4 March 2020
After a Tough 2019, the UK Toy Industry Hopes for a Far Better 2020
With the 2020 Toy Fair closing its doors shortly before the coronavirus arrived in London, exhibitors and attendees had, perhaps, somewhat misplaced hopes that the next 12 months might actually prove a little less trying than the last year…
The dying days of January saw thousands of UK toy companies and retail buyers, as well as a smattering of bloggers, influencers and celebrities, packed into London Olympia to see the latest toys, games and gadgets that kids – and kidults – will be clamouring to get their hands on this year. It could only be the 67th London Toy Fair.
In line with most recent toy shows, the show arguably felt slightly quieter than usual, especially on the last day. When pressed as to which buyers hadn't turned up, about the only name that any exhibitor proffered, however, was Debenhams, the currently beleaguered UK-based department store chain. In many cases, there seemed a sense of relief over the retailer's lack of any presence, as it removed the chance of possibly awkward conversations with regard to supplying a company that couldn't be credit-insured.
A few attendees also noted that several major accounts had sent smaller teams this year and that a number of the majors had spent less time at the show. The absence of huge delegations from certain licensing companies was also seen as a sign of the times.
In the case of Toymaster, the independent toy retail buying group, it maintained that 75 of its members – including "all the main ones" – were present, representing only a very small decline compared with last year's total. So, assuming it's fair to rate a show on the quality of buyers seen rather than the quantity (and let's be honest, there are simply fewer accounts around than there were a few years ago) and the quality of the meetings themselves, the event could certainly be judged a success.
Considering the bruising 2019 that many UK toy companies experienced, the overall mood at the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, a mixture of relief that the past 12 months was now firmly behind us and cautious optimism that 2020 would surely be a better year. Putting things into perspective, the annual review of the previous year's trading – as offered by NPD, the New York-headquartered market-research group – was sobering on a number of levels.
On the positive side, despite an incredibly tough year, the UK toy market still emerged as the biggest in Europe, although Germany is now closer behind than ever. In terms of the strongest performing categories, action figures achieved 9% growth, while board games and puzzles enjoyed a 1% increase. Collectibles also continued to perform strongly, with sales equivalent to 21% of all toys sold.
Given the brutal trading environment, a 6% drop in both sales volume and value – the third consecutive year there has been such a decline – was not unexpected. Furthermore, the continued concentration of sales at the very end of the year offered considerable food for thought, with £1 in every £10 spent across the whole year coming in weeks 51 and 52.
Looking at the calendar, that trend could reasonably be expected to continue this year, with the majority of UK residents set to break for Christmas on Friday 18 December, leaving them a full week of shopping before the big day. Inevitably, many consumers will feel that gives them plenty of time to make their festive purchases and will feel comfortable about leaving it all until the last minute once again.
Whether suppliers and retailers will feel equally comfortable about such a huge volume of sales once again going through that late in the year is another matter entirely. Logistics managers and teams, no doubt, will already be expecting a frantic year-end. On the plus side, it appeared that retailers didn't over-commit to stock in the run-up to Christmas 2019, allowing many suppliers to start 2020 with a reasonably healthy order book. In fact, NPD reported there was a 7% sales increase in week two. While that's not something to get carried away over just yet, it is at least a start.
Another noticeable statistic provided by the company was that 37% of the toys purchased in the UK were bought as part of a promotion, up from 34% the year before. Without such promotions, it seems likely the market would have suffered a double-digit drop. It is this fierce promotional landscape that is seen as making the UK such a deeply challenging and competitive market. Indeed, it has been recently suggested that the UK is possibly the world's most competitive market when it comes to pricing and that even some suppliers that have comfortably worked with the notoriously difficult Walmart have struggled to find success within it.
Less problematic was the announcement of the winners of the UK Toy of the Year Awards. This saw MGA Entertainment's behemoth collectible brand L.O.L. Surprise! awarded Doll of the Year, while the company also took the overall Toy of the Year accolade for its 2-in-1 Glamper Fashion Camper.
At this very show a year ago, a number of people loudly predicted that L.O.L. had passed its peak and would struggle to get anywhere near the numbers it had enjoyed in the previous year. This year, those same people were keeping rather quiet.
Among the other awards were successes for the collectible brand Goo-Jit-Zu; Lego's Harry Potter Knight Bus; Nerf; Funko; Mattel's Pictionary Air game; Zuru's Rainbocorns and Boppi the Booty Shakin' Llama, and Mattel's Toy Story range. Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, meanwhile, were joint recipients of the Licence of the Year Award, while Global Supplier of the Year went to Spin Master. The latter also launched its new DC Batman master toy collection on the opening day of the show – complete with an appearance by Batman and his Batmobile – in the custom-built Gotham Café. In a further accolade, UK Supplier of the Year went to Orchard Toys, a Nottingham-based specialist in educational recreation.
On the retail side, Smyths took the trophy as overall 2019 Toy Retailer of the Year, while the Very Group, B&M Stores, Thomas Moore, Toy Barnhaus and W J Daniel were all recognised with individual awards. Overall, the presentation was seen as a vivid testimony to the diversity of the UK toy sector.
Away from awards, sustainability was clearly high on the agenda for many exhibitors, with a substantial number of companies keen to highlight their progress when it came to addressing the widespread concern over the volume of single-use plastic packaging and virgin materials the toy industry has traditionally relied upon. Indeed, placards could be seen adjacent to numerous ranges extolling their environmental credentials – from 100% recycled PET filling in plush ranges to innovative packaging that becomes part of the play experience (and therefore doesn't go straight in the bin).
While sustainability and tips for top 2020 toys accounted for much of the chat across the show floor, the changes announced for the 2021 Toy Fair also occasioned a degree of speculation among attendees and exhibitors alike. With this year marking the start of the long-awaited Olympia renovation project, this will see the Toy Show have an entirely new layout next year.
The general consensus, though, was that staying with the venue during the course of its estimated three-year transformation was by far the best option on offer. With Olympia looking set to be a truly world-class venue when the process is complete, the UK toy industry seems willing to put up with a little short-term inconvenience, confident it will all be worth it in the end.
The 2020 London Toy Show took place from 21-23 January at London Olympia.
John Baulch is the Publisher of Toy World,
the UK's leading toys and games trade publication