For the second straight year we had Toy Fair – without snow. As a New Yorker, I think I might grow to like this whole global warming thing. What a Toy Fair it was, with busier aisles and a newfound upbeat attitude. Specialty companies were writing record numbers of orders and even the sometimes grumbly mass marketers seemed to be pleased. I haven’t yet figured why everyone was in such a good mood. In 2011, total retail sales were up approximately 5% while toy sales were down 2%. The general consensus seems to be that every family in America got an iPad for Christmas. Maybe everyone was in high spirits because they all were recipients of said iPads. Perhaps, more likely, is that people have realized that the world doesn’t end very often and since it just ended in 2009; it is unlikely to end again soon.

Things kicked off Saturday night with the TOTY awards. Once again Carter Keithley and his Toy Industry Association (TIA) team put together a terrific affair. The food was great and everyone seemed to be having a good time. The TOTY awards have received some criticism which I think is unfair. Some have claimed that TOTY’s are only won by the largest toy companies. However, if you look at the ballot you will see that over 50 companies had products represented. That includes such smaller companies as: WOWWEE, Fashion Angels, Cepia, Thinkway, Plasmart, Thinkfun, The Bridge Direct, Alex, Thames + Kosmos and the list goes on and on. Blip Toys and Innovation First both won TOTY awards in 2011 with Innovation First winning again in 2012. Most products are initially self-nominated by their companies but are then culled by committees that include retail buyers, toy industry, journalists, academics and inventor/designers. The winners are then voted on by a broad electorate of consumers, retail buyers, journalists and TIA members. While suggestions for tweaking should certainly always be welcome, I don’t think anyone can really say that this process is overly biased.

After a day of pounding the floors at the Javits Center, Sunday night brought the Women in Toys (WIT) dinner. While always a lovely affair, this year it was extra special. Genna Rosenberg and her team should be commended on their attention to ever detail. The venue – The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers – was stupendous. I must confess that I did miss the dark paneling and overstuffed leather chairs of The Penn Club, but this was much more appropriate. Perhaps we’ll return to the Penn Club for the first annual Men in Toys Single Malt Scotch Tasting and Cigar Smoke-off. Meanwhile, back at the WIT Dinner, drinks were served and everyone was in a grand and chatty mood. Dinner was unveiled in a beautiful room and the food was “deelish.” Congratulations to all Wonder Women Award winners for their careers, their awards and their modest and succinct acceptance speeches.

New York Toy Fair continued with large crowds and good cheer (not to mention the usual bouts of “Javits feet”). Early Wednesday morning I snuck out of town and hopped a flight to New Orleans for a few days of good food, good music and a few glasses of wine in the evening (No! I do not drink Alabama Slammers – nor should you). Unfortunately my 8AM flight didn’t arrive until 9 at night. Note to self: US Airways – Never Again!

On the toy industry jobs front, the news has been good. Starting two weeks before Toy Fair, Toyjobs phone started ringing off the hook with job opportunities. Since then, Toyjobs search starts have exploded and though it hasn’t quite happened yet, companies seem eager to pull the trigger and actually hire talent once they find it. For various competitive reasons, we tend not to post our search assignments on our job board until we’ve finished most of our initial work on them so stay tuned – we’ll be updating it every Tuesday.

Now that the world probably won’t end again for awhile and the companies that were going to fail have done so; the rest seem to have decided that it’s time to get back to business. Many companies have cut staff so much in the last few years that they can barely get their work done. Companies have been running so lean for so long that there is a lot of pent-up demand.

Unemployment numbers continue to strengthen but we still have a long way to go. The economy continues to grow slowly but is vulnerable to outside shocks. The European Debt Crisis, for the moment, seems to be temporarily resolved. That said, markets are already betting that Greece will default again. Grey market pricing for the new, yet-to-be-issued “haircut bonds” is already selling at distressed levels and nobody expects Athens to lower its overall debt level to 120% of GDP by 2020.

Oil prices (and raw material costs for toys) could spike due to (election year?) sabre rattling in the Middle East. In an election year, politicians of all stripes will likely be promising increasingly “stupider” things. All of these present challenges. There is also a chance that the increase in job openings represents a temporary new year budget bump and will subside by June. But from my vantage point, barring any of these external shocks being realized (is that enough hedging for you?); we are beginning to see a return to normalcy albeit one moving much more slowly than any of us would like. The light at the end of the tunnel is growing slowly larger.

Muddling Thru,
Tom Keoughan