Toy Shoppers Come Down With a Case of the Holiday Blahs
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Toy Shoppers Come Down With a Case of the Holiday Blahs

Sales of toys and games slump as Americans show signs of pulling back

By HARRIET TORRY and BEN GLICKMAN
Sat, Nov 25, 2023 7:00amGrey Clock 4 min

Shoppers couldn’t get enough toys and games during the pandemic. Now, they are finding other ways to spend their time, and that is spelling trouble for toy makers and sellers.

Sales of toys have slumped so far this year, down 8% through September compared with the same period last year, according to market-research firm Circana, and appeared poised to be lacklustre this holiday season. Imports of toys and games have fallen sharply this year and sales at toy stores, department stores and other gift sellers declined in October, leading a broader pullback.

A retrenchment on the most fun-to-give gifts sends a signal that Americans are starting to ease their spending more broadly as pandemic savings dwindle, the labor market softens and shoppers worry about global events and still-elevated inflation. Easing consumer spending would cool overall growth, because it accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

This holiday season is off to a slow start for Wildlings Toy Boutique in Phoenix, which sells classic toys dollhouses and wooden cars and accessories. The store has been trying to drum up customer interest with experiences, including Santa visits and family photo shoots in front of a Christmas-tree backdrop outside the store.

“I think people are reluctant to spend as much and to spend as early,” said owner Jennifer Mawcinitt, who expects people to come in looking for deals on Black Friday.

Larger retailers are seeing similar trends.

Customers are “showing ongoing discretion and making trade-offs to be able to afford the things they want, given the sustained high cost of the things they need,” Walmart Chief Financial Officer John David Rainey told analysts last week.

Experiences valued over things

Early in the pandemic, when many were unable to travel and dine out, Americans shifted their spending toward goods, including toys, games and electronics. That has reversed.

Spending on services has grown roughly double the pace of goods for most of this year as consumers caught up on experiences such as concerts and trips to Europe.

Fewer board games and puzzles are coming off toy store shelves because “people are going outside,” said Katherine Nguyen, owner of Building Blocks Toy Stores, which has three locations in Chicago.

Nguyen is seeing an exception: Shoppers can’t wait to get their hands on toys they can squeeze, such as the Bitzee digital pet and Squishable plush toys. “I don’t have a store big enough to sell” all the stuffed animals now in demand, Nguyen said. She added that those toys are popular in part because they are geared toward social and emotional self-care as children navigate post pandemic life.

Hannah Sweet, a retired care manager in Tiburon, Calif., said she is more cautious about spending this holiday season than in previous years, pointing to concerns about an economic downturn. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal last month put the probability of a recession in the next year at essentially a coin flip.

“I am prioritising gifts to children and grandchildren,” said Sweet, 81 years old. Still, she recently took a trip to Germany and next year plans to go on a river cruise in Europe with family. “It’s important to travel while I can,” Sweet said.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group, expects November and December holiday spending to rise 3% to 4% this year from last, or hold about flat when factoring in inflation. That would be slower than a 5.4% increase in 2022 and a 13% rise in 2021.

Expecting potentially weaker demand, retailers and other sellers ordered fewer toys and other popular gifts from overseas. U.S. imports of toys, games and sporting goods dropped 21.5% in the nine months through September, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department. Bicycle imports fell more than 40%; smartphones declined 16%.

Toy companies struggled to clear out bloated inventories in 2022 after supply-chain snags left retailers with extra stock. Barbie maker Mattel warned that rising prices across the economy and high borrowing costs would likely continue to dent demand for toys this holiday season. Chief Executive Ynon Kreiz said last month that overall industry sales would fall by a mid-single-digit percentage for the full year.

Hasbro, the maker of Monopoly, Play-Doh and Transformers action figures, reported a 10% drop in revenue in the third quarter and cut its full-year guidance because of weak demand.

“We have a cautious outlook on the holiday,” Hasbro Chief Executive Chris Cocks said on a call with analysts. “And I think anyone who says they know how the holiday is going to go, they must have a crystal ball because this has been a tough one to predict.”

Hasbro expects consumers to wait longer to make their purchases and to look for more deals. Some deals are already emerging. Toy prices fell nearly 4% in October from a year earlier, the Labor Department said.

Consumer concerns emerge

Shoppers are facing a number of headwinds that threaten to curtail holiday cheer this year.

Hiring slowed sharply in October and the unemployment rate has risen this year. Paying down credit-card bills is more difficult with interest rates at two-decade highs, and student-loan payments resumed for millions of borrowers. Consumer sentiment in November fell to the lowest level in six months, the University of Michigan said Wednesday.

Americans’ downer attitudes on the economy might not transfer to slashed spending. Many economists saw signs that elevated interest rates would cause consumers to ease up earlier this year. Instead, they spent lavishly, causing economic growth to accelerate.

“Overall, the consumer has been very resilient: that’s why we’re not in a recession,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester.

Nguyen, the owner of Building Blocks, remains optimistic about this holiday season. “People don’t cut out their children,” she said. “Even if they have job insecurity, or worry about food costs,” they still buy gifts for their children, she added.

—Anthony DeBarros contributed to this article.



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The pressure on companies to cut their carbon footprint is coming more from within the organisations themselves than from customers and regulators, according to a new report.

Three-quarters of business leaders from across the Group of 20 nations said the push to invest in renewable energy is being driven mainly by their own corporate boards, with 77% of U.S. business leaders saying the pressure was extreme or significant, according to a new survey conducted by law firm Ashurst.

The corporate call to decarbonise is intensifying, Ashurst said, with 30% of business leaders saying the pressure from their own boards was extreme, up from 25% in 2022.

“We’re seeing that the energy transition is an area that is firmly embedded in the thinking of investors, corporates, governments and others, so there is a real emphasis on setting and acting on these plans now,” said Michael Burns, global co-head of energy at Ashurst. “That said, the pace of transition and the stage of the journey very much depends from business to business.”

The shift in sentiment comes as companies ramp up investment in renewable spending to meet their net-zero goals. Ashurst found that 71% of the more than 2,000 respondents to its survey had committed to a net-zero target, while 26% of respondents said their targets were under development.

Ashurst also found that solar was the most popular method to decarbonise, with 72% of respondents currently investing in or committed to investing in the clean energy technology. The law firm also found that companies tended to be the most active when it comes to renewable investments, with 52% of the respondents falling into this category. The average turnover of those companies was $15.1 billion.

Meanwhile, 81% of energy-sector respondents to the survey said they see investment in renewables as essential to the organisation’s strategic growth.

Burns said the 2030 timeline to reach net zero was very important to the companies it surveyed. “We are increasingly seeing corporate and other stakeholders actively setting and embracing trajectories to achieve net zero. However, greater clarity and transparency on the standards for measuring and managing these net-zero commitments is needed to ensure consistency in approach and, importantly, outcome,” he said.

Legal battles over climate change and renewable investing are also likely to rise, with 68% of respondents saying they expect to see an increase in legal disputes over the next five years, while only 16% anticipate a decrease, the report said.

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