Are we ready for good news? Well, let me try to find some bright spots to focus on from this week’s developments in the toy business and beyond. First, the desperately inept government of the past six weeks appears to have been replaced by a calmer version, with the pound and financial markets recovering slightly as a result. Consumers might not have been fully aware of the potential effect on store prices if the pound hadn’t rebounded quickly, but suppliers and retailers certainly were – and I’m sure a sigh of collective relief accompanied the recovery of the pound sterling. We’re not out of the woods yet, but the omens are much better than they were two weeks ago. Maybe we just need a period where safe, boring people are in charge for a while?
Even better news comes from the toy retail frontline, where I suspect mid-term sales have shown encouraging signs of recovery…finally. It’s always a good idea to be pragmatic when looking at what may happen as Christmas approaches, but at least there’s evidence to suggest that toy sales are finally heading in the right direction.
In other encouraging news, SMF Toytown opened its latest branch in Coventry yesterday – the 8,000 square foot branch is located on the first floor of a former Debenhams store, and the WhatsApp video Alan Simpson sent me the day before the store opened showed how impactful it looked . Hopefully, as I write this, the pristine shelves and aisles will have started to look well bought, and the new Coventry store will follow in the trajectory of the new Toytown store in Perth, which has exceptionally well traded since opening a month ago.
It’s the kind of place I think a lot of people in the toy community were planning to occupy at Toys R Us when it begins its retail rollout next year. Last week’s Blog had to be hastily rewritten on Friday morning, after the announcement of the Toys R Us reaches an agreement with WHSmith arrived in our inbox overnight. I wasn’t sure my take on the arrangement would match what others thought – but most of the feedback I’ve received this week suggests I wasn’t too far off capturing the general consensus.
On the contrary, some people were actually less optimistic about the partnership than I was, even though one of the big challenges for Toys R Us was the lack of obvious choices: Sainsbury’s has Argos, Tesco at The Entertainer, Asda has tried this approach and backtracked, and Morrisons is generally seen as too inconsistent and not focused enough on toys – when, above all, the department store channel is in a state of huge flux here in the UK . Debenhams would no doubt have been a logical option had it not closed down last year, especially when looking at the arrangement Toys R Us set up with Macy’s more in the United States. John Lewis was an option I thought plausible, but with only 34 stores open in the UK, maybe the long-term numbers didn’t match up for both parties? Waitrose was another potential candidate I had identified, with Wilko and The Range at the other end of the scale – although other people suggested they might be seen as too ‘low end’ ?
It will be interesting to see how Toys R Us approaches the range in the WHSmith trial; presumably there will be more focus on the sub-£10 and £10-£20 price points than across the whole online range, while some categories (games, puzzles, arts and crafts, STEM come to mind) would seem to make more sense than others. One of the big attractions of Toys R Us in its heyday was the sheer amount of choice it offered consumers – and, of course, the fact that it was an exciting outing for the whole family to visit. Will consumers always expect an experience like this? And what about the staff’s interaction with customers – that wasn’t always Toys R Us’ forte compared to the successful specialists that flourished in its wake, like Smyths and The Entertainer. Nonetheless, its staff’s commitment to customers was still above what one would traditionally expect in a WHSmith store. Still, they have plenty of time to work through these potential challenges to provide an experience that could ultimately benefit both partners.
Whichever direction Toys R Us chooses, maintaining a stand-alone retail range will take some time, despite the “waterfront” nature of the nine-store arrangement. And, of course, WHSmith will still need to maintain its toy buying team to cover the rest of its store base.
Toys R Us isn’t the only retailer to start considering a lineup for 2023 – the new Toymaster Selection Committee met this week to begin planning selections for next year. I guess there’s been a changing of the guard, with Carl Blatcher and Emma Dadswell joining Dave Middleton and Steve Hartfield on the team. Dave is disgusted that he is now the oldest member of the new, younger team – but at least he has some way to go to catch up with Paul Reader, who is now the Alex Ferguson figure on the selection committee of the ” 92″ class. At least Paul will appreciate the title of the blog this week…
Speaking of next year, if you haven’t planned your trips to the London and Nuremberg Toy Fairs, I’d add this to your pretty sharp to-do list – with plenty of hotels around the world operating always below capacity, rooms are scarce and prices are higher than they have ever been, especially in Nuremberg. While this is unavoidable and beyond anyone’s control, I think it’s a shame, as it can impact the size of teams retailers and toymakers decide to send. But with far fewer people likely to travel to Hong Kong in January, Nuremberg and London will be incredibly busy shows for retailers. All the more reason to make sure you have a strong presence at our preview editions of the Nuremberg and London Toy Fair – buyers’ schedules are going to be jam-packed and they need to know why they should add you to their list. These editions are already filling up quickly, so now is a good time to pick up the phone or email us to secure your places.
Finally, if you’re not planning a trip to Coventry in the near future, here’s a look at the new SMF Toytown store in all its cinematic glory: