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The Licensing Lookout: Changing shopping habits, supermarket apparel and puzzling times

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes checks out some new licensed offers across apparel and publishing on his supermarket trip.

My shopping habits have changed quite dramatically because of the lockdown. At the moment I am doing my 79 year old mum’s shopping once a week. And not much other shopping.

Every Monday at 9am I visit my local Sainsbury’s gloved up and with a handwritten shopping list in gloved hand. Up to last week my focus had been on making sure I achieved 100% compliance procuring all the items of my mum’s list.

This week the store seemed a little less busy so I felt I could wander away from the mixed nuts and dried fruit aisle and venture into the apparel department. I was partly inspired to do this by seeing another shopper buying two or three children’s outfits. It was a welcome reminder that as well as stocking up on toilet rolls you can still buy clothes.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that the apparel category appears to be one of the stalwart licensing categories to be most impacted by the current retail lockdown, with retailers such as Primark reporting a period of nil sales. While it has been widely reported that suppliers have orders cancelled and landed stock is not being put into distribution.

I guess for a retailer like Sainsbury’s being a multi products retailer at the moment is a real strength but, of course, it is a challenge as well. It must be hard to keep all categories in stock and maintain the supply chain. It is also trying to balance the demand for essential products versus making non-essentials available. Consumer behaviour has no doubt changed as well with some items being in higher demand. For example The Grocer reported this week that sales of snacks like crisps and nuts are up.

The store I use also has an Argos in it which adds another dimension to the shopping trip.

The Gruffalo and Peter Rabbit are among the brands featuring in Tu's current apparel range.
The Gruffalo and Peter Rabbit are among the brands featuring in Tu's current apparel range.

Trying not to dwell while browsing and keeping my distance, I thought it would be worthwhile to check out and highlight some of Tu’s current licensing offering. There appeared to be a lot of new stock in-store with a focus on spring and summer lines. I should also say that there was also a sale section clearing stock, but I sense this may always be the case at this time of year as stock is rotated.

One thing struck me immediately in the babywear and accessories category was how the licensees and, of course, the retailer have really upped their game in terms of the quality of garments, the design styling and finish of products. Licensing plays a big part in this category in Sainsbury’s with Peter Rabbit, Paddington, Winnie the Pooh and The Gruffalo featuring. The Peter Rabbit and Gruffalo ranges in particular exemplified how the quality threshold in licensing apparel has been raised and that ranges are achieving a premium feel at affordable prices. Garments feature appliqué and embroidery, while there is care taken with the choice of fabrics plus design investment in things like bespoke patterns to help finish garments off.

Mickey Mouse has featured on multiple design styles to extend retail reach.
Mickey Mouse has featured on multiple design styles to extend retail reach.

I also spotted a Mickey Mouse t-shirt for 3 to 4 year olds which featured some classic poses with letter blocks – another example of how Disney manages to find new design styles for classic characters to extend its retail reach.

Other featured characters in this age group included Hey Duggee and Mr Happy.

Gaming brands such as Minecraft are enjoying ongoing success in apparel.
Gaming brands such as Minecraft are enjoying ongoing success in apparel.

Going up the age range, it was interesting to see the ongoing strength of gaming brands with featured brands including Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft. According to a lot of reports, gaming brands and companies are seeing their content being well used at the moment. This should translate into the category becoming even more significant in licensing terms. Though, of course, increased competition may make it more difficult for some franchises to thrive.

That said TV consumption is on the increase and as reported by LicensingSource yesterday, sign ups to Netflix have rocketed over the last few weeks. This should translate to new and increased interest to some TV driven franchises. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

I didn’t spot too much in the adult apparel category with the exception being a Guinness t-shirt. Maybe there are more products to come into this category. Clearly a challenge for retailers which are operating at the moment is knowing when to switch stock seasonally. Thinking about a ‘summer holiday season’ at the moment doesn’t seem quite right.

Another licensing feature I picked up on the getting my mum’s shopping trip was the use of characters in the craft magazine category. I was looking for puzzle magazines for my mum which brought me to the crafting magazine section.

I have noticed recently craft magazine companies featuring more characters in their magazines as inspiration for projects and in some cases featuring as cover mount gifts. The thought process here I guess is that classic characters create interest and drive sales. The characters have a premium feel to them and also convey a certain amount of exclusivity content wise to the magazines.

Crafting magazines have been featuring more licensed characters in their titles.
Crafting magazines have been featuring more licensed characters in their titles.

It is a category that we have had some success with Aardman’s characters Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit – the publisher’s motivation being that these characters are evergreens, well known and have cross generational appeal. Their readers will enjoy creating items featuring these characters and will be motivated to gift them to friends and family.

Two examples I spotted on this trip bear this out as Knit Now featured a Sesame Street ‘double toy pack’, while Your Crochet & Knitting featured a Make Your Own Bagpuss knit or crochet kit. I am also guessing where available consumers are buying magazines like these to fill time and refresh their handicraft skills.

Related to this, Aardman and Anthem Publishing have launched a ‘mindful’ colouring magazine featuring a full range of Aardman characters including Morph and Creature Comforts. While the retail distribution has been a little bit curtailed, licensee and licensor have worked together on a social media campaign to promote the title and Anthem has been able to take direct consumer orders. This is a good example of some licensees adapting their business model and keeping some business going. Not perfect nor ideal, but it is good to know some companies are still managing to make some sales.

I also got my mum’s puzzle magazines – I had to get three different types in three different formats. My mum worked for the MOD for a number of years and I am starting to suspect she may well have been a codebreaker as opposed to her cover story of working in the mail room!

SuperSocks is busy developing new product such as the Snugzy cushion.
SuperSocks is busy developing new product such as the Snugzy cushion.

Wishing everyone all the best in this difficult times. As I have said before, licensing is a network business based on a community. We are all part of the community and don’t be afraid to dip into the community for help and support. I know it is hard to laugh or smile at the moment, but I thought I would share an image of a new product in development by SuperSocks.

It is busy trying to keep going and selling online using social media to support its products. One of which is the Snugzy, a cushion that you can get printed with a photo image. It has an Aardman licence for this and to show how things work it sent me a prototype – featuring me as Wallace as a cushion.

I am sharing it with you to confirm that in licensing almost anything is possible… keep smiling when you can.

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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