Lord and Lady Latex, are titles that have not been bequeathed by Political benefactors, or an obsequious senior Civil Servant but by a friend who has also spent much of their working life within the same industry, and felt that for most of the time he had known Julia and I, we were flogging the odd latex balloon or two. The emphasis being on latex , which is also relevant to the context of this post.
I need to indulge a little and talk briefly about my working past as it will , hopefully, help to illustrate what I am going to say.
Travel back a long way, to a time when Mylar (foil) balloons did not exist , before Balloon Decorating started , pre huge colour ranges, and multiple sizes, to a time when the humble Toy Balloon was considered thus… Just a Toy. I was brought up with them. I was surrounded by them , not literally as I rarely saw one in my youth,almost certainly never in the house, but metaphorically. My parents lived and died Latex Balloons. Sounds quite odd and dark, but it is a lot simpler than that. They were involved in the manufacturing and selling of ‘Toy Balloons’. They was wat put bread on plate , wood in fire and roof over ‘ead…as Dickens may have said but didn’t, unless he had spent a lot of time in Yorkshire and didn’t tell anyone.
Even before working in the business I was often taken to trade fairs (oh yes that was a proper holiday). I participated in the Nuremberg Toy Fair before I left school. What I am trying to say is that I have experienced many an economic cycle and a myriad of unfortunate events that would have otherwise destroyed the market for lesser product.
From the miners strike in the early seventies, the oil crisis mid seventies, and rampant inflation(edging to 26%)recession in the early eighties, recession in the nineties, to the banking crisis and finally our present covid conditions, nothing has dampened the demand for the humble latex balloon. During the Oil crisis in the mid seventies in the UK , there was a three day working week. I can very clearly remember at the years first trade show everyone doubling their orders. During massive inflation , having to increase our prices by over 20% being told by customers they wanted a bigger increase(not really anything to do with the demand for balloons , a rather nuanced commercial input. However, the customer was not concerned that it would stop the consumer buying). The vicious nasty little bug that cowers all before it cannot dampen the enthusiasm for the The Toy Balloon. I would go as far as to say it has only increased it. During this crisis, it would not be out of order to add it to the list(at least in the UK) of toilet rolls, pasta, bicycles, and puppies . Once again it defies all expectations.
Now , I must wave a red flag to any Lockdown Entrepreneurs who are thinking …aah hah There’s a few bob to be made here ….the market is not short of supply . There are plenty of manufacturers and the market is very aggressive. By dint of the product’s durability, it has already gone the distance of attracting entrepreneurs . So back off!
The latex balloon is no longer just a Toy. It is a product with many homes, backgrounds to corporate events , decorating major sporting occasions , weddings, key celebrations, lifestyle enhancer…..the list goes on. Take a peek on Instagram and Pinterest to see how balloons are used now. Consequently, especially in the UK you would rarely find Latex balloons on sale in a Toy Shop. This differs to a degree in the rest of Europe. Twenty five years ago, the go to retail outlet for the humble balloon was a toy shop, but ironically it got too complicated for the toy industry . Ranges grew like Topsy and I think they took the view that to do it properly took too much space. And they were probably right . Yet I still maintain that whilst a single sku of bog standard toy balloons ,may not return as much cash, it will take return far more % profit per square inch than nearly anything else in a toy store.
So what is the allure of this simple object ? It is not without its opponents. Over the years it has had confrontations with the farming lobby, and environmentalists. Even today many think that latex balloons are made of plastic. Clue in title, please err ‘….Latex. There are those that are Balloon Phobic. I have encountered customers who would not step onto an exhibition stand as they are frightened of balloons. Not many, I hasten to add, I can only remember two . But there again I suppose I would not meet them all as they wouldn’t have come anywhere near me .
There are few that would walk into a room full of balloons, and not raise a smile. After a short while that same person, child or adult, would defer to childhood, and want to play with them, even if it is a sophisticated decoration. Maybe because they float or have a life of their own they subconsciously imbue a feeling hope, happiness and maybe even a touch of freedom. I have a sneaky feeling this is a peculiarly UK thing (and North America) . I am not sure this has translated to such a degree into mainland Europe, though I don’t see why it wont. Balloonwise , we are ahead of the game. A customer of mine (who is very close to the action on this one ) said he saw this coming sometime ago. He saw a movement to people playing (in a craft way) but suspected it would take another couple years to go mainstream. In his opinion , Covid has only hastened the timeline.
A toy it may no longer just be. Its development into adulthood has only just fortified its resilience and maintained its humility .