17th Jan2019

Opinionated: The depressing state of UK toy retail

by Phil Wheat


Toys… as a kid I was told that once I grew up I’d leave them behind. But that was before the explosion in pop culture and the rise of the geek. Every other blockbuster these days is a comic book movie, fantasy adventure and sci-fi epic and with those films come merchandise, including action figures and other various toys. And what, as I grown up, do I do? I go out looking at what latest toys, be they long-running franchises or based on the latest TV show or movie, have hit toys stores across the UK. And what do I find?

Usually nothing.

OK, so the behemoth that was Toys R Us has gone but that doesn’t mean toy retail has gone. We still have the likes of The Entertainer, Smyths Toys and – in some areas – Toymaster; hell even Argos (if you’re prepared to face the indignity of being looked at like you’ve caused an employee untold pain by asking for a customer viewing). So there should still be plenty of opportunity to find that latest figure, that latest toy, in stores right?


What has happened to toy retailers in the UK? Everyone once in a while shelves will get restocked with new merchandise, and by every once in a while I mean about three times a year: after Christmas, during Summer blockbuster season and Christmas itself. The rest of the time stock seems to fester on the shelves, with retailers reluctant to offer discounts on items to get them out of the store – which is why places like Smyths are STILL filled with Star Wars figures from Rogue One… That film was released in 2016 and yet you can walk into any Smyths and there they are, filling up the shelves, pegwarmers that no-one wants, or no-one wants to pay full retail for.

And that’s the same across other toy ranges too. Jurassic World, Transformers, Power Rangers, Imaginext – the shelves are filled with pegwarmers with no room for new products… What’s worse is that a number of Smyths in my area are STILL trying to sell both King Kong AND Rampage figures and playsets at full retail price – if the haven’t sold by now they’re not going too! Surely retailers must realise that? Right?

Wrong again.

If you’ve ever watched a US-based toy collector on YouTube you’ll know that they can, oftentimes, rely on stores – be they toy shops or supermarkets like Target and Walmart – to have clearances of old ranges when new ones are set to arrive in stores. But do UK retailers do that? No. Instead toys are left for month after month, sometimes till the toys are so beat up they won’t even hang on the pegs any more!

It doesn’t help that we seem to be both behind when it comes to release dates AND they are often times a shortage of product (see the recent terrible rollout of Transformers War For Cybertron: Siege at Smyths for example) OR p*ss-poor distribution too. Those eager for a particular figure may import it, from a myriad of US retailers who are more than happy to send to the UK, cutting UK sales off at the knees. If there are any UK sales that is! UK-based brick and mortar toy retailers need to realise the power of the toy collector, who – I’m sure – make up a healthy percentage of toy sales in the UK, you only have to visit a few toy forums or Facebook groups to see that. By delaying releases you’re taking away a chunk of the buying public who are so eager for new product they won’t wait for UK retail to catch up.

UK toy retailers are also harming their own sales. Just look at Funko Pops!… A market that is flourishing in the US but floundering in the UK. Why is it floundering? A mixture of toys hitting stores late and stock being deeply discounted at places like B&M and The Entertainer. No one is going to buy a Pop! at full price when they can wait and it will turn up on discount for almost half the price a year (or in some cases mere months) later. It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Distribution seems to be so poor that stock sits in warehouses rather than being shipped to stores, ultimately being sold on to big resellers like Sambro, which leads to the aforementioned situation of shelves of Pops on discount in the likes of The Entertainer, who will pick up boxes of pops alongside other products from said reseller in a “bundle deal” – figures which too end up sitting on shelves ad nauseam as they’re often late to market.

Of course there’s always online. Toys are a click of a button away online… But where’s the fun in that? The thrill of the hunt is part of what makes toy collecting fun – finding that elusive figure on the shelf of your local toy store, reading online that a particular retailer does have stock but only in a store miles from you, making the anticipation of it reaching you even greater. Plus, if you’re a fan of certain toy lines *cough* Master of the Universe Classics *cough* you’ll be looking at a premium to both ship the figures to the UK and then then a probable customs and duty charge… You don’t get those when you buy a figure in a shop!

So where do toy collectors go in the UK if not online? Well if you live near a comic shop or a franchise store like Forbidden Planet you might be in luck. I say might because even then distribution is hit and miss. My local comic shops insist you pre-order anything you want months in advance for fear of ending up with dead stock on release; and Forbidden Planet… Well besides distribution to those stores varying depending on whether it’s a dot-com or dot-co-dot-UK store, distribution also varies wildly from location to location! Going back to Master of the Universe Classics, the latest “retro” wave of figures – He-Man, She-Ra, Skeletor and Hordak can be found at least TWO Forbidden Planets that I know of. But not my local store, which is so far behind in their toy selection that the store only recently got the last wave of Transformers: Power of the Primes toys – and most FPs are now on the new Transformers War For Cybertron: Siege line!

So what can be done? I know that some fans have taken things into their own hands, setting up accounts with distributors in the US and selling toys via Facebook, their own website or at toy fairs. I know that (at least when it comes to Hasbro and their Marvel Legends line) fans are working with toy companies to help expand the distribution, connecting independent toy stores and toy companies in hopes of expanding the distribution “net”. For a lot of collectors though it seems to be a “suck it and see” or “take it or leave it” situation, a vicious circle where collectors can’t get what they want so they buy online and then when distributors finally release product in the UK and they don’t sell they blame a poor market for lack of sales… And round and round it goes.

What do you think? Do you struggle to find what you want at toy retailers? What do you think could be done to improve the current state of UK toy retail? Let us know in the comments!


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