Spielwarenmesse: The future of toys - Part 1

Choose language




The future of toys - Part 1

from Steve Reece

This is the first article in a series of articles looking at the future of toys. In this series we will look at whizzy new technologies and try to make some predictions on how toys will evolve over the next decades. However, first we must look at the prospects for traditional play patterns, and attempt to gauge whether the situation for traditional toys will change in the future.

Despite the occasional headline calling out the death of traditional toys or highlighting the huge impact the latest technology driven toy has made there is a gigantic underlying reality that has to be the least talked about fundamental feature of the toy industry – that is that the vast majority of toys sold are traditional i.e. without electronics or other modern technologies!

For sure we can see the high priced technology items topping the charts in many countries – Furby, LeapPad & other comparatively high price point products, but we can also see in those top 10s non technology products – construction toys, collectibles and other traditional toys also feature. 

Furthermore, the toy industry is very different to the video game industry and many other industries in that the top selling toys make up a comparatively small percentage of the overall market. To put this into easily understandable figures – let’s take my home market of the UK as an example, the top selling product would normally be expected to sell c. 200-300k units in each year. So if we presume (for easy maths!) a £50 retail price after VAT deduction, then we have total sales of c. £10-15m. Even if three or four products sell that much (not usual!) then we have c. £30m-£60m in retail sales value – versus an estimated UK market size (depending which figures you believe) of around £3billion. So the top few products only make up 1-2% of the total market!

It is therefore easy to miss the underlying truth – the vast majority of toy sales come from traditional play patterns and materials. 

So now we have established this current reality (versus hype!) we can start to consider how the future will pan out for the toy industry. And the overwhelming message must be that traditional toy play patterns will have a major part to play for as long as we are alive at least! There will be ongoing innovation as before for sure, but kids will still be playing with/being given dolls, action figures, plush toys etc. long into the distant future. 

There are fundamental reasons why these play patterns are attractive to children, and these aren’t going away regardless of what technology brings us next. Here are some of the never changing appealing features of traditional toy play:

1. Tactile appeal – children are still learning about the world around them. They use all their senses to learn and explore. My company conducts research playtesting for several leading collectible toy companies, and the one factor we find EVERY TIME in successful products in this category is tactile appeal. Let me give you a practical example – clicking your pen is probably very annoying to the people around you, but sometimes it is so compelling that you can’t stop doing it, even though your friends, family or colleagues are shouting at you! The same compulsive tactile experience is a big part of EVERY successful collectible toy we tested. This isn’t going away in a hurry. Kids are going to continue to find this play pattern fulfilling, and while technology is likely to offer some amazing visual and auditory experiences going forward (like the Star Trek holodeck), it’s hard to see how it can do better than a €1 collectible plastic toy in terms of tactile appeal!

2. Fantasy/Imagination driven play – children can tend to have very vibrant and active imaginations. Many a parent has bemoaned the fact that their child has more fun playing with the box versus the expensive toy that was in the box! There is no doubt that technology can have a strong effect in ‘transporting’ children to fantasy worlds and then filling in the gaps, but there is equally little doubt that this will never stop children enjoying their own fantasy play. The prompt for this kind of play is quite often a toy figurine of some kind.

3. Throwaway gifting – I have written extensively on the topic of ‘Toy Stockpiling’ a modern day phenomenon where children amass a huge quantity of toys throughout their childhood. If you look at toy pricing, the prices for standard traditional play pattern toys has not changed that much in 30 years, certainly not when compared with inflation in most markets. Therefore lower priced toys i.e. €20 or less have gone from being a comparatively expensive to a virtually throwaway purchase. We’ve yet to see any quantitative data on how many toys sold are actually played with to any extent, but we can easily deduce from seeing the average toy collection of over a hundred toys that kids can’t be playing with all of them! It’s hard to see a new technology having a revolutionary effect on this throwaway gifting.

4. Parents wanting to be ‘good’ parents – parents tend to want to be ‘good’ parents, and therefore often seek to encourage less screen time and what they tend to see as more positive play for their children. This works against the trend towards technology.

5. Brand nostalgia – parental nostalgia/brand affinity is a strong driver of sales for some kinds of products. This won’t change, and while new formats driven by technology will be evident, the old formats will still exist!

So as we begin to look forward in to the future, and where exciting technologies may take us, it’s also important to remember where the massive majority of toy sales come from now, and how that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future!


Author of this article:

Steve Reece, CEO Kids Brand Insight

This article:

Tags in this article:


Stay informed with trends and developments of the toy market. Register for one of our newsletter.



Stay informed with trends and developments of the toy market. Register for one of our newsletter.