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The ever-changing consumer for toys

from Steve Reece

We are living through some of the most interesting and changeable times in human history. Twenty years in, we are still in the preliminary phase of mass adoption of the internet, and all the implications that come with that. Therefore, we are still as a species testing and stretching what this connectivity can do for us. We are also still getting used to many of the things that have changed thanks to the internet.

The toy industry has mostly embraced the changes and thrived on them. The advantage we have in our industry is that we have a physical experience product, not a media format, so the revolution that came to music, gaming and entertainment which has challenged and even in some cases made obsolete the established leading players has merely been a challenge for the toy business, not an existential threat.

However, as ever in the toy industry we can be guilty of not paying enough attention to the end consumers and end purchasers: parents and kids. Never before children have had a greater choice of entertainment content, platforms and media! Children have never had so many different ways to spend their time in competition with toys. Parents on the other hand have never had such extreme challenges in trying to leverage their children away from their passive consumption of multi screens and to get them active (both physically and mentally).

CHANGES IN TOY CONSUMERS

I thought it would be interesting to list out all the changes we can observe in the toy consumer, and then to look forward and to try to anticipate future changes and what that will mean for the toy business:

girl in laboratory

1. Gender labelling and stereotyping – one of the biggest changes with the toy consumer is the changing attitudes to gender labelling and stereotyping. Ten years ago it was normal to refer to toys as being for  ‘Boys’ or ‘Girls’, but consumers (or at least the media who claim to represent consumers) demanded the removal of these labels so that children could choose for themselves what toys they wanted to play with. The reality is still that the archetypal ‘boy targeted’ toy is still bought overwhelmingly for boys, and the archetypal ‘girl targeted’ toy still bought primarily for girls. E.g. if any media or social media activist tried to claim that Barbie is not bought predominantly for girls they would be misguided at best. But what has undoubtedly changed is the limitations on what girls and boys might want or can do, and perhaps Barbie’s move towards more diversity and wider career choices is the most potent symbol of that change. We have to also acknowledge that while things have undoubtedly changed, the majority of parents today were children themselves in different times and to a greater or lesser degree bring the prevailing attitudes of their own childhoods to gender and play with them into the future, so we are always tend to be a generation behind to some extent in fully adapting to new social and cultural norms.

2. Consumer renewal – those of us who have been in the toy business for some time will tend to quickly spot trends and toy themes coming back again. There are several reasons for this, not least of being that kids haven’t changed that fundamentally over time. The world around them may be quite different and is certainly more tech heavy versus previous generations, but what is fun has not changed that fundamentally. But the biggest reason for successful trends and themes coming back around is that a deeply embedded factor in the toy industry is that we get a new consumer group every three years or so. So, if we reach saturation or boredom point with a toy range or trend, three years later that consumer has moved on and a new consumer enters the market for toys. Therefore, in a sense, the toy consumer is always and eternally changing on an ongoing basis!

3. Globally there is a major trend towards the gig economy and home working – whereas in previous generations, the predominant family circumstance was a parent (or maybe both) who worked away all day for 5 days per week, and one staying at home either full time or part time. This has evolved over time in conjunction with opportunities opened up by the internet. It is as easy to find remote work from around the world as in your own country these days, and even major corporate companies seem to have ever more flexible working circumstances on offer to staff. On a recent project with a global company, one client was working at the head office in Europe, one was working from home in Asia and another was doing a bit of both! Clearly this has implications for toy purchase and usage, as parents who are at home more will inevitably end up blurring the edges between work and home life to a greater degree than those who are stuck in an office until official work finish time which we should see as an opportunity for more toy usage.

[Translate to English:] Mädchen mit einem Tablet

4. Screen time addiction – this is a real thing! My company conducted a major project looking into kids and tablet usage and found that usage was bordering on addictive and obsessive! Parents are increasingly looking to toys and games to help them leverage kids off tablets. The extent to which they try varies sometimes by market and by the socio-economic class of the parents. Sadly for me as a British person for instance, the UK is one of the worst markets for leaving children to spend too much time on tablets! This does however represent an opportunity for the toy business as we provide products which can help to get children away from those screens.

5. Environmental concerns, shopping habits and plastic plethora – environmental concerns have been an issue for a long time already. However, never to such an extent that there was any real threat to the traditional toy business. This has clearly changed – right now, the only major threat I see to the ongoing success of the global toy industry is environmental concern and especially plastic backlash! McDonalds was recently targeted for a social media backlash due to use of plastic toys in Happy Meals, as was Marks & Spencer (a food & non-food retail chain in the UK). Human usage of ‘throwaway’ plastic is right at the forefront of media and consumer attention. Retailers around the world are trying to reduce or remove plastic from across their stores to the best degree they can. As the vast majority of toys sold are made of plastic this is a deep concern for the toy business , and is a definite change over time as we have gone from ‘we probably shouldn’t use so much plastic’ to ‘we have to stop using so much plastic immediately’. I’m optimistic in the sense that I think this trend will see the development of economically viable alternatives to plastic before too long, as there is so much industry and business which counts on what plastic can do. But right now as a toy company I would want to also have product lines manufactured from card, compounds, wood and other sustainable materials until science offers a solution!

INTO THE FUTURE!

My grandmother was born in 1919, and when she passed away at the age of 94 a few years ago I thought just how much change she had seen over her lifetime. But then I considered how much even my generation has seen change with huge technological, scientific and medical advances! Looking into the future, it is less and less possible to predict what changes our children will see…but there are some things we can predict will change based on the current direction:

[Translate to English:] Voter und Sohn spielen

1. Consumers with more leisure time – this may seem counter intuitive but one thing which is clearly imminent is the freeing up of human time and capacity due to the deployment of ever more advanced artificial intelligence and robots. This should be a good thing for the toy industry, as people will have more time to play if they are doing fewer basic chores and tasks.

2. Interactive environments – where we today see so many people wandering around like zombies staring at small screens, it seems likely that in the future this information and interaction source will be part of the world around us in some way. This will open new play opportunities as consumers become more outward looking again and less screen focused.

3. Screen time backlash – in the meantime we can expect increased addiction but also increased backlash, and again the toy industry is well positioned to offer an alternative to screen time for those parents who need our help!

4. Plenty of the same – many of the reasons for buying and playing with toys won’t change, and so while it is always fun to speculate about big change to come, we should also remember that the purchase dynamic is unlikely to change. Parents and children are deciding what to buy, albeit with some help from artificial intelligence! Many of the same toy themes will apply, and we will still get a new toy consumer every three years or so, so expect many proven trends and themes to keep coming back round.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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