Spielwarenmesse: What is the right time to bring a product to market?

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What is the right time to bring a product to market?

from Steve Reece

In most Western toy markets, there are two major selling seasons – Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter or Fall/Winter, depending on which side of the Atlantic you sit! Yet in this day and age of ‘disruptive’ technologies and socio-economic change, should we still take these 2 seasons as being THE ‘set in stone’ launch timings? Our world has changed so much in the last ten to twenty years, yet we still rely on these ‘old school’ seasonal windows. Should we question this? What would happen if we launched out of season?

The classic pattern is that higher price point TV advertised, feature driven toys tend to be more prevalent for the 2nd half of the year in the run up to peak season trading in November/December. Whereas the first half of the year tends to see more launches of pocket money toys, not least of which would be collectables, a major growth area in many markets in the last few years. Popular  as well are outdoor toys due to seasonal weather patterns encouraging children to spend more time outside.

To look at this issue of releasing toys at the right time, I believe we should first look at the fundamental factors involved. There are two key drivers – bricks & mortar retail and consumer habits especially with regard to Thanksgiving/Christmas season.

Out of season launches

Mass market bricks & mortar retailers are set up to focus on as well as maximise a limited number of huge retail events throughout the year (in the major Western markets). The major events overall are:

  • post-Christmas sales when consumers have less propensity to spend big
  • Easter
  • school summer holidays
  • back to school
  • Halloween
  • Thanksgiving/Christmas

While there are some lean & keen retailers who are capable & willing in terms of breaking out of these traditional windows, the reality is that the biggest retailers in the world & the biggest drivers of toy sales are not that quick and not that flexible. They need to maximise everything around these established windows when they know consumers will part with their hard-earned money. The reality for some of these major retailers is that their sell-in process/cycle is slow and the main action takes place quite some time in advance of the eventual in store window. Therefore, it is harder for them to manage out of season launches on any scale. Therefore, by the old school bricks & mortar retail model, it is hard to launch out of season and to still maximise potential sales value.

What of the new retail paradigm though? An online retailer surely has much less issue/structural intransigence to overcome, don’t they? Well yes and no…yes in that it’s easier to change an online page than to completely re-merchandise a physical retail outlet. However, it’s no in that established consumer behaviour and shopping patterns are still focused on the long-established retail windows. So even if an online retailer decided they totally wanted to buck the trend for whatever reason, they would not or at least should not presume they can completely change consumer behaviour without very significant consumer communication & marketing. This would need to be costly to be effective, so they would need to be sure of payback. Moreover, we should not forget that much online retail is driven by retailers who also have and were founded on physical stores, so organisationally may struggle to lift themselves out of the old ways and old windows.

The bottom line then appears to be that despite all the disruption of the past two decades, the structure of retail and established consumer shopping patterns/windows seem to limit the opportunity to do something really big outside the traditional windows.

Consider the opportunities of atypical launch timings

Perhaps counter intuitively though, this assertion actually highlights where the opportunity is to launch outside the traditional timings. Where toy companies do not need to achieve big sales quickly, they could well consider atypical launch timings. The toy industry as a whole is very focused on Christmas, and so there is huge competition for shelf space/listings. Which means advertising investment is very high to justify these listings. Sometimes an atypical approach can break a new launch out from the noise. Launching earlier in the season can be a good thing in some circumstances.

From a personal perspective, I have launched major strategic initiatives after the official sell-in window was long since closed. The reality is that we achieved maximum 50% of the potential sales volume in the year if we had the luxury of a full sell-in window. However, on some delayed but critical initiatives, the late launch allowed us to cherry pick the right retailers to support our launch versus having to keep in the good books of all retailers with a full launch. In one particular instance, we managed to get unprecedented in store placement by delivering a key product so late that only one retailer could take it. As a result, they went massive on the product, it was a huge success and for the following season we had a very strong selling story which allowed us to get full & strong distribution across retail.

I also remember conceiving a product in August & having it on shelf for October 1st. This is a very nervy process I would have to admit, and there is no room for mistakes or delays with such an initiative, yet it allowed us to deliver incremental sales & to fill gaps for retailers who had to delist products with issues.

Movie’s & toy licenses have their own seasons

Finally, the period April-June tends to be very heavy with blockbuster movies, and the accompanying toy ranges. The late spring/early summer launch allows for the sales curve to last up until Christmas with an early boost in the first half of the year followed by a spike when the DVD is released into peak season trading. And there is the greatest example of bucking the traditional launch window – there is nothing more mainstream or mass market than toys based on a blockbuster superhero movie, yet the size of the retail event is such that the rules can be rewritten to straddle Spring/Summer & peak season planograms!

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