According to Downsey — Edition 17 (The UK Toy Fair, the Spring Gift Fair and Top Drawer)

This article was written by Ian Downes, Director at Start Licensing Limited, for The Bugg Report.

The first few weeks of the New Year in the UK have been dominated by trade shows — we have had the UK Toy Fair, the Spring Gift Fair and Top Drawer. Many people from the licensing community would also have attended the Nuremberg Toy Fair. Having been to all three of the UK shows I feel quite optimistic on behalf of licensing and the role it is playing in the toy and gift categories.

An overall observation from all three shows is that licensing is being used in creative ways, in new product areas and a wider pool of companies are using licensing to bolster their product portfolios. That said the UK Licensing market is still highly competitive and at times it is easy to conclude that supply is outstripping demand.

Top Drawer is a gift orientated show that focusses more on independent, specialist and heritage style retailers. Products that are presented by exhibitors tend to be higher ticket price ones. Traditionally it was a licensing light show with very few examples of licensing on show. That seems to be changing with more licensed products available. There also seems to be a shift in exhibitors with some companies attending Top Drawer who didn’t previously do so. This is arguably because they are looking for new retail outlets for their products as it has become more challenging in the mass retail market.

It was interesting to see arts and crafts products to the fore at the show — a legacy of Lockdown when we spent more time making things to while away time. This has fired up more interest in craft related products. PlayPress are a good example of a company that are tapping into this trend with their papercraft construction kits. They feature licenses such as The Gruffalo and Shaun the Sheep. In their case licensing has helped put them on the retail radar.


It was also interesting to see how some brands are working with licensees to create special editions or designs for classic characters. One good example of this was a range of Miffy soft toys from Bon Ton Toys which are finished in patterned fabrics and corduroy. This range exists in parallel with traditional plush but gives gift retailers a fresh way of tapping into the Miffy market.

I anticipate more brand owners developing parallel programmes using design to deliver different product options for different parts of the market. It is also good to see companies taking an innovative approach to product development. Licensee Music Box Cards has used classic characters like The Snowman to develop musical greetings cards that also feature really imaginative paper engineering. A good example of how a traditional format like greetings cards can be enhanced.

The UK Toy Fair was not unexpectedly peppered with licensing ranges and this wasn’t just Peppa Pig. The show confirmed that certain trends were carrying on quite strongly and also helped shine a light on some emerging trends. One key feature of the show is the growing strength of fan driven franchises.


Companies like Funko are experts at developing collectible products for fans such as their iconic Pop! vinyl figures whilst exhibitors like Abysse were showcasing products like figurines featuring anime and manga characters. New TV platforms and events like Comic Con have helped shine a light on the fan market and this light has attracted in more mainstream licensees. Hopefully companies are undertaking some research into the market to appreciate what fans want. There is a danger that this market could become saturated.

Another company that caught my eye in this context was Playmobil who have licenses such as Asterix and Naruto which they have blended into their core product range. This is a good example of a classic toy brand embracing new opportunities but not losing its own identity.

Wallace & Gromit
Wallace & Gromit

There was also a strong showing for arts and crafts products at the Toy Fair. It was good to see a licensee I work with Paper Engine receiving great feedback on their range of Wallace & Gromit card construction kits which include items like Wallace’s rocket.

Wallace & Gromit’s rocket was selected as a Toy Fair Hero product by the organisers. This resulted in great publicity including an appearance on national TV. The Toy Fair Hero initiative is a really good one from the show organisers and shows how a tradeshow can be a springboard for an industry.

The UK Giftware Association cleverly chose to use the Spring Fair as the location for the live judging for the Gift of the Year awards. There had been some judging beforehand to arrive at a group of finalists across a collection of categories that reflect the gift industry.
I was fortunate enough to be a judge and found it to
be a very rewarding experience.

At a general level it was encouraging to see the high standard of entries and the quality of products being developed. One awards category is for Branded Gift which is dominated by licensed products — the finalists for this were announced recently and featured brands include Wallace & Gromit, Peter Rabbit, Disney and the V & A. Interestingly Colin the Caterpillar and Percy Pig characters created by retailer M & S also feature.

The retailer has worked with The Bottled Baking Company to create baking kits in a bottle featuring these characters. M & S had recognised the unique appeal of The Bottled Baking Company and engaged with them to create these products for their stores. Licensed products featured in other categories and licensing is clearly playing a strong role in the gift sector. Reviewing a selection of the finalists also gives a good insight into the changing shape of the licensing landscape with rights emerging from a diverse range of sources including music, heritage, design and art.

It’s easy to think of licensing as character licensing, but there is a lot more going on in the market these days. This shift in the source of rights has also opened up licensing to different companies and retailers and this is a good development for the wider industry, as we need to broaden the pool of participants and finds ways of widening the appeal of licensing.

Tradeshows can certainly help with this as they underpin the value of licensing whilst trade association lead initiatives like the Gift of the Year and Toy Fair Hero programme really help put licensed (and other) products in the limelight. Hopefully the recent tradeshows have encouraged retailers to buy into licensing and licensed ranges not least as they bring an audience with them and readymade momentum.

This article originally appeared in The Bugg Report Magazine Edition 43