Retail sales jumped out of the box quickly in November and overall holiday sales were strong despite a slowdown in late December. The International Council of Shopping Centers said that its index for November and December was up 4 per cent over last year, the most robust growth in the holiday shopping season since 2006. According to MasterCard SpendingPulse US retail sales, excluding automobiles, rose 5.5 per cent between November 5th and December 24th. Online sales grew 12 per cent to $32.6 billion, the highest total ever, according to tracking firm ComScore Inc.
While the big blizzard and rainstorms in California appeared to take a late month toll many retail analysts said the real culprit behind the weaker December sales was an avalanche of aggressive promotions in November. These deals pulled sales forward and raised unrealistic expectations about consumer spending for the rest of the year. In addition, promotional discounting was so deep that it affected retail profitability. Of course, we still don’t have the numbers for January gift card redemptions. Gift cards are particularly profitable because consumers tend to spend a bit more than the value of the card. Also 20-30 per cent of gift cards never get redeemed at all, making them the retail version of “printing money”.
So, in any case, after a fairly strong holiday sales season much of the toy industry sporting tender holiday heads, hopped on planes bound for the Hong Kong Toy and Games Fair. As I talk to senior toy executives what I am hearing is that US retailer attendance continues to grow lighter but international buyers have been upbeat. In the US, retailers overbought a little in 2010 and are now more cautious but not overly so. Manufacturers are pleased that Wal-Mart is expanding its toy aisle again, at least during the holiday shopping season.
The biggest discussion is about the continuing rise in production costs. China has a serious inflation problem and the authorities have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to repeatedly tap the brakes. Raw material costs are rising and the yuan is strengthening. Add to that a nearly 20 per cent hike in the Dongguan minimum wage and constant rumors that many workers will not return to southern factories after the Chinese New Year. Chinese authorities have been trying to push low-end labor intensive manufacturing to the north and west. Inexperienced factories and inexperienced workers will naturally lead to heightened quality problems. Add to this, that shipping back to the coast on overcrowded roads (such as they are) is bound to slow things down. Despite this I expect retailers to continue to confirm orders later and later leaving manufacturers with impossible to meet lead times. The big question is will they allow manufacturers to pass through rising costs by increasing their holy price points.
This is all, however, against a backdrop of an economy that is clearly gaining momentum. Private sector employers added 297,000 jobs in December. The gain over the November numbers was the largest in the reports 10 year history. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said that layoffs in 2010 were the lowest since 1997. The unemployment rate in December dropped from 9.8 per cent to 9.4 per cent and while some economists voiced disappointment, they seem to have forgotten that most companies operate on budgets. In late 2009, when 2010 budgets were being drawn up, many companies were still worried that the world was coming to an end. 2011 budgets put together in late 2010 seem to reflect that companies are “cautious but comfortable”. All eyes should be firmly focused on the January – April employment numbers.
Anecdotally, Toyjobs saw search starts pick up since late October. Companies were telling us “find people now that we can start in January when we have the budget”. Since January 3rd we have seen a huge surge in search starts. This isn’t yet reflected on our job board because we tend to post searches toward the end of our work on them in order to keep LRWRB (Lonely Recruiters Without Repeat Business) at bay. I believe we will see this surge moderate as we move into the May/June time frame because it represents pent up demand just waiting for a flip of the calendar page to make budgets available. That said, I do think that hiring will continue to be much stronger than last year but it won’t be wholesale hiring. It will be companies filling necessary positions that were previously left open due to a mixture of fear and budgetary constraints.
On the road (or maybe “in the road”) leading to Toy Fair I have been flipping through the trade press and perusing new products. I regret to announce that Toyjobs has to once again present it’s much avoided “You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me Award”
Wild Creations introduces Poo in a Box. Yes, really. This nutrient-rich animal dung comes from an elephant, reindeer, or rhinoceros. From the Natural History Museum, the Poo in a Box begins at a British zoo or safari park and is treated to be germ and odor free. Kids can sow the seeds, water the cardboard box, and watch the plants grow. Poo in a Box comes in three styles. Elephant poo with Christmas tree seeds, Reindeer poo with rose seed or Rhino poo with a banana tree seed.
Toyjobs predicts, that if this product sells well, the nation’s schoolyards will see a lot of tiny tears wearing pigtails in the coming year.
After the not so secret stealth fighter, the Gates trip to China and Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States; our China Report (and I’m sure you too) have been inundated with a flood of articles on China. In a not entirely successful attempt to stick a thumb in the dyke of this flood of information we have tried to focus on content that is: the most important stuff, more analysis than news reportage and is from unique sources that many of your may not regularly peruse.
Lastly, I would like to say, personally: Kudos for Neil Friedman. Mr. Friedman has been one of those rare combinations of savvy toy executive, a strong manager and an all around great guy who treated everyone he dealt with fairly and with respect. He’s fun too! I know that I join everyone in the toy industry in greedily hoping that Neil won’t be hanging up his cleats and will pop up somewhere else soon – hopefully leading a small to medium sized company where it can all be fun again.
I look forward to seeing everybody in February. There will surely be snow.
P.S. For those in the know: Infomercial Dave – what’s he selling Snuggies or slapchoppers? Just a further revelation of his Huckster’s Heart.