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Not Yet Fully Assembled: The Mainland Collectible Model Toy Sector

Despite strong consumer demand, China's model-toy industry still lacks coherence and retail representation.

Photo: Journey to the West: One of the earliest animated model kits. (Xinhua News Agency)
Journey to the West: One of the earliest animated model kits.
Photo: Journey to the West: One of the earliest animated model kits. (Xinhua News Agency)
Journey to the West: One of the earliest animated model kits.

While, traditionally, the term "model kit" has been taken to generically refer to a broad range of scaled-down toy products, particularly cars or aircraft, a more specific use was coined by ACTtoys.net – China's leading animated toys platform – in 2004. This saw "model kit" come to refer solely to models, toys, props and other merchandise related to cartoons, films, television series and games. As such, the term is now widely used throughout the industry.

Unlike traditional self-assembly models, remote-control kits and unlicensed children's toys in general, the term "model kit", as it is now used, refers to products that have an established pedigree within the continuity of the relevant cartoons, films, television series or games. Typically fashioned from PVC, resin, organic plastics or other alloys, such products tend to be finely detailed and produced to a high standard. Usually portable and posable, many such toys also incorporate sound and lighting effects associated with the characters in other media, most notably in the case of Gundam and Dragon Ball merchandise.

Another legacy issue is that model kits were previously perceived as high-end toys by many mainland consumers, a positioning that limited their popularity. More recently, though, this perception has been less of a problem, partly because many anime fans are now of an age where they are earning in their own right and partly because disposable income levels are generally higher all round.

Many model kits, however, are still quite costly. According to their manufacturers, this is on account of the complicated production processes involved and the high standard of workmanship required. Some comfort may be taken, though, from the fact that certain kits, if maintained in a reasonably pristine condition, may appreciate in value over time. The target market for these more collectable items tends to be discerning anime fans in the 18-35 age group who have independent spending power.

Set on China's east coast, Qingdao is typical of many mainland cities in that, despite being home to a sizable number of model-kit enthusiasts, there are few high-street outlets specialising in such items and those that do are small and scattered. As a result, there is little networking between such collectors, with the majority conducting their pastime on a solitary basis. Inevitably, this means there are no easily accessible sales channels targeted at such individuals.

Even in today's digitally-connected world, many model-kit websites still rely on word-of-mouth and their own promotional initiatives to drive traffic. Overall, there are a number of problems that beset many of the e-tailers active in the sector. Firstly, there is no real online or offline support from many of the sector's leading manufacturers. This lack of endorsement feeds into a bigger problem, with many would-be online purchasers concerned about the number of fake products sold via digital platforms.

Overall, this emerging sector would clearly benefit from greater co-operation between the domestic and overseas manufacturers currently producing model kits. Initially, this would help to develop properly stocked and managed high-street outlets with a focus on the sector. In turn, this would provide greater opportunities for feedback relating to future designs, production preferences and new product development.

In Qingdao-specific terms, this would see greater efforts made to interact with the established Qingdao International Animation and Game Industrial Park, a specialist enterprise zone to the east of the city centre. It is also believed the wider integration of the park into the commercial and cultural life of the region could boost Qindao's prosperity as well as that of Shandong province overall.

Essentially, there are two primary means of jolting new life into the sector. Firstly, it would make a lot of sense if many of the larger manufacturers became more closely aligned with the specialty stores. With the models made by Japan's Bandai Namco and two US companies – Hasbro and Mattel – the most widely admired, securing their endorsement would certainly boost retailers in the sector. Failing that, many mainland-based manufacturers – notably Auldey, Lingdong and Machine Boy – started out as OEM contractors for a number of the industry's leading brands. Their active involvement would certainly raise the profile of many retailers, while also giving such companies the kind of feedback they need to refine their product design initiatives.

Looking slightly further afield, both Hong Kong and Taiwan are home to model-kit industries that are considerably more sophisticated than their mainland equivalents. As well as producing kits that tie-in with Japan's anime sector, several Hong Kong manufacturers, for instance, also create a range of licensed merchandise for high-profile mainland animated properties, such as Jade Dynasty, the hugely-popular multi-player online role-playing game.

Other Hong Kong-based manufacturers, such as Dragon Models, which has won considerable acclaim for its military model kits, have succeeded because of their greater overall affinity with Chinese culture, despite their workmanship being a little lacking compared with the US and Japan-based market leaders. Again, though, a closer alignment between such manufacturers and those on the retail front line would clearly help legitimise the sector overall.

Photo: The Empire in mid-strike-back. (Xinhua News Agency)
The Empire in mid-strike-back.
Photo: The Empire in mid-strike-back. (Xinhua News Agency)
The Empire in mid-strike-back.
Photo: Japanese model kits: Eminently collectible. (Shutterstock.com/smild.ch)
Japanese model kits: Eminently collectible.
Photo: Japanese model kits: Eminently collectible. (Shutterstock.com/smild.ch)
Japanese model kits: Eminently collectible.

Apart from arranging such mutual endorsements, the staging of major trade events with a focus on model kits could also prove to be a huge step forward for the sector. While Hong Kong plays host to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s (HKTDC) Toys and Games Fair every January, similar events of a comparable scale are rare on the mainland. Even though the China Import and Export Fair – the mainland’s largest trade event, also known as the Canton Fair – has a dedicated toy section, it has no particular focus on model kits, with footfall, accordingly, on the low side.

Now, though, plans are afoot to stage a number of sizable toy and model expos in northern China over the next few years. Although this is, initially, only to be conducted on a trial basis, there are hopes that such events may prove to be permanent fixtures, something that would indubitably benefit the industry and the region as a whole.

Joanna Liu, Qingdao Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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