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The toy industry has certainly had its fair share of challenges and changes over the past few years. UK toy sales reportedly declined by 7% in 2018 to £3.3bn. While the loss of retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us was a factor, the decline was also fuelled by dips in consumer confidence and spending, as well as Brexit uncertainty resulting in consumers being more cautious around their spending habits.
While some innovative toy companies have generated growth and strong development such as Funko and Jazwares, many toy companies who appear to be in growth on the surface have in fact been involved in mergers, changes in their distribution model or acquisition activity in order to fuel this. It isn’t all doom and gloom in retail though, particularly with some retailers such as discounters who are moving more towards a better shopping experience and more of a credible multi-channel offering, and are generally doing well due to the change in consumer perception and quest for quality and value. Premium independents, as well as the larger toy specialists, are also having some success due to slick business models. But in these times of uncertainty, toy companies are operating in less than favourable circumstances and 2020 looks like it will be much of the same.
Despite a challenging trading environment, some companies can and will continue to grow. The sales role specifically has significantly changed and will continue to do so - businesses need to keep their eyes on the ball and continue to innovate and change or they will be left behind. The industry itself has evolved massively in the past few years. Children have different wants to those just 10 years ago: they have iPads, mobiles and access to YouTube. The age range of certain toy appeal has also changed, dolls may have been suitable for children aged 4-8 in years gone by but they are now deemed more suitable for 4–6 year olds, whilst many boys desire to play with computer games rather than traditional toys. Keeping on top of what kids want as well as finding innovative ways to appeal to the modern consumers means doing things differently to keep ahead.
Arguably, as important as toy innovation is for the year ahead, there should be a real focus on the people in your company. Whilst product is key, having the wrong people in your business will be costly and restrict growth – it’s a recipe for disaster. In difficult times companies need to invest in their employees and in the words of Richard Branson, “If you look after your staff they will look after your customers. It’s that simple.” For companies to do well, they need smart salespeople, people with passion, people who really care. Not just people who can sell ‘ice to eskimos’ but people who understand the businesses they are selling into; they are analytical, they can build relationships and they have their customers best interests at heart. Some high-profile retailers have gone into administration in the last few years and the uncertainty in the market means there being fewer retailers operating in the toy space by the end of this year is a real possibility. The retailers that still exist will have less support staff and they need account managers that can help support their businesses and be the support function they need. The role of the national and key account managers has changed, and toy companies need to be hiring the highest calibre of talent to support existing accounts as well as demonstrating the trust new clients require.
Account managers not only need to be highly organised, but they also need to be doing much more of what was traditionally the retailer’s job. Helping with the planning/ordering/forecasting process, recommending display improvements and being in constant communication regarding new products and issues are all key. Stewart Middleton, former Managing Director of IMC Toys, suggests that “With tighter margins both sides, retailers need good advice, they need to have account managers that give great advice on numbers and the best lines for the retailer to maximise their business, this only comes from switched on, motivated, knowledgeable salespeople.” The process is much more sophisticated than it has been in previous years when sales teams just took the order and left – retailers want to work with national and key account managers with commercial mindsets that actually bring added value for them.
While a talented salesperson also needs to bring passion to your business, loyalty and a commitment to work hard in the toughest of trading circumstances is also essential. Industry knowledge is important and a plus factor, but core skills and personality traits can be deemed more important as some of these cannot be taught. Depending on the role, understanding the allied markets that you can explore is crucial.
Lastly, no matter what the role is you are recruiting for, cultural fit is crucial in order to find employees that will stay at your business and feel the same passion about your company as you do. I spoke to Alf Blohm – Sales Manager at Playmobil – about this whilst working on a retained assignment for him, he said: “Assessing culture fit during an interview process and imagining a potential new employee fitting in with the existing team is just as important as looking at their previous experience.”
I have conversations daily with sales professionals in the toy industry about what it is they desire from their next role to be happy and motivated, and whilst obviously everyone is unique, there are some consistent trends: a positive culture, flexibility, and the ability to have an impact and make a difference. Many candidates I speak to are happy to move roles for the same salary if it means they have those three elements.
Just as the toy industry has changed, so has the role of a head-hunter or recruitment professional; it’s not just a case of putting an advert out and waiting for clients to come to us. To attract the best talent to your business, recruiters really need to get to grips with your company so they can position exactly how great the opportunity is. To find the highest calibre of talent a different approach is needed, and that head-hunter must be a strategic partner to your business. They need to be more proactive, commercial, able to see and make opportunities rather than looking for quick wins. But how do you encourage this approach?
From my many years as a head-hunter, I know that hiring managers tend to utilise recruitment agencies when there is simply no other choice due to the role becoming business critical. Many hiring managers assume that they will get the best results by having multiple recruitment professionals working on the same vacancy because surely briefing three agencies means a better view of the market, right? Wrong! In most cases, this would usually lead to 20% of the market being explored by multiple people presenting the same ‘active’ candidates.
Operating on a retained basis, and partnering with an industry recruiter instead, allows the recruiter to map out the market and access all talent that may not be actively looking for a new opportunity; these candidates can often be some of the most exceptional talent on the market. I’ve found that working on a retained or exclusive basis with my clients allows me to spend the time needed to truly understand their needs and the requirements of my candidates, allowing for a perfect fit! In fact, working in this way has allowed me to build such great relationships that when a recent candidate found out I was working on a particular role in the toy industry, they specifically asked me to represent them instead of another agency. As a company, this partnership results in a great trusting relationship with a professional who will actively map out your market to find the very best talent for your business and enable your business to reach its objectives.
This approach also means the person you are partnered with can identify all the little things that make someone want to work at your business, from an external perspective. For me, this is everything from the way I am greeted when I first go to a client’s business, to the office layout and to the business’ performance and detailed plans of the future. To persuade a talented national account manager to join your business when they are happy and settled, the person recruiting on your behalf must know every little detail of the role, the business and also be a complete expert in the industry.
A recent role I worked on, a talented senior sales candidate had decided to take a different role whilst awaiting an interview with my client, but it was only through knowing the intricate details of the role that I could sell my client against a business she was already keen on joining. Knowledge is power and, in this case, won my client someone who will make a huge impact on their business. Without the retained approach I wouldn’t have been able to invest the time I needed to really become a brand ambassador for the business. Changing jobs is a massive step for many people and they need to have confidence in the business and the person doing their recruitment. If you are not working in partnership with the person headhunting your future talent and they aren’t an extension of your business, they cannot instil the confidence a passive candidate needs to take a leap of faith into a new job.
2020 promises to be a challenging year for toy companies and one that requires companies to not only think innovatively with their products but also to think differently about the skills their sales employees need and the approach they take to future recruitment. If you operate in the toy industry, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what 2020 holds and the importance of your account managers to the success of your business in the comments below.
Toy World Mag, UK Toy Market Experiences a Challenging 2018 but Remains Positive for 2019