Just as the toy industry began to make headway in convincing government agencies to rationalize product safety regulations along comes Mattel with an eleven million toy safety recall from its Fisher Price unit. Jakks Pacific then chimed in with its own half million piece recall and Graco added a recall of baby strollers. One thing that all three had in common is that they all were “product safety” issues or – design flaws. Certainly, it’s nearly impossible to police every factory in the Chinese hinterlands who may slip in a little lead paint to increase their beaten down profit margins when the gweilo isn’t looking. These, however, are design flaws and there just really isn’t an excuse. I’ve heard the arguments that if you look at these toys you don’t intuitively see any danger. That may be true, but Mattel is the largest toy company in the world and has entire departments focused purely on product safety. They also used outside safety labs who were apparently asleep at the switch.
Ironically, the biggest beneficiary of the recall will probably be Mattel. Most of those toys were sold between 2001 and 2008 and the majority of them are already on the scrap heap. Under the Mattel regime, Fisher Price toys don’t seem to have the longevity they did twenty years ago (thinner walls equals lower costs). Few will be returned and there is no inventory to pull off of retailer’s shelves or languishing in Mattel warehouses. Rational changes that were being considered in safety regulations will now most likely be shelves. The current overregulation disproportionally affects small and medium size toymakers. Mattel is the only company which gets to use its own internal safety lab which I have got to believe is less expensive than going outside. It can also amortize testing costs and manpower over a gazillion products sold. Small and medium companies are hit much harder by testing costs, time to market and eyestrain (having to read through all those crazy regs). Creativity has also been blunted as companies learn to play it safe. It’s very risky to produce a new and innovative product and take a flyer to see if it sells in the marketplace. Overregulation means that a company needs pretty large presells to be sure that a product at least breaks even. The unlevel playing field benefits Mattel quite nicely. No one believes that Mattel has been orchestrating large product recalls on purpose…but it sure makes you wonder.
Switching gears (kerlunk!) – the economy continues to improve albeit very very slowly. September’s unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.6% but U6, a broader measure of unemployment which includes people who have stopped looking for work and those settling for part time jobs rose to 17.1% from 16.7%. Government shed 159,000 workers half of whom were temporary census workers the rest are layoffs primarily from state governments and municipalities who have seen their tax revenues shrink. The somewhat good news is that private employers added 64,000 jobs. Unfortunately that is not enough. The US needs to add 200,000 jobs per month simply to keep up with the population growth of the workforce. It seems that we’re running harder and not even staying in place.
Despite what the media may say, the real disappointment isn’t consumers, who have good reason to be conservative given widespread unemployment and their damaged balance sheets. The real problem with the economy is large companies who are flush with cash but seem to be too scared of their own shadows to start spending. Economists are seeing an increase in the number of job postings but companies are very slow to fill them. It’s estimated that if openings were turning into jobs at the pace they usually do, the unemployment rate would be about three percentage points lower. One reason that companies are dragging their feet is uncertainty over the November congressional elections. Before hiring, business needs to know if what some call “the Bush tax cuts” but is really – the existing tax code – is going to be extended.
This was echoed at the Fall Toy Preview as many of the senior executives that I spoke with were finding it difficult to make planning decisions. As for the business of selling toys, most were upbeat. Sell-in has been good although margins are down. There is a feeling that the holiday season will have a very strong price focus which should help the toy business as most companies have been concentrating on producing lower cost goods. After the economic turmoil that we’ve had most companies want some clarity out of Washington and also want to cash their big January checks before they spend them.
Down in Dallas a common complaint was the lack of trade show support by larger toy companies. For years, the behemoths, Mattel, Hasbro and Lego have not supported toy industry trade shows. That practice is now being taken up by second tier companies like Jakks Pacific and MGA. Mattel and others were having their own “toy fairs” in LA in the two weeks following the Fall Toy Preview. Some buyers even left Dallas early to travel to Los Angeles. Certainly this makes business sense for larger companies as they know they are going to get their face time with the retailers. Obviously, they would prefer that buyers be totally focused on their product line rather than be “distracted” by hundreds of smaller competitors. Alright I get it, but the toy industry may want to consider whether they want these larger toy 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 protect the interests of its smaller and medium sized members. The big boys have the ability to fend for themselves.
If the Fall Toy Preview was moved to Los Angeles at the same time that Mattel and others were holding their “toy fairs” then the larger companies would likely just switch weeks. I wonder if maybe all parties could be accommodated by having two shows in LA on consecutive weeks. The main show with small and medium size companies during one week. Mattel and other large companies could do their thing the following week. Any company that thinks it’s important enough to draw buyers away from the big boys would be welcome to take the gamble and show in week two. Of course, that may or may not work out for them.
“Everyone under one roof” is an admirable goal but it’s never going to happen. The toy industry can’t even get everyone in the same town at the same time. I don’t want to criticize the Toy Industry Association too much here. By all accounts, they have done an excellent job under the leadership of Carter Keithley. This is NOT the TIA of even just a few short years ago. However, TIA and the TIA board need to tackle this problem now. Meetings should be scheduled, smoke filled rooms rented, arms twisted and compromises made. Complaining quietly amongst yourselves doesn’t accomplish anything. I would recommend speaking directly with either Carter Keithley or your favorite TIA Board Member to ask how you can help.
Hoping I didn’t stir up too much trouble,