My experience at the Dallas Fall Toy Preview was that the overall mood was “workmanlike”. While I can’t say that people were exactly upbeat, there wasn’t the pervasive sense of gloom that we’ve seen at the last few trade shows. Most people seemed to give off more of a sense of being survivors, of being beaten up but having made it through with the knowledge that the worst is over but that there are still some tough miles ahead.
In the weeks leading up to the show there was a lot of talk that Target and Wal-Mart (both extremely early price choppers this year) were not planning to attend. I hear that before every trade show and, as always, Target and Wal-Mart sent buyers although not their entire contingent. Even with that I still heard a lot of grumbling at the show despite the fact that most companies had very full dance cards. My sense is that those people and companies who were disappointed were so because they had a false set of expectations. If you go into Dallas thinking that you are going to write a Target order, I can guarantee you that you will be disappointed. This is a great show for getting retailer feedback about your offerings, giving you a chance to tweak product, packaging and assortments prior to the all important Hong Kong Toy and Gamers Fair in January. It’s also a great time to focus and have some quality meetings with second and third tier retailers. As one VP Sales said to me “even if Wal-Mart and Target weren’t here at all, I have the opportunity to meet with fifty customers in just three days. Where else would I want to be?”
With Wal-Mart de-emphasizing the toy aisle those second and third tier retailers are becoming more important. By stepping back, Wal-Mart has allowed other retailers to see opportunity in the toy business and many of them are responding aggressively. Toys ‘R’ Us is stepping into the malls with eighty pop-up stores. This will be their first year of doing this so their execution is a question mark but let’s face it, anything has got to be an improvement over the mess that was the KB Toys retail experience. Sears is testing getting back into the toy business and, if successful, will make a bigger commitment for 2010. Barnes and Noble and Borders, two retailers that definitely still get traffic, are putting a greater emphasis on toys and providing a lot more shelf space. I suspect that other retailers will follow suit now that they won’t have to compete with Wal-Mart pricing on as many products. Toy companies should be happy with the increased shelf space, diversification of customers, and the likely higher margins to be had from these retailers.
What toy companies should be complaining about is the lack of trade show support from toy behemoths Mattel, Hasbro and Lego. This lack of support has now spread to second tier players such as Jakks Pacific, Spinmaster and MGA. Certainly this makes business sense for larger companies as they know they will get their face time with the retailers. Obviously, they would prefer that buyers be totally focused on their product line rather than “distracted” by a hundred smaller competitors. Alright, I get it, but the toy industry may want to consider whether they want these large companies dominating the TIA board. Certainly, the TIA needs their dues but one of TIA’s main functions is to organize trade shows and industry events. In choosing not to support trade shows, these companies’ dominant place on the TIA board is a clear conflict of interest. One of a trade organization’s most important missions is to promote and protect the interests of it’s smaller and medium sized members. The big boys have the ability to fend for themselves.
In our isn’t that ironic file: Mattel has reached a settlement in twenty-two class action suits over their widespread product recalls in 2007. The recalls resulted in over-regulation which disproportionally affects small and medium size toymakers. While Mattel can amortize testing costs and manpower over a gazillion products sold; the smaller companies are hit much harder by testing costs, time to market and eyestrain (from having to wade through all those crazy new regs). Creativity has also been blunted because small companies can no longer produce a new and innovative product and take a flyer to see how it sells in the marketplace. The new rules mean that a company needs pretty large presells to be sure that a product will at least break even. Now do I think that Mattel intended this from the beginning? Of course not, but the fact remains that Mattel is one of the biggest beneficiaries of their own quality and product safety failures. If the court approves this settlement – it looks to me like they got off cheap.
Toy industry hiring continues to slowly improve. It’s certainly not good but it’s better than it was six or even three months ago. My continuing forecast is that hiring will continue to be weak at least until the August/September (and it may take longer) time frame. For most of 2010 hiring will be slow although not as bad as 2009. Some very important meetings are coming up in December and January. Those meetings are not with retailers and not in Hong Kong but with banks. Banks slashed loans and lines of credit in 2009. With banks still reluctant to lend, regardless of Holiday sales numbers, I can’t imagine that seasonal fashion businesses will be at the top of their lending lists.