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New York Toy Fair Review and Projections

The annual toy industry migration from Hong Kong to London to Germany finally reached its inevitable end at The New York International Toy Fair. All reports were that the outlook for the industry in 2019 gathered optimism and enthusiasm as the trade show season moved along.

The New York International Toy Fair opened with the TOTY Awards. A terrific event, as always, which was this year again held at the venerable Ziegfeld Ballroom. There was a big, buzzy crowd in attendance as companies vied for various Toy of the Year Awards.

TJ – Isaac LarianOne highlight was the Doll of the Year Award which went, unsurprisingly, to L.O.L. Surprise! The award was accepted by Isaac Larian of MGA who approached the podium and said – the least he ever has. It was a comically gracious moment…only to be later ruined when he climbed the stage out of turn and out of line to display his usual boorish behavior. That said, let’s give credit where credit is due – both under the byzantine TOTY process and by popular acclaim L.O.L. Surprise! garnered three TOTY’s and was the overall Toy of the Year. Mattel and Lego also had good nights as they each came home with three TOTYs.

TJ – Joe Burke

I always enjoy seeing smaller and up and coming companies win these awards so it was good to see wins by Zing and Tastemakers. The Rookie of the Year Award went to Victury Sports. This startup makes the OllyBall which can be played with indoors without breaking lamps, mirrors, and cherished family heirlooms. Just think about how much trouble we wouldn’t have gotten into as kids! Do Play Ball in the House!

Amongst the three new members inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame was Joe Mendelsohn, former president of Kenner Products. In the 1970’s and 80’s, Kenner Products was The company. They had a fun Ideation and Product Development Group, professional Marketers, the toy industry’s best Engineering team and a rogue’s gallery of affable Sales talent. They came up with new and exciting product year after year after year. When the crowd gave Joe Mendelsohn a long standing ovation I took it to be a standing ovation for the entire Kenner Products team.

TJ – Crystal Palace Crowd

On Saturday, we moved on to the Toy Fair proper and the much dreaded Javits Center floors (hardest floors on the planet). In contrast to last year, day one was high energy and crowded. Strong attendance as well as optimism and excitement continued through the show’s end. Kudos to Steve Pasierb and his team and to the TIA Board for putting on a strong and productive show as well as the top notch TOTY event.

TJ – Show Floor 1

On Sunday night, anybody and everybody could be found at the Wonder Women in Toys Awards. I don’t know the official numbers but is it possible that this event was even more well attended than the TOTYs? Genna Rosenberg and her team did their usual exquisite job planning and pulling this thing off. The entire group of ladies making this show work do it while seeming so serene although I suspect they must be paddling like crazy underneath.

TJ – Marian BossardA shout out to Marian Bossard of the Toy Industry Association for winning the Wonder Women of Sales Award. Marian is one of the key people making all of the toy industry’s tradeshows and events go as smoothly as possible for the rest of us. Congratulations to all of the Wonder Women. As an employment expert, I suggest regularly wearing your pink capes to the office around salary review time!

One of the few negative undercurrents of the show was the question of “what’s going on with Toys ‘R’ Us?” As best as I can tell, they are going to continue on as an asset light IP company. In other parts of the world, they have licensed out their name to retail operators who will open and manage stores. They are looking to initiate the same type of arrangement in the U.S. They will also have an online retail entity which they will presumably either run themselves or partner on with their bricks and mortar licensee. TRU is also of the opinion that they have valuable product IP which they can sell to other retailers. Personally, I don’t think that the world is exactly clamoring for FastLane or Animal Alley. I suppose that they will sell in (saddle with) that merchandise to their retail partner.

After being so badly burned, will manufacturers actually do business with TRU? After all, Toys ‘R’ Us has the same ownership and largely the same management. Many have told me that it has been beyond difficult to see Richard Barry swanning around at Toy Industry events. Will they be able to just clean the slate of retail leases and then like a gang of deadbeats stiff their suppliers? To make matters worse, they then went out and sold their suppliers unpaid for merchandise at a discount, hindering said suppliers from selling their own goods elsewhere. Trust has been completely broken. It will not be repaired easily – perhaps ever.

I’ve heard many in the toy industry say that they won’t do business with Toys ‘R’ Us. That said, while I don’t know how many stores will be opened, I can’t see many toy companies not wanting to sell in to 50, 100, 200 doors. Perhaps one toy industry exec put it best when he told me: “I’ll be happy to do business with them depending on who their retail partners are and whether they have deep enough pockets to pay their bills.” Even so, I expect that they’ll be kept on a tight leash with short payable terms and little acceptance for chargebacks and the games they used to play in the warehouse.

What does this all mean for upcoming toy industry hiring? I am broadly optimistic. 2018 holiday sales numbers were not as bad as they could have been and the government statistics on retail sales seem to be a bit wonky. The negative government data, which was partly gathered during the partial government shutdown, looks to be at odds with strong retail sales numbers reported by Mastercard and by many individual retailers. It was also in complete disagreement with sales numbers reported by Amazon.

TJ – Crowd Pic

Much of the toy industry has made adjustments and is finding their way through a rapidly changing retail environment. After all, kids still want toys, we just have to find different ways (plural) to get those toys in front of them. The largest toy companies (Mattel, Hasbro, Lego) will not be able to readily replace the sales lost at Toys ‘R’ Us. They will now be big companies growing off a smaller base. Small fry beware! The big fish are stodgy and slow moving. It will take a couple of years but when they figure it out (and they will), they will be tenacious.

Meanwhile, this is a great year for kids movies like Frozen, Toy Story 4, Lego 2, etc. which will drive product demand. Fortnite is really only just getting started. The toy industry has pent up hiring demand. Over the last two years there have been so many lay offs that many companies are now having difficulty just getting the work done. Lastly, it looks like we have dodged the tariff bullet – at least for now. We are still waiting to see if happy talk turns into treaties, but we should be cautiously optimistic that we are going to evade a trade war.

In early January, all of these factors led me to cautiously predict that about two to three weeks after the New York Toy Fair, when companies finished crunching their numbers, that my phone would be ringing off the hook, with toy companies looking to increase staffing. That would be right about now.

What actually happened is that immediately after returning from Hong Kong, toy companies started calling. They were not only looking to fill jobs but Big Jobs. Last year, companies were occasionally looking for Project Managers/pairs of hands on the lower end of the salary continuum. This year they are looking for senior executives. This tells me that toy companies have left their defensive crouch and are now looking for opportunities to make things happen. I am broadly optimistic on toy industry prospects for 2019 – with the caveat – that we must dodge the Trump tariff bullet – which at the current time it looks like we will but…

All the best,

Tom Keoughan

By | March 5th, 2019|About Toy Jobs|0 Comments

Conditionally Predicting Increased Toy Industry Hiring

For 2018 the big story in the toy industry hiring was the closing of Toys ‘R’ Us. Almost every toy and juvenile product manufacturer lost its second or third biggest customer. That meant that most of these companies cut their budgets while they went out in search of new channels of distribution. Reduced budgets usually means reduced headcount and nearly always means a slowdown in new hiring.

Are toy industry hiring trends poised to turn the corner? 2018 holiday sales overall were strong, rising 5.1%, excluding autos, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse. Online sales grew even more quickly at a whopping 19.1%. Of course, there were retail winners and losers. Macy’s, Kohl’s, and J.C. Penney performed poorly while Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco hit it out of the park. Wal-Mart and Target could have performed even better but they were running out of inventory during the last two weeks of the holiday shopping season, which coincided with a surge in foot traffic.

These numbers represent retail sales of ALL goods but what of the toy industry? I’ve heard all sorts of whisper numbers that US toy sales were down 7% or even 15%, but the most recent numbers that I’ve heard were that US toy sales declined 2-3%. At the same time, nearly all of the senior executives at small and medium-sized companies that I have spoken with have said that their sales either grew or that they were happy with their 2018 results. That leads me to believe that the bulk of the lost sales were suffered by the big toy companies like Mattel, Hasbro, and Lego, etc. After all, if a small toy company can add a couple of extra feet of shelf space at a Best Buy or a Cracker Barrel, that can be pretty meaningful. For a Mattel, it doesn’t even move the needle.

I see 2018 as a transition year and look for the toy industry to gain traction and move forward in 2019. We have several things going in our favor. First, the economy, although it might grow at a slower pace than last year, is still forecast to be strong. Only a few months ago, predictions were that the Fed would raise interest rates four times this year. Currently, interest rates are projected to only be raised a time or two. Employment continues to be super strong. Both factors support an economy that continues to grow.

Cautious ordering in 2018 means that retailers have little inventory carrying over going into this year. This bodes well for sales early in the year and also minimizes manufacturers being held up for mark-down money and diminishes retailers’ need to have blow out sales. In addition, we have a plethora of strong licensable kid’s movies coming out this year led by new Frozen and Toy Story films. That should mean strong sales for licensors and also translate to better sales for all as blockbuster properties drive increased shopping for kid’s products.

That said, there are two potential problems which could disrupt growing toy sales. First, we are still early in the 2019 toy trade show season. Reports that I’m getting are that the mood in Hong Kong was buoyant although not quite jubilant. We shall see how retailers react to toy manufacturers wares at Nuremburg and in New York.

Secondly, there is still the specter of Trump tariffs on Chinese-made goods looming on the horizon. Recently most of the chatter about resolution has been trending toward positive, with the exception of the Huawei imbroglio. I would imagine that we’ll end up with face-saving half measures where all sides are able to declare victory OR further postponements which unfortunately means further uncertainty. As the big orangey fella often says, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

If we’re able to dodge a trade war then I see a strengthening toy industry investing in new talent to help drive growth. A lot of pent-up demand has developed over the last two years as toy companies have tightened their belts to the point of them becoming tourniquets. As companies come out of their defensive posture, somebody has to have the ideas and somebody has to do the work. My outlook is – as it usually is – one of cautious optimism.

I look forward to seeing you all in New York!

Tom Keoughan

By | January 28th, 2019|About Toy Jobs|0 Comments