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A whistlestop tour of the high street… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes heads ‘out out’ again on the high street for a whistlestop licensing tour.

Summoning up the spirit of Dale Winton and Supermarket Sweep, I took a quick run down Sutton high street this week. It is the first time I have been ‘out out’ on a high street for a while and I set myself the task of spotting licensing ‘highlights’ on a whistlestop tour. Not quite going wild in the aisles but a fair old challenge.

My Sutton sweep took place on a Wednesday around 11am and it was a rainy morning. With this in mind it wasn’t a surprise that the high street felt a lot quieter than I remember it being pre-lockdown. Like many high streets, Sutton has standalone shopping centres on it – the main one is the St Nicholas Centre. Again this felt less busy. It was being well managed in terms of the flow of people and social distancing, but I am guessing all the shops would welcome more customers at the moment.

The other general observation I made – which again is not a surprising one – was that virtually every retailer was running a sales promotion with shop windows populated with Blue Cross sales, 50% off offers and variations on a theme of BOGOFS. Retailers are doing their best to drum up business and stimulate spending. Interestingly, most of the cafés and restaurants seemed busy with consumers taking advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out offer that runs Monday to Wednesdays. This promotion seems to be working, although this week some restaurants have expressed concerns about it and are worried that Thursday to Sundays are now proving very quiet for them.

Keeping the high street alive is a big challenge – it was challenging pre-lockdown but now it is tougher still. It occurred to me as I conducted my rapid retail tour that Licensing PLC may well be able to help the high street. For example I think character signage and photo opportunities placed along the high street would add some colour and fun. While I could see companies like Rainbow Productions with costume visits (carefully managed of course) and Wild in Art with Art Trails helping to add extra reasons to visit. Beyond this maybe town centres and councils could use licensed character promotions to promote town centres and shopping. Years ago Glasgow City Council used Mr Happy to promote the city in an iconic campaign Glasgow Smiles Better – this is a good template to reference in current times. Loyalty style schemes with licensed merchandise as rewards or links with local community groups and schools would also be worth looking at.

Returning to my Looking Out – here are my highlights:

PlayStation and Justice League featured in Next.
PlayStation and Justice League featured in Next.

Next – my impression was that Next is using licensing in a light touch way, picking its properties carefully. It seems to have embraced gaming as a category it has placed some faith in. In the boyswear section I saw a range of Minecraft and PlayStation garments. Further confirmation that gaming is a key part of the licensing mix these days.

It was also good to see Next investing in product development with its licensed supplier. For example, it had a Justice League t-shirt with a sequin embellishment. Adding this kind of design detail to a t-shirt helps give consumers a fresh reason to buy and keeps things on trend.

Tweety Pie popped up in New Look, although there wasn't much other licensed product.
Tweety Pie popped up in New Look, although there wasn't much other licensed product.

New Look – I struggled to bag any licensing in New Look and I heard Dale cajoling me to get a move on. I managed to spot some rather cute Tweety Looney Tunes socks. I think Dale would have approved.

This spot reinforced the value of classic characters in fast fashion, not least for their recognition factor. They resonate with consumers. Even on an essential product like socks, good design can help create a sale. These socks really stood out in a crowded fixture.

There was a lot of space dedicated to the CAT brand in Debenhams.
There was a lot of space dedicated to the CAT brand in Debenhams.

Debenhams – of course there is a cloud over Debenhams at the moment and this certainly cast a shadow over the shop. I must say in Debenhams I really felt for the staff and retail staff in general. It must be a very worrying time to work in retail on a number of levels. There seem to be negative headlines and stories every day about retail with much talk about redundancies, but shop staff are still going into work everyday keeping shops open.

I guess from our side, and thinking of our industry, this is a time to get out and spend some money in-store. Anyway in Debenhams the licensing example that stood out for me was in the footwear department.

There was a fair amount of space given over to CAT/Caterpillar boots, shoes and sandals. This is a great example of how a brand has been cultivated in a category and has become established as a brand in that category. Brand licensing takes time and is about nurturing things over the long-term. The CAT footwear range is a great example of brand licensing.

Pepsi lip balms were among the licensed highlights in Primark.
Pepsi lip balms were among the licensed highlights in Primark.

Primark – this seemed to be the busiest store I visited. I guess this again isn’t a surprise as I can’t remember ever visiting a Primark store that wasn’t busy. That said this time it was definitely less busy. However its product mix, emphasis on keen prices and turnover of stock remains a compelling mix. Licensing is clearly important to Primark and it uses it throughout the store and across categories.

Highlights included Pepsi Cola lip balms presented in lip-shaped tins. This was really well merchandised on a clip strip fixture and stood out. Primark is not afraid of using space to sell products, with a commitment to in-store displays and posters. I noticed a display full of Harry Potter socks and shoe liners – there should never be a reason for a Harry potter fan to go sockless.

Primark seems to sell a lot of socks: there was a whole fixture of ‘Cosy Socks’ which featured a lot of licensed socks ranging from Minnie Mouse through to Tony the Tiger. Disney is a big partner for Primark and there are plenty examples of Disney character products in-store including a number of prominent displays. It was also interesting to see items like Toy Story t-shirts presented in simple monotones relying on the iconic appeal of the brand logo. It seems that classic logos are on trend at the moment.

M&S' Colin the Caterpillar is 30 this year.
M&S' Colin the Caterpillar is 30 this year.

Marks & Spencer – my first observation here was how it has extended its own characters like Percy Pig and Colin the Caterpillar. Both these characters have been extended into a range of categories across confectionery, cakes and bakery. Colin the Caterpillar is apparently 30 years old this year and is being celebrated in-store. I wonder if M&S has been tempted to extend these characters further?

My initial impression was that M&S was very light in licensing terms, but I was encouraged to see the range of Roald Dahl childrenswear developed in association with the Natural History Museum. This collaboration has produced a fantastic range with some great designs. M&S has given it a lot of space and it is fair to assume this is working well. Part of the success must be due to the high quality design. Good on all involved for going the extra mile with this range.

Licensing also features heavily in M&S’ greeting cards department. One card that stood out for me was a Star Wars one which I think is using classic comic art. Further confirmation that comic art is an enduring theme in licensing.

There has been a rise in crafting magazines using licensed characters.
There has been a rise in crafting magazines using licensed characters.

WH Smith – another retailer that appears to be under pressure. Interestingly the Sutton branch, which is quite a big one on two levels, now features a Post Office branch and a Clearance Outlet. I have seen Post Offices in WH Smith before but not Clearance Outlets. I wonder if the latter is now a regular part of the offer and a way of competing with value retailers, particularly in core areas like stationery.

One trend I have noticed in the magazine category recently has been a rise in crafting magazines using characters for magazine projects and covermounts. A culmination of this is the development of standalone titles based entirely on a specific brand. A good example of this was a crochet magazine based on Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle Duck. The magazine comes with all the kit needed to crochet your own characters. This seems like a very smart use of characters that are well suited to the medium.

Some small encouragement for licensing was that WH Smith included a licensed Vintage Ladybird card in its in-store promotion for the card range. A reminder that licensing and greetings cards are strongly connected.

A Crayola craft range had dedicated space in Poundland.
A Crayola craft range had dedicated space in Poundland.

Poundland – licensing pops up throughout the store with pockets of products in a range of categories. However the highlight for me on this visit was spotting a range of value products from Crayola. Given dedicated space Crayola has developed a Craft It with Crayola range. Price marked mini packs of crafting kits and accessories make a strong impact in-store and it is a great example of a well known brand recognising there is value in value.

I imagine Poundland is delighted to feature a brand like Crayola in-store. I assume it is a direct deal from Crayola. It may make a few other toy, arts and craft brands think about how they can play in Poundland.

The Works has stocked up in the jigsaw and board game category.
The Works has stocked up in the jigsaw and board game category.

The Works – the retailer really adheres to the ‘pile it high sell it cheap’ school of retailing. It seems to be a winning formula. It also does it in a very well laid out way. Its buyers have a good eye for product and pitching things at attractive prices. Licensed products and brands feature throughout the store, but priced to compete with other products on seemingly equal terms.

My visit there reminded me how well jigsaw puzzles and board games have performed during lockdown. In response to this, The Works has stocked up on both categories and it was good to see a number of licensed products within this offering.

Observing a few customers in The Works, it seems to be the sort of shop that has hit the spot with consumers in delivering what they are looking for. It combines a good offer price wise with a great selection of products and also products that inspire consumers to buy. Other categories it supports in-depth are, of course, books but also arts and crafts plus party goods.

Waterstones stocks a range of Haynes kits.
Waterstones stocks a range of Haynes kits.

Waterstones – this was the final leg of my high street hike. Waterstones is a retailer that has reinvented itself as a ‘books plus’ retailer. It combines bookselling with strong offerings in other categories such as stationery, greetings cards, puzzles, games, toys and giftware.

It has managed to blend products well and recognises that it is sensible to theme product offerings around certain brands and licences. It dips into a range of different types of licensing and doesn’t just focus on ‘hot’ licences or children’s licences. For example, it stocks a fair amount of heritage licences such as The British Museum and also other brands such as Haynes.

It features a number of Haynes kits such as a Build Your Own Camera kit. A nice feature of these kits is that they are sold with a Haynes’ manual that ties in with the kit.

In the children’s area again, it was using licences from the heritage sector such as the Natural History Museum to top up the book offering. For example it stocked a Natural History Museum Dinosaur Torch and Projector from Brainstorm. These are good pick up items and brands such as the Natural History Museum reassure consumers.

Waterstones, as you might expect, backs classic and evergreen characters, many of which owe their origins to publishing, but it also embraces characters such as Peppa Pig mixing book ranges with toys, puzzles and accessories.

It was good to be back out on the high street and I enjoyed my quick tour. I also bought a few things and got some new business ideas from seeing some products. I found it really beneficial to take off from my screen and Zooming. Visiting Sutton made it clear to me that retailers are facing big challenges at the moment.

From a licensing point of view, it’s sensible to think about what can we do to support retail individually or corporately. I think there is scope to add value to the high street by leveraging licensing in a creative way. Also spending time and money in shops might help. Get those tills ringing or better still beeping!

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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