What I learned at Toy Fair
We Americans take our play very seriously.
That was one of the takeaways I brought home from my visit to Toy Fair over the weekend. If you’ve never heard of it, Toy Fair is to the toy industry what ProMat is to materials handling.
Imagine the biggest, coolest toy store you’ve ever been in then multiply it exponentially – something like 63 aisles of toy makers showing off their wares, spread out over two exhibit halls in the Javits Convention Center in New York City.
I was there with my wife, who owns a specialty retail store. While you may not think toys have much to do with our industry, I came away with a few thoughts that are relevant to what we do.
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well: Anyone who thinks American Ingenuity is a thing of the past hasn’t been to Toy Fair. Prime example #1 was Box-O-Mania, one of those products that makes you slap your forehead and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The company’s product is a box – or more precisely, washable corrugated plastic panels that your kid can use to construct a doll house, a club house, a pet house, a barn – whatever – just like the old days of using the appliance box for fun. The box can be decorated with washable markers, stickers, whatever. Here’s the kicker. While we were checking out the product, a 12-year-old girl sidled up next to us. I figured she was playing hooky to attend Toy Fair with her parents until she asked: “Can I tell you about my product?” Turns out Anna Tselevich was the inventor of the product and launched Box-O-Mania in 2010 with the help of her entrepreneur father. Let me tell you, she was working the booth like a pro. Box-O-Mania wasn’t the only new and intriguing product. In every aisle, there was a Hope Springs Eternal booth manned by inventors and marketers with dreams of hitting it big with a new way to peddle a bike or get everyone playing a new board game.
The world still comes here to see what’s new: Just as ProMat has become increasingly global, so has Toy Fair. I’m not just talking about the presence of foreign toy makers looking for customers. Several vendors told me they were struck by the number of foreign buyers who had come to New York looking for new products for their stores.
Sourcing is one of the biggest issues facing manufacturers: On Sunday night, we were treated to dinner by a toy manufacturer. When I asked what was the biggest issue facing their company, the sales manager told me it was sourcing. In fact, their CEO had just spent 8 weeks traveling Asia in search of potential new manufacturing partners outside of China. The Chinese have the manufacturing infrastructure and know-how, but they are also being pressured by rising wages. The sales manager explained how everyone quit working at one of the factories making their product one day without warning when the employees learned there was a factory down the street paying a higher wage. “That kind of instability is forcing all of us to start looking for new sources of supply in other countries,” he told me.
If you think the consumer has recovered, think again. My wife has been in the kids business for 27 years. People used to say the industry was recession proof: no matter how tough times get, a parent will still buy for their kids. Except now, they don’t. Toys, after all, are the ultimate discretionary item. Every vendor I spoke to told me that traffic on the opening day of the show was lighter than expected and that the orders they were writing were smaller than the previous year. The holiday season was also not the bang up success that many had planned for. The consumer is still being cautious and so were the retailers there looking for that next big thing that will give them an edge over the next guy. Everyone was hopeful, but it’s clear we’re not out of the woods yet.
ProMat 2011 will be held March 21 - 24, 2011 at McCormick Place South in Chicago. The tradeshow will showcase the latest manufacturing, distribution and supply chain solutions in the material handling and logistics industry.