For those of you who are thinking "I know that face," I have been involved with the toy trade press in the UK for the past 30 years. Last year saw some major changes in my world; I left the magazine which I’d worked for since 1983 (yes, I know that you get less time for murder!) to launch my own toy magazine, Toy World. Our first edition was published in September, and since then my working life has been a whirlwind – but a thoroughly enjoyable one. I worked with Richard "in my previous life" and after meeting up again in Hong Kong, we both agreed that it was high time we rekindled our collaboration. So from time to time I’ll be bringing you news from the UK, and giving you a flavor of what’s happening in the toy world on the other side of the Atlantic.
It has certainly been an interesting start to the year. Like many Americans, a significant number of toy trade "Brits" also decamp to Hong Kong as soon as the New Year is upon us; this trip is followed swiftly by our own Toy Fair and then Nuremberg, before some lucky individuals round things off with a trip to New York. Six weeks – four dedicated toy shows. Six weeks in which the template for the year is set. The mood in the run-up to Christmas was reasonably good; the UK actually enjoyed a relatively successful festive trading period, and ended the year 3% up at just under £3 billion. This was a highly satisfactory result, especially when compared to general non-food trading results in the UK (which increased 0.2%). The performance also compared favorably with other European territories. Perhaps most importantly, the retail trade appears to have finished the year with little stock carry-over, which always gets the year off to a good start.
These, then, were the positives. But it would be disingenuous not to consider the other side of the coin: general economic woes in Europe, driven by the Greek debt crisis, are not going away any time soon (and that, in a nutshell, is why you won’t be seeing the UK adopt the Euro any time soon!); UK unemployment continues to grow and the austerity measures which the government has put in place are having a significant impact on the level of disposable income and, ultimately, customers’ spending habits. On an industry-specific level, aggressive price reductions on toys – mainly from grocery accounts – throughout the pre-Christmas period presented many specialist toy retailers with the difficult challenge of actually making a profit by selling toys.
In truth, we entered 2012 not quite knowing what to expect. So the positive mood that pervaded each of the early year shows was an extremely pleasant surprise. Following a successful week in Hong Kong, the UK Toy Fair was thoroughly buoyant and buzzing, mirroring Richard’s observations of the New York Toy Fair. Nuremberg, too, seemed to have a very positive feel to it.
I’ve had numerous conversations with dozens of people over the past couple of months, trying to fathom why this should be the case – especially when the consumer media is full of tales of retail doom and gloom – and there were too many theories to list here.
There is clearly a long way to go yet, and no doubt there will be many twists and turns before the year’s end. But the UK has the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the Olympics to look forward to this year, and the hope is that the "feelgood factor" engendered by these historic events will outweigh the short-term economic concerns that consumers feel, and keep the toy market moving in the right direction.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that a good toy will always sell, regardless of the prevailing economic conditions. And I saw a lot of good toys during Toy Fair season. Now we’re waiting for the major retailers to confirm their selections for the year, so toy suppliers can plan accordingly.
It’s a nervy period, and the next few weeks will be "make or break" for many of the new lines unveiled at the Fairs. To use an Olympic analogy (which seems appropriate ), the trade is waiting at the starting line; all we need now is someone to fire the gun.