You can always tell when Christmas is round the corner – financial analysts queue up to tell us that next year won’t be as good as we thought it might be. Like some shadowy figures from a Dickensian era, they see the chips you’re holding and, with well-practiced aim, douse them with a recycled saline solution. The television schedules are packed with great movies… that you’ve seen 30 times before – or, as an alternative, you’re stuck with the faces of overhyped nobodies like Kim Woodburn gurning into your living room on a nightly basis.
The doom visited upon us by a seasonal message from the man with shocking white hair, enormous eyebrows and a bag of festive cheer (Alistair Darling) did little to assuage the concerns of anyone in Britain willing or wishing to work for a living. It remains to be seen just how long a decade of economic mismanagement will affect sales at retail but certainly, despite licensed products manfully holding their own, the effects are widespread.
Listening to kids talk excitedly of Christmas on the train it was clear that the recession had hit them as hard as the rest of us - these poor mites couldn’t even afford a full alphabet. The regular friend of most English-speakers, the ‘th’ sound, had been the subject of an aggressive takeover bid by a ‘f’ sound, cutbacks meant that a hardened ‘t’ had been entirely dropped from words such as ‘whatever’. A couple of the group had seen almost their entire array of consonants go on strike with only the occasional black-leg breaking through their guttural utterances and one unfortunate seemed to have subjected the letter R to a vote of no confidence in favour of W.
Tradition seemed entirely alien to this group as they listed the brands they wanted to see under the tree on the 25th. They seemed to have paid limited attention to the Dream Toys list and were very clear to make sure their parents knew exactly which products they wanted, the specific versions where applicable, where they could get them from, how much they cost… just in case Santa was having difficulty tracking them down. Not one of them seemed as though they would know what to do with a partridge or a pear tree and the only leaping Lords they were likely to be spotting would be the ones seeking to jump the closing net of the expenses scandal.
Of course, we should really be applauding the retail-savvy kids of today, after all, it’s them shoring up the companies in our industry whilst all around us are losing theirs.
With kids who are this aware, it’s amazing that the Christmas TV schedules are always packed full of stories of poor adult consumers who’ve been suckered in again at this expensive time of year by a ‘too-good-to-believe’ offer of credit which has left them paying back thousands of pounds for a 32p loan. Though this fact does keep self-proclaimed consumer champion Dom Littlejohn in a job as he displays his customary pugilistic fervour which can only come from looking like a geriatric breast and walking like Mussolini.
But swagger was something sadly missing from the industry over the course of this very strange year. Checkout girls everywhere braced themselves for the predicted rush of consumers eager to save their 2.5p when the VAT rate was cut, but sadly at a bargain cost to the taxpayer of just £12.5bn the measure astonished all by failing, so the New Year will get off to a stutter as everyone resets their systems back to the old pricing and VAT rate.
As if sending intellectually redundant middle managers to run our country wasn’t enough for Him, God decided to test the resolve of the industry directly by sending out snow of biblical proportions which stymied the efforts of many at Spring Fair. Temptation came in the form of a move of the US Licensing Show to Las Vegas, but by all accounts, most people returned with the same marital status they held when they went. Pestilence came next as Swine Flu threatened to dampen retail sales as rapidly as an overused hanky and all this against the backdrop of the loss of the previous-biggest retailer in the sector. Even those people who look to their sporting icons for a moment of solace discovered that even the cleanest-cut can sometimes apparently stray into the rough… the best a man can get? Hmmm.
But as the year draws to a close, we can look back on 12 months of mixed fortunes, but one in which the industry came closer together to face the challenges. We have an exciting new venue for the biggest show in the business; new retail opportunities have opened up now Woolworths no longer dominate the sector; sales across the toy sector have actually grown in the most challenging of climates; and the realisation that licensing presents a call to purchase has finally dawned.
On behalf of us all, let’s hope a great 2010 is wrapped up and under all of our trees with a big sparkly bow on top.