Deciphering the Jobs Report
Employment numbers seem to be a mad jumble. Is unemployment going up or going down? Are companies laying off or hiring? …or both? Last Fridays Jobs Report showed that 311,000 jobs were added yet the unemployment rate had moved up from 3.4% to 3.6%. How does that work?
As for the unemployment rate – more people “joined the workforce.” In the Department of Labor survey, if you say that you aren’t actively looking for work then you aren’t counted as part of the workforce. As people run out of government pandemic money at the same time that high inflation has everything costing more; more people get off of the sofa and start looking for work. They are then counted as “part of the workforce” and until they find a job, they are unemployed. The Labor Department considers sofa time to be some sort of a magic limbo as if when people starting looking for work they suddenly POP! into existence.
As for hiring trends, they are still being driven by the reverberations of the pandemic. The Covid pandemic has been the largest mass event in most of our lifetimes. It was like a giant asteroid hit the ocean. No Bruce Willis to save us this time. The big splash sent tsunamis in every direction. The waves are smaller now but they are still pretty high and are still driving everything in their paths. It could take five or even ten years before the waves subside into ripples.
The pandemic affected the various sectors of the economy in different ways – some subtle, some more profound. Early on bars, restaurants, hotels, gyms, and spas all shut down, throwing all of those employees out of work. As people were staying home, ecommerce, streaming, and every manner of internet-related business boomed and had to be staffed up at a rapid clip.
Currently, as we get back toward normal, the previously shuttered service economy is cranking up and all of those businesses are trying to restaff. At the same time, large tech companies extrapolated their rapid growth into the future and thought their businesses would quickly grow to the sky. They overhired on a massive scale and, as a result, are now laying off employees in droves.
In the toy industry, and in most consumer product businesses, people were working from home and they weren’t going out socially either. They feathered their nests and made their homes into castles. They loaded up on consumer goods – if they could get them. At the same time they were working from home, their kids were home, too. They were in school at home – sort of. Parents needed to find things to help their kids learn at home, be entertained at home, and…keep them occupied. This meant everything from toys to learning aids to arts and crafts to big backyard pools. Toy sales had a couple years of stellar growth. As consumer products sales rocketed up, inevitably supply chains began to experience shortages from start to finish in everything from raw materials, factory time, workers, and especially transportation.
After retailers were unable to get enough goods in 2021 to maximize their sales, they shifted their strategy. They ordered sooner, they ordered more, they ordered repeatedly. Manufacturers also wanted to maximize their sales so they were happy to ship more and ship early to make sure that their goods would reach the shelves in time for the 2022 holiday sales season.
Unfortunately, this was taking place just as we were moving into a period of sky high inflation. Inflation was particularly bad in the oil sector which, in turn, has feedback loops into everything else. For the toy industry, oil = plastics = raw materials. It is also the fuel for transportation from trucks to container ships and back to tracks again. Inflation caused consumers to start to buy less.
Toy sales for 2022 were flat. That said, it was a bit hard to shed too many tears after the incredible growth rates of 17% in 2020 and another 14% in 2021. After a couple of years like that, flat ain’t so bad. The real damage came because just as retailers and manufacturers were ramping up the consumer was dialing it down. This left us with an enormous inventory glut. In our last newsletter, we joked that Walmart might be holding Big Merch Bonfires in their most rural parking lots. That was tongue in cheek. Six weeks later, we’re hearing serious recurring rumors that Walmart dumped $1 billion dollars of merchandise at TJ Maxx.
This is leading to a very tough first half for toy companies. True to form retailers are laying much of the financial responsibility for the inventory glut at the feet of their suppliers. Mark downs, chargebacks, call them what you will. “When times are good, we own the goods. When times are bad, we’re a consignment shoppe.” There is no post-holiday resupply and with so many marked down goods out there, it’s difficult for manufacturers to clear their own inventory. For 2023, retailers are playing it very close to the vest. They’re ordering slower. They’re ordering smaller. Their hope seems to be that they’ll be able to reorder when the inventory glut clears. Additionally, that gives top performers time to reveal themselves. The big question is will retailers place large enough orders to fulfill their holiday sales needs and will they place them soon enough to be built and shipped in time? Toy companies are left trying to decide whether to build and hold or just build less. With retailers’ most recent, of many recurring examples, that they are NOT suppliers’ partners red hot in their memories, and their pockets I suspect, that manufacturers will do the latter. I would not be surprised to see an inventory shortage and early empty shelves in holiday sales season 2023. This will be a difficult year but hopefully it is one of transition which helps reset the table for 2024 and beyond. It would be good to see the post pandemic waves continue to diminish to a level that it just a bit easier to navigate.
What does this all mean for toy industry hiring? I’m sure you’ve all seen the news of toy company layoffs. Especially the large ones like Hasbro and Mattel. Over the last two weeks there have been a smattering of smaller layoffs at smaller companies as well. Toyjobs has filled a few searches that were carryovers from projects that we started and expected to close last year. Thus far in 2023, there have been very few new search starts. There is a potential cloud break that I’m hearing about but not yet seeing. Many of my clients are telling me that they are planning to hire people but are being cautious until they get larger commitments from retailers. If retailers want goods to arrive in time for the holiday sales season they probably have to make those commitments by some time in May at the latest. I’m still not seeing it yet. It could be a sweet whisper on the wind…or it could be a siren song.
Keep your weight on the back foot,
Toyjobs First Half Forecast
While the much ballyhooed recession hasn’t hit yet, we do see signs of the economy starting to slow. Consumers, having been squeezed by high inflation and rising interest rates, have cut back on retail spending in both November and December. As the consumer goes – so goes the U.S. economy and companies are responding by beginning to pause hiring. While hiring was extremely robust in 2022, it is now also in the early stages of cooling down. I would say that December – January looks like an inflection point.
The slowing rate of hiring will change the negotiating dynamic between hirers and hirees. During the last couple of years when workers have been hard to find, employees held the upper hand and could demand higher wages, greater workplace flexibility, etc. Over time the negotiating dynamic swings back and forth like a pendulum driven by economic conditions. But this pendulum effect also has a lag time as both parties tend to think that the environment is in their favor for longer than it really is. They also try to hold on to the advantage for as long as possible. This is true on both sides of the equation – employers and employees. We are right now at an inflection point where the employee advantage is just beginning to slip away but employees are not ready to believe it or admit it to themselves, while for employers it is still a bit too early to start applying pressure.
Amidst this backdrop, the toy industry has its own set of problems which should be acute during the first half of 2023. Slower holiday sales have left us with a massive inventory glut both at the retail and the manufacturer level. Retailers have been advertising huge discounts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Walmart starting having Big Merch Bonfires in their most rural parking lots. Not only does this mean large markdowns for manufacturers but also that they are unlikely to have much in the way of first quarter resupply orders.
Second, China’s recent lurch from a policy of Covid Zero to Que Sera? Sera? Is leading to massive waves of infection across the country. While this will eventually begin to peter out the sudden change may prove to be especially hard on for China’s large elderly population which is severely under-vaccinated and when they are vaccinated it is with less effective vaccines. Knowing what we know about China’s demographics, a more cynical person might wonder if there wasn’t something sinister going on?
Additionally, we are in the midst of the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays and urban workers will be spreading Covid to families in the hinterlands where healthcare facilities are sparse and subpar. How might the health of families affect if and when workers return to their job?
Lastly, as China works its way through its self-manufactured Covid spike and begins to reopen that will cause the price of oil and therefor plastics to surge. An increasing price for key materials can’t be good for margins.
On the upside, the supply chain is continuing to unkink and it is predicted to be back close to “normal” by mid-year. We’ll have to wait and see how the change in China’s Covid policy affects that timeline. Additionally, it is a strong year for kids movie releases, coming especially from Disney and Hasbro. Hopefully that will help drive consumers back to the stores next fall.
How does this all translate into toy industry hiring? At Toyjobs we are coming off an excellent 2022. That said, in January search starts have slowed but not stopped. To an extent, this is true every year as many retailers and manufacturers are still finishing up crunching their 2022 holidays sales numbers. My prediction is that for the first half of 2023, large toy companies will do very little hiring. Small companies will continue to do less but some hiring of key players. In a small company, it’s much harder to distribute additional workload across a small staff. Beyond the first half? I got nothin’…except to say that I think things will be better than the previous six months.
All the best,
Too Many Cross Currents
I don’t envy toy industry executives right now. Even in the best of times they are in the seasonal fashion business which is always tricky. This year there are so many cross currents that it must be difficult to know what to do. The only bright light I see is that two years of sky high freight rates and delivery delays have reverted back closer to normal. That said, the situation in China where most of the toy factories are located is very fluid. Amidst widespread protests, labor shortages, and a never-ending game of Covid lockdown Whac-a-mole, I can’t imagine that many company’s plans are actually following their desired timelines.
Add to that cost input inflation. Paints, plastics, labor, fuel, and electricity have all risen dramatically in price over the last two years. Consumer prices have been soaring with people paying more for less. Except, it seems, toys and clothing. If I would have written in a college exam blue book for one of my Economics courses that we would have massive inflation AND an inventory glut at the same time, I definitely would not have gotten a passing grade. But here we are. Bentonville is at Defcon 1 with red lights flashing and sirens blaring.
My continuing forecast, based on an extremely cloud crystal ball, is that one half of population will Party Like It’s 1999 and keep spending on both goods and services in this first “post-pandemic” (Covid is still here but we’ve stopped behaving like it’s a pandemic) holiday season. Come January, the bills will come due – and with sky high interest rates attached.
For the other half of the population, hard times have already arrived.
Toy dollar sales volume will be lower but not really that bad as they face very difficult comparisons to the previous two years of explosive pandemic-driven growth. Margins, however, will be a different story. Toys are more expensive to make and an inventory glut has led to retail discounting beginning even before Halloween. Everybody will be trying to eke their profits out of their supplies margins – from retailer-to-toy company-to-factory-to-components and raw materials.
Inflation gluts will likely lead to lots of leftover merchandise after the holidays which will mean very little early year resupply in 2023 and a difficult first half for the toy business. This will come at about the same time that the consumer will be closing his then empty wallet.
Up until now, toy companies are continuing to hire. Toyjobs continues to have one of its best years ever after a short trade show induced dip, but I see dark clouds on the near horizon and they look like they’re heading this way.
I’m sorry that this piece is so scattered but with so many conflicting cross currents, my mind hasn’t coalesced (congealed?) around a coherent narrative.
May you live in interesting times,
Toy Industry Sailing in Choppy Seas
The toy industry faces choppy seas as we move into the holidays sales season. Many retailers asked for product to be brought in early this year as they sought to avert a repeat of 2021 when supply chain congestion caused product delays and shortages. They are now dealing with an inventory glut of overstocked shelves and stuffed warehouses.
Major retailers have issued billions in cancellations. Walmart has containers stacked in their parking lots because stores are still full of back-to-school merchandise. Amazon is now scheduling multiple Prime Day-like events as many retailers are beginning their Black Friday Blowouts even before Halloween.
Their profits will certainly decline as they compete to cut prices faster than their peers in a race to the bottom. This will cause their margins to take a beating. Although they have already whacked suppliers with cancellations, you can be sure that they will be eager to share their margin squeeze with their vendor “partners” who will be “made offers they can’t refuse.”
As the pandemic seems to be winding down, instead of consumers buying “things” to feather their cocoons, they have switched to getting out there and spending on services: restaurants, travel, fun! Hasbro reported pretty awful earnings last week which they blamed on consumers becoming increasingly price sensitive amidst rampant inflation.
These will both be major factors in this year’s holiday sales season but it’s early. My gut feeling is that in what will hopefully be the first (mostly) post-pandemic Christmas, people will live it up and spend on both services AND products. The annual hangover will occur in the first quarter of next year when consumers look at their elevated credit card balances and the sky-high interest rates they will have to pay. That will likely coincide with the recession hitting in earnest. Hangover 2023 may prove to be particularly nasty.
On the positive side, the pandemic-driven stop-start-stop economy is now at a point where freight costs have significantly declined. The general thesis seems to be that, as retailers digest and work through heavy inventories, supply chains will be normalized (excluding chips) by next summer.
What has this meant for toy industry hiring? For the past year and a half, companies have been hiring hand over fist, but search starts literally dropped off a cliff on Labor Day. During September we were able to complete the searches that we had already started but no new searches came in. We weren’t sure if that was due to the rocky economy (uh oh!) or just the usual cycle as companies prepare for and participate in major trade shows and gain insight into their fortunes for the following year. Then, during the second week of October, search starts lurched into gear again. It’s still too early to call – it’s only been two weeks – but I am cautiously hopeful. “Hopeful” is assuredly not as good as “optimistic,” but we shall have to wait and see what happens.
If I were to look into my rather murky crystal ball, I envision an okay sell through season – which ain’t bad coming after two years of stellar growth – followed by a very rocky first half of 2023. After that, things could smooth out although that’s much too far away to see with any clarity and we should always be wary of another Covid Knuckleball. I may be completely wrong and I have been completely wrong before. In any case, my current posture if to keep moving forward but with my weight heavily set on the back foot.
May you live in interesting times,
Low Visibility in All Directions
During the past year, toy companies have been hiring hand over fist. Toyjobs is poised to have one of its best years ever. Why then do I have this feeling of uneasiness? I think it’s because things feel like we are at the tipping point to a downturn.
Search starts appear to be slowing. That is probably due to one of two factors and at this juncture I can’t tell which. First, we are at the beginning of the 2023 sales cycle. Target and Walmart have been out in LA during the past couple of weeks. They, and many of the rest of their retail brethren, will be back out there a few weeks hence. That will be followed by a migration to Dallas for toy industry’s first trade show in a couple of years. Maybe that’s it. Toy companies usually pause hiring before a trade show in order to gain visibility into what business will look like in the year ahead. After that, they crunch numbers for a week or two and then move forward with staffing adds or changes – or they don’t. Hopefully, that’s all that is going on and search starts will rev up again in early October.
On the other hand, we are in an increasingly difficult economic environment. Inflation is running at 8 or 9%. Shoppers are spending more but getting less. We are in a recession, at least according to the generally accepted definition of one. Companies, in all categories, are growing cautious. Many have begun hiring freezes and even layoffs.
Closer to home in the toy business, even though container costs have come down dramatically and are also moving a lot faster, plastic resin prices are still high and obtaining chips is a difficult dance. I often hear people say that the toy industry is “recession resistant” but I can’t help thinking: “Sales may be but margins are not.” Target has been cancelling billions in orders while Walmart has been doing the same, as well as cancelling its own people. The retail names on every salesman’s lips these days are Ross Stores and TJ Maxx. This all portends a much uglier scenario.
So, which is it? Pre-trade show pause or economic slowdown? Probably some of both. That said, I can’t shake the feeling that the economy is like a car that has run out of gas but is still coasting. Moving slower and slower until it finally rolls to a stop. Yellow lights flashing…
All the best,
Short and Sweet
So there’s really not much new to report since last time. Sales volumes continue to be strong, margins continue to be tight. Supply chain woes continue with sky high material costs, chip shortages, the apparent alien abduction of all of the world’s truck drivers and an endless game of Chinese lockdown Whac-a-mole.
The Toy Industry is looking to hire a lot more people and for the most part is succeeding in doing so. The one real trouble spot I see is Brand Managers and Marketing Communications Managers.
There are really two reasons that I can identify that are exacerbating the problem. First, these people are currently in high demand. Lots of companies are looking for them. That has led to a marketplace where candidates are getting offers from two or three different companies. At the same time, companies have chosen this group to hold the line on salaries. At the start of a Brand Manager search I find myself telling clients that their salaries are too low but companies aren’t budging even though they are willing to raise salaries for other types of jobs. “That’s what we have in our budget.” “Okay, but your budget doesn’t match the marketplace.”
The second major factor is demographics. The people who populate these jobs most often are in their mid-twenties to late thirties. It seems the cultural norm for this group is to be unresponsive. Phone? Email? Text? Smoke Signal? It doesn’t seem to matter. Never before in human history have there been so many ways to communicate and never before are so many people so desperate not to do so. With many people rejecting to even have a yes or no choice about a potentially advantageous career move we end up having smaller pools of candidates. It seems to affect Marketing people the worst. Salespeople don’t do this. Designers of the same age group don’t do this. The very people who are supposed to have the most business savvy seem to be the least savvy about their own personal business and careers. Ah well, end of screed.
Moving forward I think that 2022 will be a pretty good year. Perhaps not as good as 2020 and 2021 but solid and happier as the pandemic hopefully continues to dissipate. Inflation is a major challenge but consumers are continuing to spend. More money is being directed toward necessities, but people are trying to maintain their lifestyles – for now at least. This is causing them to spend down their record high savings and increase their credit card balances. Neither of those things bode well for the future. Add to that an increasing interest rate environment and a Fed which does not have a very good record at engineering soft landings and I see clouds (or is it smoke) on the horizon for 2023. Now is the season to be hoarding your acorns. Winter is coming.
All the best,