Spielwarenmesse: Customisation – the future of toys or a perpetual niche?

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Customisation – the future of toys or a perpetual niche?

from Steve Reece

Many trend analysts thought customisation via mass adoption of the internet would become a massive future trend. The hype cedes ground. Today, the toy industry racks its brain if 3d printing supersedes the internet mass adoption.

First steps: mass adoption of the internet

Way back at the start of the noughties Hasbro offered customised Monopoly board games via the internet. With My Monopoly you could write in customised street names online, order via the website and then receive a customised Monopoly board game delivered to your home. This seems very straightforward today, but back then in the infancy of mass adoption of the internet this was seriously cutting edge – it was at the time a very complicated project and the web development aspect was new to everyone involved.

Many trend analysts thought this would be a massive future trend, of consumers having things created bespoke to exactly the way they wanted, all via the ground-breaking facilitation of the internet. Clearly there were considerations back then that this could be a whole new paradigm in consumer products, and if you had done a SWOT analysis back then, you may have added customisation of consumer products as a major threat to the existing way of getting mass market consumer products to market.

Fast forward to today, and it doesn’t look like the customisation trend has truly had much of a cannibalisation effect on mass market toys at all. For sure the internet overall has revolutionised the way that toys are chosen and purchased by consumers – with online retail, social media and unboxing videos becoming equally as important as the traditional distribution channels and marketing platforms. But customisation doesn’t seem to be the ‘category killer’ it has occasionally been feared to be by over paranoid toy marketers.

Next chapter: 3d printing customisation

One of the major potential disruptors that have come to the fore in the last few years is 3d printing. A few years ago, this nascent but impressive technology had many people in the toy business worried, as the conceptual offer of customisable toys created via an online interface but printed off in the consumers home could have been a major threat to the existing toy business.

However, 3d printing has yet to have any noticeable effect at all on the global toy market. (Non 3d printed) toy sales are increasing globally, with no evidence of any substantial cannibalisation. So what happened? Where did this threat go, and why haven’t consumers flocked to 3d printing to create these fully customised toys? I believe there are several reasons why 3d printed toys have not been mass adopted thus far, and why they are not likely to be a major threat in reality, at least not for some time:

  1. Efficiency of 3d printers
    Even now, a few years after the introduction of commercially available 3d printers, if you speak to anyone who uses a 3d printer, it is a far from perfect process. Frankly put, 3d printers are not yet easy or efficient enough.

  2. Hardware cost
    The cost of buying the printer will put many consumers off. In summer 2018 the cheapest 3d printer available in a couple of mass market retailers in the UK market – the price of the cheapest items (on clearance offers) was around €150, with some above €800. This is not a viable mass market offer for what remains at this point a gimmick!

  3. Ease of purchase toys at low price points
    Consumers now tend to see toys as more of a ‘throwaway’ gift purchase than ever before. Toys are comparatively cheap, so why would I invest € 150+ in a hardware item to produce toys?

  4. Missing consumer benefit
    What is the actual consumer benefit of customising your own 3d toys? Having conducted more than 1,200 focus groups with kids and families on toys in general, there is not any gap in consumer needs and wants that such customisation actually fills. At best this looks like a fun gimmick to consumers, but then why would I want to buy expensive hardware, deal with mind numbing software and hardware set up and have to buy consumable (i.e. plastic) replacements?

Individual customisation remains a niche

The reality is that customisation is inevitably a niche, because it is about very specific personalised wants. This is not to say there is no business in 3d printing or in customisation overall – far from it, there are many very successful and profitable businesses in their own niche spaces, but they are definitely niche. As such, it is hard to argue that customisation is any more likely to become the category killer we once worried about with 3d printing than it was with the advent of mass adoption of the internet.

Crowd funding promotes collective customisation

The only caveat on customisation is crowd funding. Crowd funding is in effect a grouping together of people supporting the same thing. This product or activity they support can be very niche, but in effect as a group they can influence and therefore collectively customise the product. This has the potential to be far more impactful and disruptive than personal customisation, because in this way consumers become the ultimate arbiter of whether something will sell enough and in what volume versus the old model of manufacturers and retailers deciding what would end up on shelf for consumers to choose from.


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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Author of this article:

Steve Reece, CEO Kids Brand Insight

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