UK toy firms battle to prevent nightmare before Christmas
At a warehouse northwest of London, dozens of workers sort boxes of Christmas toys, scanning barcodes and moving them on forklift trucks.
The depot for The Entertainer chain of toy shops is getting busier as the festive season approaches, running three shifts of 50 workers every day.
But as Christmas nears, the company's chairman, Gary Grant, is concerned about meeting sustained demand as the UK grapples with a supply chain crisis. "Our challenge is now releasing containers from the port, we're struggling with lorry drivers," he told AFP.
"We need more warehouse workers," he added, shouting instructions to a foreman in the depot, one of the company's two, that ship to their 172 shops across the country.
Caught between post-Brexit labour shortages and rising costs for raw materials and transport, the British toy retail industry is facing a potential nightmare before Christmas.
The Entertainer, which with its online business claims a 10 per cent share of the UK toy market, makes half its turnover between the beginning of October and December.
It usually hires temporary staff before the annual rush to receive, handle and dispatch lorries full of Lego sets, Barbie dolls and other popular toys in the busy period.
In November and December, up to 150 people can be working at any one time in the Amersham facility 24 miles (38 kilometres) from the capital.
But 2021 has caused a real headache, Grant explained, with many temporary workers, many of them from eastern Europe, now missing because of tighter post-Brexit immigration rules.
A shortage of lorry drivers across the UK is also a serious problem when thousands of items have to be transported from ports to warehouses, then on to the high street.
Britain is short of some 100,000 lorry drivers, which has caused delivery problems across various sectors for weeks, leading to delays and empty shelves.
At the same time, fears about the supply of fuel because of a lack of tanker drivers caused panic-buying, long queues at filling stations, as well as frustration and anger.
To compound problems, Britain's largest port, Felixstowe, has been battling a backlog, with container ships full of Christmas goods being diverted to the European mainland.
Britain's full departure from the European Union in January has piled extra administrative hassles and costs onto companies like The Entertainer, which also has 34 stores in Spain.
"When we export to Europe to our stores (there) we have to pay more duties," said Grant, who began in business in the 1970s selling skateboards in Amersham, his hometown.
Imports also mean more paperwork and cost, now that Britain has left the European single market and customs union. "Leaving Europe has had quite a large impact on efficiency and large impact on cost," he added.
Brexit woes are far from the only thorn in the side of the executive as he deals with the snarl-up in the supply chain and the resulting costs.
"The freight costs from the Far East, from China to the UK, have gone up 10 times more," he said. The price of essential materials like metal, wood, plastic and electrical components have "absolutely rocketed in the last three months", he added.
That, inevitably, means Santa will have to pick up the bill. Grant expects that with inflationary costs, the price of toys from Asia will rise by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent over the coming year.
The British government has blamed global container and lorry driver shortages, as well as coronavirus travel restrictions, which meant many foreign workers were unable to return.
It has been at pains to reassure consumers, even as the turkey and pig industry also warn of a shortage of festive food because of a lack of staff, including butchers and abattoir workers.
Christmas tree sellers have similarly said the price of traditional firs could rise because of greater import costs and the price of raw materials.