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UK Toy Fair Weathers Nuremberg Clash with Lively Industry Turnout

Despite widespread fears over a clash of dates with its far larger German rival, the UK Toy Show proved a resounding success, perhaps in recognition of the impressive growth of the UK toy market, now said to be the largest in Europe.

Photo: Toy town: London welcomes 2016’s recreational recruits.
Toy town: London welcomes 2016's recreational recruits.
Photo: Toy town: London welcomes 2016’s recreational recruits.
Toy town: London welcomes 2016's recreational recruits.

Established trade shows tend to occupy a regular position in the calendar each year, especially – as is the case with the toy industry – when a number of such events traditionally take place across the globe in quick succession. Almost as soon as the New Year celebrations have ended, the global toy community embarks on a rigorous schedule that, for many people, involves visiting four major international toy shows in three continents over a six-week period. If one show moves its dates – even slightly – the knock-on effect for the other events can be significant.

Such was the case this year, when the dates of the Nuremberg Toy Fair went out of sync, resulting in a potential date clash with the UK Toy Fair. Given the sheer size and scope of the Nuremberg event – 2,851 exhibitors and more than 70,000 visitors from 125 countries – it was always going to be down to the British show to surrender to the inevitable.

The upshot was that the UK Toy Fair managed to change its dates – moving forward by three days in the calendar – a shift that resulted in the show starting on a Sunday rather than a Tuesday. The Fair abandoned the idea of running over a weekend around a decade ago, a response to a widely held belief that major retail buyers were reluctant to work on either a Saturday or Sunday.

As the attendance of major buyers is crucial to the success of the show for many exhibitors – and as many independent retailers now open on a Sunday in the UK, a trend which has become more prevalent over the past decade – the show moved away from a weekend to a weekday slot with what seemed to be near-unanimous approval.

However, this was not going to be possible without creating a head-on clash with Nuremberg this year, which would have caused untold problems for both exhibitors and visitors. So, even though new dates were successfully found, there was still concern as to what impact the change would have. After much debate ahead of the event, it's heartening to report that this year's London Toy Fair was an unqualified success.

Photo: Plushed with success.
Plushed with success.
Photo: Plushed with success.
Plushed with success.
Photo: UK’s top toy: Lego Minifigures.
UK's top toy: Lego Minifigures.
Photo: UK’s top toy: Lego Minifigures.
UK's top toy: Lego Minifigures.

Any concerns that the new date configuration would result in a decrease in retail attendance proved to be unfounded. Monday was absolutely packed – one of the busiest days at the Toy Fair for a long time – while both Sunday and Tuesday surpassed most people's expectations (providing, of course, that those expectations were reasonable in the first place). Buyers from many of the major accounts, including Smyths, Tesco, Toys "R" Us and Shop Direct, all disproved the theory about major buyers not wanting to work on a Sunday. There was also a good crop of independent retailers in attendance, perhaps because some found it easier to get cover for their store at a weekend.

As for Tuesday, the predicted mass exodus to Nuremberg – which opened the following day – wasn't as dramatic as feared. Although some buyers and suppliers departed early, most stands were still reasonably busy right up until the show closed on the last afternoon.

While Monday was comfortably the busiest day, the important point is that retail attendance on both other days was solid. Ultimately, that is what really matters, far more so than aisles full of people who aren't there to buy or select product. There are many other people who are part of the wider toy community for whom the show acts as an invaluable staging post, and they have a significant part to play in creating a positive atmosphere (as we saw on Monday). In the end, though, it is the retail attendance that essentially makes or breaks the show – after all, that is what the exhibitors are ultimately paying for.

Of course, it helps massively if those retailers are also in a positive frame of mind. Given the fact that NPD, the global market research consultancy, revealed on the eve of the fair that the UK had overtaken Germany in 2015 to become the largest European toy market, growing by 6% in the process, it was perhaps no surprise that retailers seemed optimistic about the year ahead.

The British Toy Industry is now valued at £3.2 billion, an increase of £150 million year-on-year. More than 58,000 new toys were launched last year, equating to 31% of UK toy sales, or £1 billion at retail. The fact that almost a third of sales came from new lines emphasises the importance of the shows. It's a fast-moving, ever-evolving market, and it's essential for retailers to keep fully abreast of new developments in order to help maximise the commercial opportunities and deliver the products that consumers want to buy. As toys are the kind of product that you ideally want to see and touch, the concept of virtual shows is unlikely to ever work in this particular market.

The UK toy market's second consecutive year of growth was driven partly by 2015 being a vintage year for strong film licences, with Star Wars, Minions, Avengers and Jurassic World all playing their part. In fact, last year saw the global cinema box office revenue break the £26.8 billion mark, making 2015 the highest earning year in movie history. This box office success drove a 27% increase in movie-related toy sales, with that figure having increased by a staggering 89% since 2013. The increase was also helped by the continuing success of Frozen, which was once again the number one toy licence in 2015. Whether it can manage this feat for a third consecutive year, though, is very much open to debate.

On average, 38 toys per child were purchased in the UK last year, with 11 of these being Christmas gifts and stocking fillers. It is unsurprising that December proved to be a massive month for toys, accounting for 26% of annual sales. Some retailers reported late buying patterns with shoppers leaving purchases until the last minute, which resulted in shortages of a few popular toys, a casualty of the fact that it has become ever harder to predict stock levels as Christmas shopping patterns change.

The strongest sectors for growth in the UK in 2015 were action figures (+20%), building sets (+14%) and plush (+14%), while the best-selling range was Lego's Minifigures.

Everyone in the UK toy community, though, was relieved to hear that the date configuration returns to normal next year, when the London Toy Fair will run from Tuesday 24 January to Thursday 26 January, allowing six clear days before Nuremberg starts on 1 February. This will undoubtedly make the 2017 Toy Fair season just that little less challenging, a welcome development for all concerned.

Photo: Back to normal scheduling in 2017: The UK Toy Fair.
Back to normal scheduling in 2017: The UK Toy Fair.
Photo: Back to normal scheduling in 2017: The UK Toy Fair.
Back to normal scheduling in 2017: The UK Toy Fair.

The UK Toy Fair 2016 took place at London's Kensington Olympia from 24-26 January.

John Baulch, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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