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Wooden toys: sustainable in every respect

from Ulrich Texter

Traditional themes form the “narrative” put forward by wooden toy manufacturers. Consumers know what to expect when purchasing wooden building blocks, marble runs and hammer benches: an inherently robust product with educational undertones. Sellers are not shying away from re-interpreting the classics, however.

No break with tradition

Wood, as an internationally sought-after natural material for toy making, has become the epitome of sustainability. Wooden toys are considered educational – with the legendary “Froebel playthings” being the best example of this. And those have been around for almost 200 years. The principle still holds. “Matador’s Architect is a sophisticated, educational starter toy”, says Michael Tobias, Managing Director of Matador GmbH. “Three-dimensional wooden blocks in various shapes and sizes, specially designed for babies’ hands, encourage building, play and understanding.” Nowhere do play, learning and understanding seem so closely linked as in the design studios of manufacturers of wooden toys.

The Matador portfolio, with its grasping, peg and stacking toys, hammer benches, play gyms and marble runs, is primarily targeted at 0 to 4 year olds. This is the age at which children’s brains are particularly malleable, i.e. formable and receptive. Just like the healing power of trees for people, as posited by physiologist and chronobiologist Maximilian Moser at the Medical University of Graz, wooden toys seem to have a positive effect on children. In any case, studies show that pupils in classrooms with all-wood interiors gradually become more relaxed. “Wooden toys should not be too innovative”, points out Michael Hopf, Director of Sales and Marketing at Haba. “That would be more of a hindrance, if anything.”

For years, however, there has been a move towards making traditional toys suitable for younger children – as already demonstrated by Haba with its Kullerbü ball track – or sprucing them up with technology. “The Constructor Maxi line launched this year and the Snowcat in the traditional Constructor line show that growth can be achieved by adding elements for a younger demographic to the product portfolio and through innovative themes that appeal to older children”, says Jürgen Deschner, Senior Marketing Manager of Simba Toys. Ganseh Sugumar, Head of Marketing at Hape, shares this view: “The new two-level Grand City Station from Hape, for example, comes with lights, a recorder for station announcements, a projector and other technical features. Such products are making the leap from the niche segment and are in vogue again.” Brio is also betting on the added play value from its Lift & Load Warehouse Set boosting the appeal of the wooden railway, the Swedish classic.

BRIO lift load warehouse
BRIO lift load warehouse
Haba Kullerbü
Haba Kullerbü

Design – the key to the global market

Love is infectious – ultimately, it is a universal phenomenon that knows no boundaries. One example of this is provided by Polish wooden toy manufacturer BAJO, founded in 1993. “In the beginning, there was wood”, says BAJO owner Wojtek Bajor. It sounds like a quote from the Book of Genesis. The architect and stage designer knows that the design possibilities of wood as a material are quite limited but that its metaphorical potential is therefore all the greater. At the foot of the Carpathians, people believe that wood provides an insight into the time and place in which it lived. No other material can achieve this. And wood may also become all the more important in a world at risk of drowning under the sheer amount of plastic waste.

Experts warn that there could be more plastic swimming in the sea than fish in 2050. There are some signs of a rethink emerging, however, and demand is rising for green, sustainable products, as recently confirmed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Eichhorn also hopes this is the case. The company has been using the FSC label on its products for years.

My big hope is that the current discussion about the risks of plastic waste will not simply contribute to all of us being more aware of plastic packaging when we go shopping – people are even talking about going plastic free. I hope wooden toys also benefit from this in the medium to long term, because wood is sustainable in every respect.

Jürgen Deschner, Senior Marketing Manager, Simba Toys

However, Deschner also has to get people to overcome some of their prejudices. Consumers are still of the opinion that plastic toys are easier to clean than wooden toys due to their surface. “The perception in some countries is really very different to that in the DACH countries.”

Good prospects in Asia

Hape entertains the same hope. The company has already found confirmation of this in the Christmas catalogues of supermarket chains which have been increasingly focusing on organic products for years. However, wood also has its limits. “From a production perspective, it is very difficult to develop a product made only of wood which offers the kind of fun factor that will keep today’s children entertained for a long time”, emphasises Ganseh Sugumar. “Nevertheless, we are trying to minimise the proportion of non-renewable raw materials.” These efforts have produced two results: rattle sets made of 51% Japanese rice and 49% polypropylene and also constructor sets for which the bamboo used may already have been made up for by new bamboo growth by the time the product reaches the market, according to the manufacturer.

However, the industry is not experiencing a wooden toy frenzy. “The German and European markets for wooden toys are developing in line with the overall market”, says Michael Hopf. “We believe the best prospects for toys currently lie in China.” However, a clear concept and local partner are needed to succeed there. Haba is especially successful in China with children’s games that offer additional educational value. Therefore, having products that combine play with learning is an important door-opener when looking to enter the market. The German company is traditionally strong with wooden toys in Korea and Japan. “The Japanese have a soft spot for design-led wooden toys”, says Michael Hopf. He is not alone in this opinion. “It seems to us that the Japanese really understand our philosophy”, says Wojtek Bajor, in agreement. “Our cooperation there is a constant source of inspiration to us.”

Hape geometric rattle trio
Hape geometric rattle trio
PlanToys rocking horse
PlanToys rocking horse

China is a growth market

Asia is an important market and China an economic heavyweight. According to the Prophet Brand Relevance Index, the Chinese love brands. Is there a way to capitalise on this? Three questions to Sugumar, Head of Marketing at Hape.

Mr Sugumar, is the Asian region a future growth market for wooden toys?

Ganesh Sugumar: Since the one-child policy was abolished, China has generally been a growth market for toys. Not simply due to there being more children, but also because there has been a change in understanding of the value of educating children.

The Chinese market is supposed to offer very good prospects, but it is difficult to achieve success there without a strategy and concept. What should manufacturers of wooden toys keep in mind?

Ganesh Sugumar: The Chinese market is simply different to the European and North American markets. It is difficult to get a foothold in China without a dedicated strategy or by simply “copying” western concepts. Educational aspects are really important in the Asian region. Nonetheless, it is possible to gain a foothold in China without a partner, as demonstrated by Peter Handstein, the founder and CEO of Hape. More than 20 years ago, just after the joint venture requirements were removed, Peter Handstein set up a company independently in Ningbo, China, and with great success, as can be seen today.

Merics, the institute for China studies, says that German toy brands do not sufficiently capitalise on “Made in Germany” and lose out on growth as a result. What do you think of this?

Ganesh Sugumar: Most German toy manufacturers are hesitant about really entering the market. The fear of the unknown is the reason for this. There’s no doubt that German and European products are very popular in the Chinese market. The best example of this is that we have seen a rapid increase in sales of now “Made in Europe” products in China since we moved production of building blocks and wooden railway tracks from China to Europe.


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Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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