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Back in business… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

With non-essential retailers open once again, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes returns to the high street.

Open. It was nice to see this sign going up on shops last week. After a few weeks of talking to people I reverted back to ‘Looking Out’ this week and managed to visit a few shops which were open for business. I was masked up, kept my two metre distance and gelled my hands – a different style of shopping but it was nice to be back in-store. I also remembered my wallet.

I visited Waterstones in Godalming. As an ex-publishing man I have a fondness for bookshops and books. That said Waterstones is a ‘books plus’ retailer these days. I guess it has to be to compete in the real world and, of course, the online world.

I think Waterstones has developed a good offer with a focus on emerging and developing categories. I get the impression it listens to its consumers, both at a local and national level. A reflection of this is the commitment to board games and puzzles. This is not new for it, but it seems to refresh the offer and tap into new releases well to keep the offer fresh.

Board games and puzzles have performed well generally during lockdown I believe and normally see an upswing in the Christmas period. They also bring a fanbase and board gaming community with them. I imagine this is attractive to Waterstones. While they are part of a bigger group, in my experience Waterstones’ stores have a community feel at a local level.

Board games based on classic film franchises were included in Waterstones' offer.
Board games based on classic film franchises were included in Waterstones' offer.

There were some interesting board game products on sale in Waterstones which were in turn a reflection of current licensing trends. It stocked a Minecraft Builders & Biomes board game. Video gaming to board gaming.

It also featured games based on classic film franchises Top Gun and Back to the Future – these were ranged alongside a Trivial Pursuit Back to the 80s Stranger Things game.

80s and 90s franchises coming to the fore and a reflection of the board game playing demographic.

The Kazoo Solo Round in this Top of the Pops board game peaked Ian's interest.
The Kazoo Solo Round in this Top of the Pops board game peaked Ian's interest.

It also featured a Peaky Blinders boxed game – a reminder that a strong TV drama franchise can translate into licensing if targeted correctly.

Another game I spotted on shelf illustrated that TV brands can become heritage brands and ones that define a genre – Top of the Pops being a great example of this. You instantly know what a Top of the Pops game is about. If you are looking for a music-based game, it is a natural selection. Intriguingly this board game includes a Kazoo Solo Round.

I haven’t played any of these games and a key point to note regarding board games is that they have to be good games and play well. Waterstones uses staff recommendations and reviews to help promote books in-store. Maybe this could be extended to products like board games or it could include player reviews.

I think this could be a useful way of persuading consumers to buy in-store. Board games are relatively expensive purchases and I imagine some consumers waiver over a new purchase if they aren’t familiar with the game.

The Manga and Graphic Novels section underlined the fact Waterstones seeks out emerging and developing trends.
The Manga and Graphic Novels section underlined the fact Waterstones seeks out emerging and developing trends.

I was also encouraged to see the commitment this branch of Waterstones showed to Manga and Graphic Novels. There was a well stocked dedicated section for these titles which included characters and titles such as Judge Dredd, One Piece and Batman. It is good to see a mainstream retailer like Waterstones supporting this category of publishing and it is one that dovetails with licensing.

I think this is a further reminder that Waterstones is seeking out emerging and developing trends, coupled with having a desire to support fan communities. I also like the way Waterstones presents books for younger readers under a Favourite Characters banner. Favourite characters it had in stock included Thomas & Friends, Peppa Pig and Spot. In the best of times good signage helps shoppers, but in current shopping conditions signposting like this helps shoppers move through stores quickly.

Waterstones is also a supporter of general giftware and stationery lines. It naturally gravitates towards book-related properties so it was no surprise to see Harry Potter well stocked. Harry Potter is a great example of a brand that must create a challenge for the rights owner and the licensees. It is a perennial, but how do you keep it fresh and keep consumers buying? One way I think is to show a strong commitment to design and to regularly refresh product formats.

In this context I thought a pencil case that is part of Half Moon Bay’s range was a great example of a simple design having a great visual impact. The pencil case was designed to look like an envelope addressed to Mr H. Potter. It worked well. Although the Royal Mail may be unhappy that the sender hasn’t used Harry’s postcode! Does he have one? Answers on a postcard.

Pets at Home stocks a variety of character-branded aquariums and accessories, like SpongeBob SquarePants.
Pets at Home stocks a variety of character-branded aquariums and accessories, like SpongeBob SquarePants.

I also popped into a local Pets at Home store this week. I didn’t expect to encounter any licensing. The pet market is a tough one for licensing, not least as it is a market dominated by big brands with well established brand presence.

So as I was searching for Tess the Whippet’s lunch I was surprised to see that Pets at Home stocked a range of character-branded aquariums and accessories. Once I got over the initial surprise of seeing this product range I guess it wasn’t a surprise to see that two of the featured brands were SpongeBob SquarePants and Finding Nemo. This is an interesting use of licensing and I guess is appealing to the children – a kind of My First Aquarium. Given the rise in popularity of classic film franchises I expect to see a Jaws Aquarium one day soon or at least a Man from Atlantis one.

Clint Eastwood is currently rubbing shoulders with the likes of Elmo and Daffy Duck at Leake Street Arches.
Clint Eastwood is currently rubbing shoulders with the likes of Elmo and Daffy Duck at Leake Street Arches.

I was also able to pop along to Leake Street Arches in Waterloo. This is one of London’s street art hubs. I was a frequent visitor pre-lockdown but haven’t been there so often recently. It is a really interesting place to visit and a great free art show. Often you can see the street artists painting up their latest creations. I find it a fascinating genre of art to follow and the standard of work can be very high.

Often the artists use well known characters or personalities in their artwork. This is a reminder of how characters are part of pop culture. The characters are not always used in ways that the owner would formally approve, but generally I think it is a mark of achievement to be featured on a wall in Waterloo. I live in hope!

On this visit I spotted Elmo, Daffy Duck and Clint Eastwood. I look forward to being a more frequent visitor over the coming weeks and seeing which characters are featuring. It is a tough gig being a featured character in Leake Street as you only normally last a week or so before you are painted over. Even if you are Clint Eastwood.

It's more like 'Bike to the Future' for Charlie from Wild in Art (sorry, we couldn't resist!)
It's more like 'Bike to the Future' for Charlie from Wild in Art (sorry, we couldn't resist!)

I met Charlie Langhorne from Wild in Art this week and was mentioning the trend I had spotted in board games. He immediately drew my attention to his bike. He has a custom designed bike. The bike features a Back to the Future design that an artist friend did for him.

It is a great paint job and a reminder that films like Back to the Future live on beyond the screen.

Hopefully after dropping a hint like that someone will buy Charlie the Back to the Future board game for Christmas…

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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