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Protecting consumers from counterfeit toys this festive season

(Image credit: Image Credit: Gustavo Frazao / Shutterstock)

Over recent weeks, the news has been full of headlines regarding shortages caused by a disrupted supply chain. While food and fuel shortages were the first to hit, toys are the latest casualty, with one of the UK’s biggest toy retailers warning that delays at UK ports will result in shortages this Christmas. 

On its own, this is likely to be a cause for concern for parents and disappointment for children around the UK. However, it’s made worse by the latest British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA) study which found that out of 255 toys sold by third parties on online marketplaces, such as eBay and Amazon, 88 percent were illegal to sell in the UK and shockingly, almost half (48 percent) were unsafe for a child to play with.  

While bought in good faith, these illegal toys can present a number of dangers to recipients, ranging from choking hazards to exposure to illegal chemicals and toxic materials. Therefore, with many consumers likely to turn to third-party sellers amid toy shortages, they run the risk of unwittingly endangering the children they are buying for. 

As well as posing a threat to children, these illegitimate toys, which are often illegally branded as or modeled on authentic toy brands, are a threat to the reputation of those brands. After all, consumers who purchase those products thinking they are the real deal and then face issues with safety or quality, are likely to have their perception of the brand tarnished. So, as Christmas draws closer, and more toys are purchased for the big day, brands have a responsibility to not only ensure that any goods being sold on third-party websites are authentic, but also to educate consumers so they can distinguish the real from the fake. 

The importance of on-product authentication

To stem the flow of bad actors touting counterfeit toys online, organizations must take a step back to view the product journey holistically, ensuring that they are able to trace vulnerabilities throughout the chain. With this in mind, true end-to-end brand protection should include the authentication of physical products. This allows brands to track and identify each individual unit across every stage of the supply chain, from factory floor to the customer’s hands.

There are various on-product authentication solutions that can help safeguard brands in both the online and physical worlds. These include human-readable numbers, data matrix barcodes or NFC scans, hangtags and hologram tagging. These are tagged with metadata that joins up the digital and on-product brand protection channels, adding an additional level of security, which can help enforcement and customs officers verify the authenticity of the products as they pass through the supply chain. 

The systems that bring online and on-product authentication together can be implemented by the brand protection partner at each site, whether that’s hand applying pressure-sensitive labels on small volumes of products or setting up high speed automation in facilities that process millions of product units each year. Another option could be that a brand protection partner can print and ship on-product authentication directly to the manufacturing or processing facility, ensuring no foul play takes place during the printing process. 

When used in tandem, online and on-product authentication solutions can expose merchants and marketplaces that should not be selling the product and brands can get greater visibility of where products are being diverted. Additionally, with rigorous authentication measures in place, consumers can feel empowered to do their own due diligence when purchasing toys or games online and have the knowledge to determine whether the product they receive is exactly what it should be. 

The vital role of metadata

Data also has an important role to play in protecting toy brands and consumers. By collecting metadata at each touch point that a product moves through, brands can identify where the supply chain might be breaking down and enabling counterfeit goods to enter it. This metadata can range from the factory in which the product was manufactured and, further down the chain, the volumes of items per pallet, where those pallets are being shipped to and the volume of items received at the other end.   

By using solutions that capture all of this data and mine it to identify anomalies, brands can more easily identify any deviation from the agreed route of their products and investigate it further. For example, if a shipment of 47 pallets of a certain toy is sent out for shipment, but only 45 end up at the final destination, it will be captured by the data and the brand can trace it back to identify at which point the issue occurred to more easily resolve it. This level of traceability also helps to guarantee that the end product has been engineered using all of the specified parts from the required suppliers so brands can ensure it complies with health and safety regulations, quality and any warranty stipulations. 

Empowering consumers to spot fakes 

The next piece of the brand protection puzzle is communicating with and educating consumers. As part of this, toy retailers and brands must ensure regular, clear communication around the brand protection measures they have in place, as these tools lose effectiveness if customers don’t know what to look out for. Further to this, brands should share best practice around the due diligence consumers can do themselves to ensure the authenticity of a product or retailer and to avoid purchasing toys that aren’t compliant with UK safety standards. 

Other methods brands can take to keep consumers and the children who use their products safe, is to make it easy to find a list of their authorised retailers and provide an easy mechanism for consumers to report fakes – a crucial step in closing the loop.

Toy brands should also educate consumers on the potential risks, both from a fiscal and a health and safety perspective, of knowingly purchasing counterfeit goods. As some consumers may find themselves considering buying illegitimate items to bypass the expected toy shortage, this type of education is particularly important.

A brand protection strategy is for life, not just for Christmas 

While many toy brands and retailers are currently focused on the festive season and ensuring children find exactly what they want under the Christmas tree, brand protection is needed all-year round. By implementing the right solutions, working with partners and educating consumers about the dangers of and how to spot counterfeits, toy brands can better protect children from harm, while also safeguarding their reputation and revenues this Christmas and beyond. 

Jim Keller, Global VP of Technology and Operations, OpSec Security

Jim Keller, Global VP of Technology and Operations, OpSec Security