Spielwarenmesse: Assortment diversity with classic wooden toys

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Assortment diversity with classic wooden toys

from Ulrich Texter

Cobbler, stick to your last – this wisdom also seems to apply to nic Spiel und Art GmbH. While the competition is no longer just building on and with wood, but has also been enjoying a merger of materials for many years, the German company continues to back wood and nothing else. With its puristic style, the company even regards itself as the "Rolls Royce" among the wooden toy suppliers. 

Spielwarenmesse®: Mr Seeler, trends and wooden toys aren't necessarily always on one and the same wavelength. As a conservative supplier, what do you have to do in order to keep up with the times after all?

Michael Seeler: Assortment diversity for the niche market! We started in our nic division a good 26 years ago with just a few vehicles, rocking horses and multi-lane tracks. We still have them in our range today – virtually unchanged. The amount of diversity has, in the meantime, increased, with colourful grasping toys for babies, toy kitchens, workbenches and shops.

With our company, wood still retains its natural colour or is painted in classic primary colours. A pink or orange multi-lane track doesn't fit in with our company's style and people don't expect such things from us. Quite apart from the educational approach. Which doesn't mean to say that we aren't open to new developments. Our accessories for the multi-lanes tracks are kept up to date, but the main character of the product remains unchanged. Still classic, timeless, but always a few new features every now and then.

nic regards itself on a par with Rolls Royce. At the Spielwarenmesse 2017 you presented a new, high-quality fleet of vehicles, perfectly crafted and made of solid beech wood. Can't you do or don't you want to do Volkswagen instead?

M.S.: Our new "fleet of vehicles" is positioned in our “walter” range, naturally with the usual nic quality, but with a few simplifications that we wouldn't permit with our nic items. What is particularly striking as far as the design is concerned is the fact we are, here, a good deal away from our robust but naturally inviolable solid nic vehicles. By no means 1B quality, only a little simpler and more accurate in every detail! I'd say the quality approaches the Volkswagen premium class. So, we do want to. Whether we can do so over the long term is something our customers will show us.

To offer Rolls Royce quality, you need Slovakia like the English need BMW, don't you?

M.S.: Well, as you can see. For example, our senior boss, who has sadly passed on in the meantime, already realised more than 20 years ago that it wasn't possible to rely on the Laupheim site alone. The idea of taking over a sawmill over there was obvious even then, since we were buying all the beech wood we needed in Slovakia anyway.

We still have our subsidiary there, led by a small team of employees from our headquarters in Laupheim, who regularly monitor and help shape the production processes that have been expanded in the last 3 or 4 years. Despite everything, we continue to be very busy at our production site in Laupheim. And as for the English and BWM ... the "European" delivery times certainly won't improve in the future.

How does an "elitist" attitude, which actually does everything differently from the competition, fit into a zeitgeist that no longer places so much value on the best product quality, but rather on compromise?

M.S.: We offer premium quality, service, that certain something and a partnership our customers can rely on, without compromise. After all, ultimately, nearly everyone now makes compromises, but where's the difference then? Anyone who chooses us or our products, that person stands out, no matter whether in the specialised retail trade or in the nursery. And in our view, that's exactly the niche we're in and comfortable with and we have to fill it or occupy it without making any compromises.

Is holding on to your Rolls Royce way of thinking also the reason why you've abandoned the distribution of Blue Ribbon, which was supposed to round off the range in the lower price segment?

M.S.: There were several reasons. On the one hand, the idea we had then of offering a Thai retail brand to our customers as a cheap but good-quality alternative came too late. There were already too many imported brands in the wooden toys sector. On the other hand, these imports were ultimately too expensive since we were aiming at a certain level of quality.

On top of that, there was also the idea of always having to rely on containers that had to sail across the world for weeks at a time. We learned with and from Blue Ribbon that our customers only occasionally looked for products of this kind from us and that, in the long term, we would still have to remain the Rolls-Royce of the sector. At most with a second car such as the Volkswagen, a "premium" model.

Why do mixed materials play no role with your company at all? The competition has opened up new groups of buyers with this strategy.

M.S.: Because we're still convinced that we should rely only on natural resources. Certainly, if you combine wood and plastic you can stand out from the usual crowd in the classic wooden toy niche. However, we wish to remain authentic and are undeniably professionals when it comes to wood.

When I think of the financial aspect, then it would be too expensive for us anyway. Precisely because we're in a niche and produce items in small numbers to do justice to our claim of offering premium quality. Last but not least, this should also make our guiding principle of "creative-stable-valuable" clearer. Plastic has very little in common with our last two keywords.

Let's assume that, as you write, organic and thus wooden toys are the current trend. According to this, the market would have to grow. Insiders see more of a stable sideways development in Germany. What's correct?

M.S.: Both! You can already see it with regard to food, which is being watered down more and more. Almost everyone is allowed to use the term "ORGANIC" on the label even when there's not much organic in the product itself. As far as we're concerned, we are still enjoying growth with our small but good organic range. However, it wasn't launched onto the market because it is or was a trend, but because, in 2011, after acquiring Glückskäfer, we wanted to transfer this customer base to us in our core range.

The natural paints from our organic line and also our manufacturing process, which is done in a purely natural way, precisely satisfied the tastes of this customer base. I assume that the market is moving sideways because ever more manufacturers are getting on board this boat, as with food.

Is it true that wooden toys are in great demand in Asia?

M.S.: Yes, that's very clearly the case, especially in China. The interest in buying European products has been on the rise there for about 3 to 4 years. In addition, the one-child policy was lifted last year. However, China still remains a very difficult market, for which you have to put in some work in advance, especially in terms of our range.

This is completely pioneering work, because the problem is often not a lack of money, but that it requires a lot of effort to get the idea of education and play value into people's heads. But we're working on it and are already present in a few important cities.

Is there any growth potential for a niche champion like nic over the next few years?

M.S.: The problem in Germany is well known. The domestic market will continue to stagnate, at least for another 2 years. This is what the current debate about Toys "R" Us shows us. For me, this is the example par excellence when it comes to the issue of cleaning up on the mass market, which speaks even more in favour of niches! Corporations do not count among our customers.

Our distribution options – we're talking here about high-quality specialist retailers and not self-service chains – are exhausted in Germany. We have no desire to and are also unable to serve all sales channels, if only to protect our still faithful retailers. So we shall continue to rely on exports for growth. We definitely see potential here.


Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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