10 March 2020
Sustainability and Dodging Handshakes Preoccupy Toy Fair Exhibitors
- Photo: No cold calling: Virus-wary exhibitors not immune to the Spielwarenmesse’s allure.
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- Photo: On trend: Event attendees toy with three of 2020’s most influential concepts.
- Photo: Baulch: “Well-established brand.”
With the coronavirus raging, attendees at the Spielwarenmesse – the Nuremberg toy fair – were less keen than usual on close interaction, though still found some time to ponder the need for a new generation of Thunberg-friendly playthings.
As the world's largest toy fair, Spielwarenmesse continues to be the pivotal event for toy manufacturers, distributors and retailers on an international basis. Held in Nuremberg in southeast Germany, this modest-sized urban sprawl is often referred to as 'Toy City', with anyone who has visited the show sure to understand just why. The Spielwarenmesse literally takes over the whole city for a whole week every year, stretching the capacity of the local infrastructure – including airport, hotels, bars and restaurants – to its very limits. And, let's be honest, which other toy fair holds a competition among local bar owners to design an 'official' Toy Fair cocktail each year?
Opening its doors for the 71st time at the end of January, the show underlined its global credentials with the international share of visitors and exhibitors reaching its highest-ever level. In total, 63,500 visitors from 136 countries attended, all keen to check out the 2,843 exhibitors, which themselves came from 70 different countries. Overall, 66% of the visitors came from outside Germany, as did 78% of exhibitors.
As such statistics vividly illustrate, the days when the show was dominated by German visitors and exhibitors are now long gone. Today, it is very much a pan-global event, with a strong presence from every continent, not just Europe. Indeed, several major European countries that used to hold their own domestic toy fairs – France, Italy and Spain among them – now count Nuremberg as their de facto home event.
In its current form, the show spans five days, including a full weekend – an unusual configuration for a contemporary trade show. For many international visitors, though, close of play on the Friday signals the end of the trip, with the weekend traditionally considered more of a domestic German gathering. There is even a hefty programme of events that precedes the official start of the show, including a morning press preview and an evening opening ceremony, which also incorporates the annual Spielwarenmesse awards. So, even before the show officially opens, the organiser gives the assembled toy community the perfect opportunity to network and assess the current state of the sector.
In recent years, the scope of the show has expanded somewhat, with a number of new product categories – including Carnival, Books, Baby and Infant Products and Tech – added into the mix alongside the more traditional toy offerings. As well as providing retailers with the necessary inspiration to expand beyond the boundaries of mainstream toys, these more novel categories also attract buyers from different sectors to the show. The move to broaden the scope of the event, then, has proven to be a success on several levels – as well as giving existing visitors added incentives to make the trip, it has also attracted many new visitors who may otherwise have never attended the show.
In total, 12 core toy product groups are now represented across the show's 18 halls, with about a million products on display overall. Given the sheer number of exhibitors and the geographic extent of the event – a walk from one end of the showground to the other can easily take 30 minutes – it is physically impossible to get around the whole show and visit every company present within the allotted time. The practice of grouping the product categories together within dedicated product sections, then, certainly helps when it comes to putting a schedule in place.
Usefully, the larger, multinational companies also tend to be grouped together within a series of outsized permanent showrooms located in Hall 12.2. Indeed, given it hosts such industry giants as Mattel, Lego, Vtech and MGA, this is often the first hall many of the international buyers head for. Understandably, it is also traditionally the busiest and, therefore, a reliable gauge of attendance.
Following a pattern that first became evident at this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair, Nuremberg proved to be unimmune from forces well beyond the control of the toy industry, with attendance, consequently, slightly down on previous years. In specific terms, the modest decline in overall numbers was officially attributed to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Indeed, if social unrest was the elephant in the room at the Hong Kong event, it was a pachyderm of restricted dimensions compared with the coronavirus, which inevitably dominated conversations at Nuremberg.
Traditionally, exhibitors from China have dominated Halls 11 and 12. This year, perhaps unsurprisingly, both sections were noticeably quieter than at previous events.
Illustrating the level of paranoia among exhibitors, the show organiser reported that a crate originating in Wuhan triggered a major row when it was delivered to the showground. Many of the exhibitors, it seemed, thought it unacceptable that the package had been admitted, believing it potentially harboured deadly pathogens. While the objectors were clearly no medical experts, the incident did indicate the level of unease that prevailed.
To add insult to injury, after being shunned by certain visitors and various fellow exhibitors, several Chinese companies weren't even able to head straight home once the event concluded. This was largely because many airlines had cancelled scheduled flights to China while the show was in progress.
Throughout the course of the event, it was also not uncommon to be informed that the representatives of certain companies wouldn't be shaking the hands of visitors and definitely not kissing any of them. Others, apparently favoured smiles rather than handshakes, while others opted, somewhat indecorously, to make do with bumping elbows. As well as the seismic impact the coronavirus is set to have on global supply chains, it seems to have already undermined many social norms.
Despite all this, though, the mood among exhibitors and visitors was surprisingly upbeat. Given the relatively poor performance of the global toy industry in 2019, though, this positivity may have been as much about aufwiedersehen-ing that particular year as welcoming the new one with any real optimism.
During its annual presentation in Nuremberg, NPD, the New York-headquartered market-research group, revealed that the top 12 global toy markets had suffered an average decline of 3% last year, while the largest five European territories had collectively fallen by 2%. In the case of France, its declining birth rate was largely blamed. Accordingly, with the UK down 6%, it was said the figure would be worse still had there not been something of a pick-up in its birth rate.
Overall, Europe's top five performing properties were well-established brands – Playmobil, L.O.L. Surprise!, Lego City, Barbie and Vtech Baby. In many ways, this proves – should proof be needed – that long-term, evergreen properties remain vital to the success of the toy market. The property most rapidly rising in popularity last year, however, was Fortnite, the video-game-inspired brand, a sign that developing toys that appeal to older kids has to remain a priority.
In another annual tradition, the show organiser's International Trend Committee also announced the three trends it sees as likely to influence the toy market the most over the coming year. This year's three were Toys for Future, Digital Goes Physical and Be You.
For its part, the slightly ungrammatical Toys for Future trend took its lead from one of the industry's currently hottest topics – sustainability in play. With Fridays for Future – a Greta Thunberg-inspired kids' protest movement – looking to highlight the way climate change is affecting every country, the toy industry has been quick to realise it needs to take such a view into consideration. This has seen it quickly set about developing toys with the sustainable credentials it believes will appeal to today's switched-on generation of eco-aware kids.
The Digital goes Physical trend, meanwhile, acknowledged that characters from computer games and e-sports have become hugely popular licensable properties in their own right. Similarly, it endorsed the fact that YouTube, sundry messaging services and a variety of apps now offer considerable opportunities for the toy trade as it faces the ongoing challenge of staying relevant to its audience. Completing this year's trilogy, Be You showcased toys and games that help people with special needs, while also promoting tolerance, inclusion and diversity.
Taken together, these three trends show a toy industry that is keen to come to terms with the rapidly changing world in general and with the ever-evolving mindset of its primary audience – kids – in particular. It is fair to say that the current generation is far more switched on to environmental issues than any previous one. This should, perhaps, come as no surprise when the self-appointed leader of the movement – Greta Thunberg – is only a few years older than the average toy consumer.
This, however, does beg one particular question: What impact will this awareness of environmental issues have on consumer attitudes towards the consumption and, ultimately, sale of toys? Indeed, given last year's lacklustre numbers, is it already having an effect? The toy world, no doubt, is already watching closely.
The 2020 Spielwarenmesse (Nuremberg Toy Fair) took place from 29 January-2 February at the Nuremberg Exhibition Centre.
John Baulch is the Publisher of Toy World,
the UK's leading toys and games trade publication