Reflections from the trade show circuit

Posted by Marty Brochstein on February 17, 2010

In the midst of the early-year trade fairs around the world – stretching through Hong Kong to Nuremberg, London, Birmingham, Atlanta, New York and Las Vegas, among many others — there seems to be a recurring theme: retail sales have slowly improved, inventories have gotten in line, and buyers are buying again, rather than battening down the hatches.

In the entertainment and character world, though, most of that buying continues to be centered on evergreen and continuing characters. In some cases, major retailers are asking for and getting new portrayals and treatments of those characters, but for the most part they’re not “straying” into new territory. For example, says Will Thompson of t-shirt manufacturer Changes at this week’s MAGIC show in Las Vegas, the most discussed properties are Family Guy, Nintendo, Peanuts and Batman – not a new property among them. Others around the show offer similar reports.

How does a new property make it onto a shelf? One small independent producer and licensor says that you’ve got to take the opportunities when they come. He told of a graphic property that he’s been working on as a potential animated project, with hopes of ultimately building a licensed product program once it achieved some measure of visibility on air. But he took a swift detour when the buyer for a major European hypermarket operator proposed a direct-to-retail deal for the property purely as a graphics program. Animation may come further down the road, but the property may develop in an unexpected way.

The lack of newness in fashion in general was a theme touched on by NPD Group’s Marshall Cohen in a seminar at MAGIC. He put forth the proposition that the economy-driven apparel sales downturn was deeper than it had to be because manufacturers and retailers pulled in their horns so much that they gave even consumers who had money to spend no reason to buy. (In a similar vein, Toys R Us’ Jerry Storch said in an appearance at the KidScreen Summit this month that “Toys can grow as much as we can make the product exciting.”)

Cohen also criticized retailers and their suppliers for not understanding and dealing with a basic shift in consumer mentality. “The consumer is now saying. ‘I’m going to buy it when I need it,’” and not months ahead of when they’re actually going to wear the new fashion or use the new lawnmower. He says that the “early” fashion purchaser who buys the latest hot thing for spring when it hits the stores in January now accounts for a mere 6% of fashion shoppers, down from 10% a year ago, and he says it’s heading lower.

It’s more than a fashion story. Cohen tells of walking into hardlines store in the Northeast in early February to replace a broken shovel and being confronted only with lawn care products. He said that the U.S. consumer is sending the message loud and clear that “back-to-school isn’t in July.”  How retailers, suppliers and brand stewards absorb and react to that message will help tell the story of winners and losers in the years ahead.