Christmas failed to revive flagging toy market

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Uncertainty has left some retailers up in the air

The UK toy market’s year went from bad to worse in 2018, figures show, despite parents continuing to spend hundreds of pounds on gifts for their children.

Sales had dipped by 5% before the vital Christmas period and ended the year 7% down on 2017, analysts NPD said.

The year started with the collapse of Toys R Us, which had accounted for 10% of sales, and ended with Brexit uncertainty.

Now the industry is banking on the success of toy spin-offs of hit films.

Well-established successes, including Toy Story, Frozen, and Star Wars, return to the big screen in 2019, after a quiet year for family movies in 2018. Toys linked to these big releases, so-called licensed products, account for a quarter of the market.

‘Disappointed’

The fall in toy sales in the UK was bigger than the rest of Europe, which saw a decrease of 3%.

Natasha Crookes, from the British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA), said there were “mitigating factors” for the “disappointing” squeeze last year, some of which were one-off events.

“Losing a major retailer like Toys R Us played a pivotal role in the downturn during the early part of 2018, due to the discounting of stock,” she said. She described the effect as similar to the loss of Woolworths 10 years earlier.

Consumer sentiment and the strife for the High Street continued during the rest of the year. Frederique Tutt, global toy analyst at NPD, said that retailers were caught in a Catch-22 situation with discounting, even though parents typically spent £319 on toys per child up to the age of nine. The UK market still saw sales of £3.3bn last year.

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Collectables have become a key part of the market

Collectables were one key success for the market in 2018, with sales growing by 32% compared with the previous year. They now account for one in four toy sales in the UK.

Ms Tutt said the sector in general could learn from the nimbleness of manufacturers of these toys. Every few weeks a new version was being released, she said, encouraging ongoing spending by children and their families.

Some successful medium-sized companies were moving faster and capitalising on children’s crazes which spread fast through modern social media, she said.

Brexit effect

The BTHA said there was anecdotal evidence of retailers stockpiling in response to concerns over Brexit.

Ms Crookes said that consumer confidence and fluctuations in the pound as a result of Brexit uncertainty would be major issues for the toy market, alongside technical issues such as traceability requirements on toy manufacturing.

The industry, like other sectors, was calling for a decision on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in order to plan, she said.

Lego, one of the biggest toy manufacturers, sends products to the UK primarily from its factory in the Czech Republic. It also has factories in China and Mexico.

Marius Lang, head of UK marketing for Lego, said the company had a number of different plans in place with retailers, depending on the outcome of Brexit. He pointed out that Lego had to be flexible with its logistics, the same as many other companies.