy Fair: I’m sad that run has been broken, but I’m sure we’re all looking forward to returning next year.

In the meantime, everyone seems to be moving forward with the planning sessions and conversations that will shape this year’s business: my zoom diary next week is looking rather full already (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d say). Interestingly, as members of the global toy community aren’t spending between one and four weeks away from their desks this January, I am finding that many plans are coming together slightly quicker than in previous years.

Although they couldn’t be unveiled at Toy Fair as usual, it was still good to announce both the Toy of the Year and Retailer of the Year Awards in their traditional time slot this week – albeit both the TRA and BTHA decided to approach their respective awards in a very different way this time round. The customary retail awards were replaced by Superhero awards, acknowledging retailers who went the extra mile last year, celebrating altruism and innovation rather than volume of sales. Meanwhile the Toy of the Year awards also changed tack, choosing to honour those companies and brands which helped to keep UK families happy and entertained during the pandemic. I am sure that normal service will be resumed next year, but these felt like very logical modifications in the current climate. Congratulations to all the winners – they can be proud of what they achieved last year, and it is great that their efforts have been recognised.

The award lists weren’t the only reminders of what would have been happening at Toy Fair over the past few days: the BTHA also unveiled its annual media auction, which raises valuable funds for the Toy Trust, while our January issue served as a handy pointer to all the fantastic new products which visitors would have seen at the show. Nothing can replace the physical experience, but toy trade life must go on. Buyers still need to buy – and they are.

Speaking to a selection of retailers this week, the mood is refreshingly upbeat – when a retail contributor apologises for sending their column in late because they have been too busy to focus on it, that can only be a good sign. We also ran a story about Panini’s Premier League sticker collection being in high demand: you might have assumed that sticker and collectibles sales would be impacted by stores being closed, so it just goes to show that where there’s a will, there’s a way. According to Panini’s toy channel distributor, Click Distributions’ Mark Hillier: “It is good to see how so many of our retail partners have adapted to the restrictions and are selling full boxes and the higher priced SKUs through their online capabilities and click & collect.” And there you have it in a nutshell: retailers continue to adapt and be nimble in order to find a way through the prevailing retail landscape, just as they did last year.

Of course, it is not all plain sailing – Brexit is turning out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’m still waiting for the sunlit uplands that we were promised (or even someone to give me one tangible benefit from the whole sorry mess), but in the meantime, the reality of what ‘we’ voted for is hitting home for so many UK companies and consumers. This week we saw the seismic effect it is having on small sellers on online platforms such as Amazon and eBay: the extra charges now levied are resulting in many sellers being uncompetitive and losing EU orders hand over fist.

Some suppliers are even struggling to persuade principals to send samples over from the EU. One received an email which said: “Basically, it is very difficult at the moment to send products to the UK – even more if they are free products.”

Of course, not all current trading challenges relate to Brexit: astronomical shipping costs are putting increasing pressure on suppliers to raise prices, despite the obvious pitfalls of going down that particular route. The subject made the BBC News this week, and while that specific story focused on outdoor toys, the reality is that all toy categories are at risk, especially when you factor in the rising cost of raw materials and labour in China, together with the strengthening of the RMB against the US dollar in recent weeks – the perfect storm. The person interviewed by the BBC (Rebo’s James Owen) even suggested that he may need to look at making more product in the UK if the situation escalates further, thus turning 40 years of understanding how the toy trade works on its head in one fell swoop. Maybe this was the government’s plan all along? (Narrator: “This wasn’t the government’s plan. There was no plan – cunning or otherwise.”).

Hopefully the toy community has time to address some of these challenges before we reach peak season. Whether they are teething troubles or simply the way it is going to be from now on, each company will have to identify the best route through for its own business model – whether that be taking on new members of staff purely to process the reams of extra paperwork (is that a tangible benefit…more jobs for pen pushers?) or finding new markets to replace ones which may no longer be viable. As one supplier said to me: “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to sell and buy.”

And on that philosophical bombshell, it’s time to get back to making plans and continuing dialogue about our forthcoming issues. Because just as specialist toy retailers and collectibles suppliers are finding, no matter how counter-intuitive it might seem, the toy media business is mirroring the toy market itself… there are plenty of opportunities (providing you know what you’re doing and are prepared to adapt and be flexible).