Natural progress

<p>In New York last week I did some store checking. Two things struck me about the general retail environment, and they show how quickly things can change once a tipping point is reached in consumer behaviour&mdash;or rather in what retailers believe consumers are ready for.</p>
<p>The first has been creeping up for a long time: the vanishing of character licensed product in department stores, the gift trade, and destination chains such as Babies R Us. I saw almost no character-based ranges in key categories such as clothing and bedding, which is an immense cultural change after the character licensing industry's explosion in the 1980s. American licensees are now looking to the book trade to provide a retail environment for their products. Toy and stationery producers in particular feel the only way to put their character ranges in context is to sell them in book stores, alongside the books.</p>
<p>It underlines the fact that publishing is seen as the most stable and respectable part of character licensing&mdash;books have the ability to give a brand stamina, and publishing tends to be the category that lasts longest in many licensed programmes. It also confirms that, in the US at least, bookshops are out to provide a much broader offer than books alone, particularly in children's&mdash;they want to be leisure and entertainment destinations. Perhaps they also see this as the way to compete with the interconnectivity of online shopping.</p>
<p>The second and most surprising thing is the speed with which environmental concern is changing the US market. A year ago it was hard to persuade a US licensee or &shy;retailer that organic or fair traded goods were of value to the consumer. Now they have overtaken the Brits: environmentally-friendly and &quot;clean&quot; products are everywhere, particularly for very young children where parental concern is at its greatest.&nbsp;</p>
<p>Publishing has been slower to respond to this. Colour and novelty printing is mostly sourced in China, where FSC-certified paper is hard to come by in sufficient quantity and quality. But it isn't just about materials; it is about reducing carbon footprints by bringing print back from Asia, and about all the initiatives in discussion on returns, firm sale for backlist and better stock management on both sides of the industry to reduce waste.</p>
<p>These are important issues for the UK market too, because they are increasingly decision drivers for consumers. This puts them high on the agenda for commercial as well as soci&shy;ally responsible reasons.</p>