A building block is a building block is a building block. This means that manufacturers of wooden toys face a particular challenge when they want to stand out from the crowd. The good news, however, is that the market for toys made of wood is very stable.
Concentration or diversification, purism or crossover after all? The suppliers of wooden toys are heading down very different paths towards the future. Hardly any other company reflects the transformation process that the industry is undergoing as clearly as Haba does. The inventors for children are known for their building bricks, ball tracks, stacking toys and clutching toys made of wood. What is noteworthy, however, is that these days, the brand only generates around 20% of its turnover with classic wooden toys.
So is it still possible to speak of a classic supplier of wooden toys? The number of "purists" who opt exclusively for wood is dwindling, while the "multi-material suppliers" are the ones shaping the market. Wolfgang Schühle, Managing Director of Margarete Ostheimer GmbH and Chairman of the Wooden Toy Specialist Group in the German Toy Industry Association (DVSI), regards the situation in a similar light. "Barely any of the manufacturers in the specialist group are still producing toys made entirely of wood," says Schühle. "A lot of members are going for a mixture of materials." Which is why statements about market volume are extremely hard to make.
Focusing on a target audience in the niche
Exploiting the niche market is the recipe for success for Ostheimer, which is experiencing a renaissance. The company justifies its current success by focusing on the target group of "sustainably minded families". Last but not least, social media activities have also helped to get the brand messages directly across to the consumer. "We're witnessing a growing market for our products," says Wolfgang Schühle, "but we're also not in direct competition with other suppliers."
Developing new target groups with diversification
Conversely, diversification is the answer for Haba, but also for Gollnest & Kiesel. Thus, northern Germany's largest toy company – with its brands Goki, Heimess and Holztiger - is not just producing baby toys made of wood, but also of plastic, which are then sold under the name of HEIMESS Lifestyle. At the same time, the company lavishes care and attention on its core competence, sometimes with a touch of self-mocking, as with its new "lobster pull toy".
Even more than this sea creature, the goki nature line stands for natural wooden toys of high quality. "In this series, the consumer's desire for untreated wooden toys has been accommodated. It's quite astounding how many completely different structures can be created from the building blocks, which all have the same dimensions," says Sonja Prüter, product developer at Gollnest & Kiesel.
Wooden toys stable as a solid market segment
The Kullerbü ball track or tile-based games are no longer the sales drivers at Haba these days; they've been superseded by children's games, bring-along games, games in tins and family games. "Wooden toys are experiencing growth in Europe in line with the market," says Michael Hopf, Haba Marketing and Sales Director, "but games are our main export product." Nevertheless, ball tracks et al remain an important pillar. While there are no spectacular or booming developments in this segment, Hopf adds, "Wooden toys are one of the most solid and stable segments in the marketplace."
Erwin Müller, Managing Director of Brio GmbH, is also pleased with the state of the market. "While two or three years ago, we noticed a certain amount of unrest, the niche is now suddenly working," is his summary of the situation. "And it's getting even better. Specialists are almost experiencing a renaissance." Brio and Haba see great potential for specialist retailers.
Multi-material and technology are opening up new play possibilities
Brio is also one of the "multi-material suppliers", as was evident at the last Spielwarenmesse. Years ago, the term 'plastic' was still capable of sparking another religious war between the orthodox and the reformers. These days, it's almost state-of-the-art when BRIO launches a SMART tech train with radio frequency identity (RFID) or a village animal clinic made of plastic, which only remotely recall the firm's beginnings. The aim is to open up new opportunities for children with new concepts.
Wooden toys score highly as learning toys
Other segments have it easier than traditional wooden toys. This is currently plain to see in Asia, where educational games suppliers are experiencing favourable economic conditions. "In China, everything's connected to learning," says Michael Hopf, explaining the development, "which is why we're experiencing strong growth in learning centres." Classic wooden toys struggle, above all, with the aspect of comparability. "Games consist of software and hardware," Michael Hopf believes, "and that's why they can't be compared in terms of price. Games are like books: you never really know what's inside."
Design claim of wooden toys is growing
The comparability of wooden toys presents manufacturers with special challenges, which is why design is playing an increasingly significant role. This is also shown by the example of Hape. In the company's view, the brand should primarily convey values such as design and creativity, environmental awareness and a sense of responsibility as well as renewable raw materials. Brikkon combines wood with LEGO and MEGA Bloks – a new form of crossover. The laser-cut wooden parts provide a tailor-made surface for the building blocks that enables them to be combined creatively. Brikkon is a cooperation of five artists from Rotterdam who design and produce new and innovative toys.
Further examples are provided by the oi-blocks (oi-blocks), the wobble balance board (Wobbel), the wooden building bricks (Luco Toys) and the new vehicle fleet by nic Spiel & Art GmbH. Michael Seeler, Sales Manager of nic, commented on the trend: "For us, the trend in years to come will be to keep finding and inventing niche products for our customers, with which we can continue to be successful for decades to come. This doesn't just work on the basis of colour and trends, but on ingenious play value combined with a whole load of creativity that's still of premium quality. So the next generation will also be able to enjoy them.