So, what's a toy these days?
"Doom and gloom"; analysts love writing about the demise of the Toy Industry. They like to proclaim their expertise knows that the digital device has taken over the plastic toy as the most important plaything for children. Yet, "According to the NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service, which represents approximately 80% of the U.S. toy retail market, the U.S. toy market grew to $19.48 billion in 2015. However, when factoring up to 100% for total market figure, NPD estimates the U.S. market size for the total toy industry to be in the $25 billion range in 2015. a 7% increase in domestic sales from 2014." (source NPD Group)
Not so bad for a dying industry!
But there is something to the statement that digital devices occupy a good part of the attention of children. Older gaming aside, the desire to play with digital devices is strong. After all, children and their parents were born into the digital world, and the expectations phones and tablets are high given they are ubiquitous amongst even the youngest age. Television held the same power decades ago. Today the ability to watch and at some point interact with elaborate animated story or game is engaging. The play is not static. A bit proscriptive, but moving all the time. There is a place for digital play but it is important that this is just part of the young child's resources that engage the imagination.
Experts and parents love to throw out the comment, "They are more interested in the box than the toy!". An easy thing to say without thinking about it. Absolutely, if the toy in the box doesn't immediately project fun, why play with it. Playing with the box gives them the freedom to explore new ideas and stories that is not dictated. It allows them to use there imagination, manipulating the cardboard into anything they want. Could it be that today's toys don't offer the opportunity to play using their imaginations?
Today most high volume toy sales are sold because they are attached to a popular license. There are some great properties out there. This is all good for the toy company and even better for the licensors'. Unfortunately, those great characters cost money to rent and often the toy suffers from play value because companies need to maintain their margins. To get there something has to give and most often its usually play features. That's unfortunate since most character toys often just emulate a scene from a video or film, leaving little for the child to make up their own stories. Without great features that enhance play, once and done, they are left to go back to the box!
I had the pleasure of working for Neil Friedman while at Fisher Price. A legend in the toy industry, Neil understood the value of fun in the product. Now President and CEO of Alex Brands, Neil was quoted in an article by the SouthJersey.com site (Feb 2016) saying, "Fun is really at the end of the day what's important. It doesn't matter how educational it is if the child doesn't want to play with it.". If it was said once it was said a thousand times while Neil was at Fisher Price, "Don't cost reduce the magic out of the toy!". Could it be that today's toys are losing to digital devices because they lack the ability to engage with the child? Are they but a shadow of the great toys of the past because they have little to encourage great play?
I don't want to give a blanket statement saying all toys are lacking fun. There are some, however I do think there needs to be a better understanding that licenses alone only take play so far and to have a child come back to a toy it needs layers of play. If the concept is designed right, with or without licenses, the product can be as engaging as a video. It just needs to be thought out ahead of time in the design stage. While at Fisher Price we were pitching an Imaginext product line to Pixar to gain license rights to a new film. I was paid a valued compliment by John Lasseter, COO Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. John in my opinion is a master storyteller and toy guru. He told me that I got story and toys. he said the design of the product allowed for many different entries into the story and allowed the child to make up their own, even if different than the original. We worked hard not to take the magic out of the products. Not an easy job, but one we insisted on as we designed. Keeping cost in line and play value is an art.
A lot of what I have talked about has to do with what expectations of a toys are. If it is just a momentary prop in the daily life of a child or truly a learning, memory making experience; the product should be worth the same values of a screen based experience. There is a need for a next generation products that are inspired and even work along side digital content. the new world of toys has a great opportunity to bring back what is important to manipulative physical play. With or without license, great toy product still has a significant role in the lives of young children. We need to ensure we get all the parts right without sacrificing the magic.