The last time I sat down & tried to predict the future of the toy industry was in 2013 for a presentation at the Spielwarenmesse-Nuremberg International Toy Fair. If you want to watch my presentation and take joy in how many things I got wrong (!), here’s the link to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF1Qdx5gwZE
One of my key points back then was that while technology is always evolving and this evolution does to some extent change the way we play, there are a number of fundamentals of play which are not likely to change. These timeless factors I outlined as being:
- Brands i.e. kids & parents buy into strong, proven, trusted brands.
- Edutainment i.e. using fun to encourage learningand development.
- Fantasy/Immersion i.e. children like to/benefit from getting lost in their imaginations, and toys facilitate this.
- Creative play – children have always loved to get messy and to create things (of varying degrees of aesthetic appeal!)
- Child or parent powered purchase dynamic – you typically have 2 parts of the purchase dynamic i.e. the child & their parents, grand parents, aunts/uncles etc.
Today looking back at these timeless factors I can’t see how these have really changed, and if there was anything I got right in my predictions 6 years ago, it was probably these factors. The technology predictions were a mixed bag, but hopefully I can do better this time!
As we head at dizzying speed towards the 2020s, some things have changed to an incredible degree in the past few years. There are a number of factors of change including retail evolution, the massively different media landscape, social media, manufacturing and more (some of these factors we’ll come back to in this series of articles). The start point though in looking at how things have changed and trying to predict how things will be in the future is that most vital of people – kids!
So fundamentally kids haven’t changed that much since I began in the toy industry in the late ‘90s. They enter the world fully formed but far from fully developed. Having conducted more than 1200 focus groups with kids on toys I can say clearly that most toy company people are surprised by just how basic children are as human beings when they finally get round to conducting or watching product testing with kids! At an earlier age they use touch over sight, they can’t read, or at most can read very basic letters, and they have very under developed dexterity. From when they start being relevant to the toy industry around 12 to 18 months, through to when they tend to drift off toys onto other things somewhere between age 7 to 10 years of age, they go through a dazzling transformation and development process. What an 18 month old can see and do is galaxies away from what an 8 year old can see and do. This gap in developmental stage is not going to change that significantly in the future.
Some things that have definitely changed include more social & environmental factors e.g. cultural attitudes to gender stereotyping is in a very different place now in many major toy countries versus how it was 20 years ago. What we need to remember is that today’s parents were brought up mostly in the 1980s and 1990s by people mostly born in the 1950s and 1960s. As each generation moves from being kids themselves onto becoming parents themselves eventually. So for the current generation of kids who are being brought up in a climate where gender stereotyping is no longer the standard, and where children’s entire lives are online from the earliest stages can be expected to parent differently and therefore to want different toys versus generations before who brought up in a different social climate and became adults pre-mass adoption of the internet, and before mass adoption of social media.
Clearly technology will evolve, and this will have a huge impact on the lives of children in future. We’ll look at specific technologies in later articles in this series, but for now we can be sure that while kids will still be biologically more or less the same in the near future at least, their attitudes and values will be very different versus past generations, and in turn this will need to be reflected by toy companies in everything they do.
One other are worth thinking about – the lack of physical freedom for children. Whereas past generations tell stories of being left to roam around as children, today’s children lack physical freedom for a variety of safety concern issues. What they do overall tend to have is digital freedom i.e. they can’t wander off outside the home, but they are probably wandering the world online. I believe that much more regulation/protection is needed online especially for children that it is inevitable that future generations of children will have a more restricted view of the online world, for now there is still an element of wild west, but it is most likely that will change.
Whether it does or not though, children will continue to be less physically free than generations past, and as such they will be in the home a lot. Parents are already increasingly trying to pry their kids away from these super addictive devices, and interestingly even those categories of toys which traditionally had less parental approval i.e. cheap collectible/throwaway toys are now increasingly purchased as a sometimes desperate attempt at screen time distraction. It seems unlikely that future consumer tech will be less addictive as tech companies are very good at hooking us on their tech, so for this reason alone I see the future of the toy industry as being assured as parents increasingly try to anchor their kids in the real world versus the online world.
This is the first article in a series, the next articles will cover predictions about technology, about media, about toy retail, about toy products in the future and about toy manufacturing. Stay tuned for the next instalment!
Steve Reece runs a toy industry consultancy which helps people get ahead in the toy business. The most popular service is our brand & product management service which supplies hands on, experienced resources to toy companies for brand, marketing and product development projects. We’re normally booked for a few months in advance, but have one space just come free. More details can be found here: http://www.kidsbrandinsight.com/services/