Spielwarenmesse: Wooden toys as attractive niche product for retailers

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Movers & shakers

Wooden toys as attractive niche product for retailers

from Ulrich Texter

Business in building blocks, ball runs and figures used to be brisker. Back in the golden days of the Nineties when eco was chic, global consciousness was green and businesses dealing in good toys mushroomed. That was long ago. Nowadays consumers are reflexive, eco-sensitive and ethically correct, yet see no contradiction in a lifestyle where eco nudges shoulders with Prada. In secret perhaps ideal preconditions for lovers of wood with a penchant for the wholesome? Interview with Wolfgang Schühle, Chairman Wooden Toys Group, German Toy Industry Association (DVSI).

Spielwarenmesse®: Mr Schühle, as Group Chairman you are best positioned to tell us how many wooden toys a child needs today.

Wolfgang Schühle:
As it depends on the age of the child, there is no blanket answer to that question. Wooden toys are practical and important up to the end of the kindergarten period. After that, it's difficult to arouse children's enthusiasm for wooden toys. How many? Enough to provide a balanced mix of development-promoting toys in the playroom. A good part of these should be wooden toys with all their quality characteristics.

So what effect does it have if parents prefer supposedly more hygienic plastic toys for the first three years of their child?

W. S.:
I think that you've got to phrase that question differently by asking which added value playing with wooden toys bring to a child's development during their first three years. And in my opinion, wooden toys are simply among the products with many attributes and qualities that foster child development. Quite apart from the fact that by buying wooden toys parents are opting for sustainably produced toys.

Wood was essential to humankind's social, economical and cultural development. In terms of quantity, wood is still the key material. However, as for other commodities, it has lost its supremacy. So is better-quality plastic the enemy of good wood?

W. S.: I don't see the situation as wood versus plastic. Both are valuable in their own right and will retain their respective status.

With its many qualities wood continues to enjoy a high status with designers and architects. Why is that exactly? Or it is just a German foible?

W. S.: When you take a walk in the forest and sniff the fragrance of freshly cut wood. When you register the touch and feel of wood, allow yourself to be captivated by the beauty of its grain – every piece is unique, trace its history, appreciate its sustainability, it becomes clear why so many people feel attached to wood. As to whether it is a German foible, the German Federal Office of Statistics could help you on that one.

With its newcomer competition 'ToyDesign2020' your group has blurred the bounds of self-reference by admitting other resource-saving materials. What is behind this minor revolution? Has it something to how with the absolute status wood has achieved?

W. S.: We are delighted about teaming up with Spielwarenmesse eG for this great project. And of course we welcome materials that this competition calls for and seeks to discover as materials for children’s toys of future. That’s the whole idea, purpose and way forward – to which we have never adopted an absolutist stance.  

Although at best the market can be described as stable, there is a rising number of wooden toy exhibitors at the Toy Fair. Psychologists would call that 'schizoid'. Do you have a rational explanation?

W. S.: It doesn't mean that the number of wooden toy manufactures is on the increase. Looking at it in terms of the Toy Fair, a rational reason for new exhibitors is perhaps that the world's largest, most important toy fair has been discovered as a key marketing tool. Do a survey of the newcomers to find out for sure.

As a material wood offers scant potential for genuine innovation. Is that the reason why it has become difficult for wooden toys to compete against other toys because 'conscientious customers' are also continually looking for something new?

W. S.: Compared to other materials, there are more limitations to the making and design of wood and toys produced from it. Yet we encounter innovation, new product ideas, also in a blend of materials, time and again, if not to the same extent as other materials. But does it have to be that way? What is truly innovative? Can 'true' innovation not also be seen, as we are doing already, in our attempt to give parents with a responsible attitude to educating their children a new take on the quality and development aspects of our products?

Some companies in your group are experimenting with liquid wood, lignin, fasal, and even bamboo. Might those be approaches to bring a fresh impetus to wooden toys?

W. S.: Certainly, why not! In general if you want to have a future as a company, you have to think about tomorrow's products today, and that includes experiments with materials as each individual company sees fit. If you look at wooden toy manufacturers' portfolios you'll notice that some of us have progressed well beyond the experimental stage. Working with the materials we've mentioned, mixing materials. We are neither dogmatic not absolutist!

Let's talk about Ostheimer. The company has a reputation for anthroposophic toys. They must be riding the crest of a wave of success since so many people are mad about Waldorf schools as the alternative to the state educational model, isn't that so?

W. S.: It doesn't automatically have something to do with toys! There are various reasons why a growing number of people are opting for alternatives to state education and one of these is Waldorf schools with their qualities. But isn't the prime mover a lack of satisfaction with the current state educational system? We see good opportunities of reaching people with our toys who take a careful critical look at our modern educational landscape and recognise that good toys have a direct bearing on the roots of a child's development. That's where we see ourselves, not surfing on a wave of sucess, but within the context of continuous good development.
The concentration process on the part of manufacturers continues unabated. Does that spell the end of small exclusive wooden toy brands, because they lack the financial and marketing resources to qualify for this game?

W. S.: This concentration process is not exclusive to the wooden toy sector. And I doubt whether small exclusive wooden toy manufacturers will go to the wall. Ultimately it depends on how people run their businesses and beside good products, nowadays that includes innovative power, good management and marketing. In this respect, 'small exclusive manufacturers' often hold the better cards, not least because at the moment many fixed-based retailers want to shift the emphasis in their portfolios from mass goods towards selected products.

Are retailers returning to niche products, including wooden toys, because they can make a bigger profit or what has led to this change of heart?

W. S.:: I'm very pleased that fixed-based retailers are reflecting on their strengths and are focusing on customer loyalty and attractive shopping experiences. One of many aspects of this trend is to depart from mass goods to take on lovely niche products, or to rediscover the quality of original toys that sell well and offer good margins. And a fine assortment of good wooden toys is very much a part of that equation.


Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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