As Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) continues to sweep through China, international toy companies and retailers are finding they are cut off from the heart of the manufacturing sector. In response, the New York-based United League of Toy Representatives Association (ULTRA) and the International Toy Center (ITC) have organized a New York City Spring and Summer Show (at the ITC from June 23 to 27) as an alternative for retail buyers who would normally be making trips to China this time of year. Asian manufacturers can send their U.S. delegates to the fair to showcase product, but the organizers stress that attendees must be able to prove they have been in the U.S. for at least 10 days prior to the show.
Toymakers in China are worried they will see a huge reduction in orders this year if the epidemic is not brought under control. Hard-hit areas will likely be new products and open (unpackaged) items, according to the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council. And it will be difficult for exporters to cultivate potential buyers, who usually insist on face-to-face meetings, sample inspections and factory visits. At press time, the World Health Organization had reported 5,249 cases in China, and a travel alert for Hong Kong and the Guangdong province (where the majority of product is made) had just been lifted. In 2002, China controlled nearly 70% of toy imports to the U.S. and Europe.
Since most mass-market retailers placed their orders last winter, it’s specialty retailers that stand to suffer if the epidemic continues long-term, says Diane Cardinale, a Toy Industry Association spokesperson. ‘But we haven’t heard of any difficulties yet. People are getting around the travel issue by video- and tele-conferencing,’ she says.
Manufacturers in other regions have noticed considerably more interest from larger international companies, however. Gill Reeves, sales manager for U.K. premium manufacturer Characteristix, says her company has fielded three times the usual amount of inquiries over the last two months, converting about 70% of that interest into orders. ‘Normally, we’re lucky if we can convert 10%,’ she says.