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Can Shark Toothbrushes or Stay-On Socks Topple the Mighty Unicorn?

Replacing the ubiquitous unicorn in the affections of the under-fives was the aim of many exhibitors at this year's ABC Kids Expo, but could the one-horned wonder still outshine all the cuddly lemurs and licensed fruit labels on offer?

Photo: Jaws: The Clean-Up – the Sharkey tots training toothbrush.
Jaws: The Clean-Up – the Sharkey tots training toothbrush.
Photo: Jaws: The Clean-Up – the Sharkey tots training toothbrush.
Jaws: The Clean-Up – the Sharkey tots training toothbrush.

Just which unique creature is set to supplant the unicorn in the hearts of children the world over? That was, perhaps, the most pressing existential issue for many exhibitors at this year's ABC Kids Expo, North America's largest trade event dedicated to the babies and younger children sector.

Now in its 15th year, the show continues to highlight innovation, with two specialist areas the New Product Showcase and the Invention Connection (an area reserved for products still in the conceptual / prototype stage) – now doing the heavy lifting in this particular regard. Meanwhile, a new generation of green-minded parents has seen the organically-ethosed Naturally Kids Zone prove eminently sustainable.

Overall, products aimed at younger children are continuing to do well across the US. At the same time, growing parental awareness of the range of health, wellness and nutritional issues has reshaped demand for baby-care products. If that wasn't enough, the industry also has to contend with aggressive incursions from the world of e-commerce and the continuing need to keep abreast of the many innovations that are changing both just what is deliverable and what parents expect.

Despite such dynamics, in 2017 diapers still reigned supreme as the highest value product category in the US baby-care market, with sales totalling US$4.7 billion, according to Statista, a Germany-based research firm. In second place – and way behind – was feeding / care / travel accessories ($2.2 billion), with baby gifts and toys trailing along in a very distant third ($638 million). In total, the revenue from all baby-care products sold in the US is expected to reach $11.1 billion by 2025.

Real-World Inspiration

While it's the larger companies that have long been the backbone of the event, much of the most striking ingenuity on show has often come from further down the pecking order. Typically, this tends to have been routed by start-ups established by parents or teachers who have found a novel way of tackling a particular problem. This year proved to be no exception.

Indeed, heading things up on the notable-newcomer front was Los Angeles-based Sticky Lickits, purveyors of edible stickers for fruit-shy kids. A nutritional researcher by trade, the company's founder Linda York had long been on a mission to find a playful way to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables, when suddenly inspiration struck.

Outlining what led to her Eureka moment, she said: "While I was working with the National Institute of Health, it became apparent that kids as young as nine or 10 were having cholesterol problems. As a society, we now know so much about nutrition and health, but many of us are still unhealthy or overweight. So, the problem isn't one of knowledge, it's actually about getting children opting to eat something healthy.

"During the course of my research, I observed that children would often choose an apple with a sticker on it in preference even to a chocolate chip cookie, maintaining that the labelled fruit actually tasted better. Armed with this insight, we created fun stickers that kids could lick and then attach to a piece of fruit, which they can then eat. As with anything, if you can make a game out of it, children tend to go for it."

The company's stickers now come with a choice of licensed images – notably SpongeBob or Paw Patrol or a selection of proprietary faces and creatures. Explaining the technical side, York said: "Our stickers are all sugar-free. They are made from tapioca starch and then coloured with a vegetable-based dye, such as red cabbage or turmeric. We deliberately don't give them much flavour as we want kids to taste the fruit itself and then grow to like it."

Photo: Sticky Lickits: Making fruit fun. Allegedly.
Sticky Lickits: Making fruit fun. Allegedly.
Photo: Sticky Lickits: Making fruit fun. Allegedly.
Sticky Lickits: Making fruit fun. Allegedly.
Photo: Squid Socks: Cephalopod-themed footwear.
Squid Socks: Cephalopod-themed footwear.
Photo: Squid Socks: Cephalopod-themed footwear.
Squid Socks: Cephalopod-themed footwear.

As well as finding a tear-free way to smuggle fruit down the throat of toddlers, promoting fine motor skills was a priority among many exhibitors, including Kentucky-based Barbara Lee. Forsaking her role as a Special Education Teacher, several years ago she took the decision to launch her own business – Crayon Rocks, a specialist provider of pebble-shaped, soy wax crayons.

Explaining just how a project she had idly mulled in her garage ultimately became a national business venture, she said: "Over the course of my career, I sat in hundreds of meetings with parents whose children had problems writing. Often they were designated as having special needs, when often all they really needed was the appropriate tools.

"My solution was, instead of giving such students the standard issue, easily breakable crayons, which were often hard to grip properly, I would provide them with pebble-shaped crayons. This helped them learning how to properly hold a writing implement, while also giving them the satisfaction of getting lots of colour onto their papers."

It was something generally regarded as less of a problem than incipient illiteracy that led Gabe Miller, a Seattle-based father of two, to launch his own business – Squid Socks. Explaining his own route to entrepreneurdom, he said: "My goal was to create something that stopped kids losing their socks all the time. This led me to devise a sock that stayed on but that wasn't constrictive in any way.

"It was obvious that a solid silicone band around the top of the sock wouldn't be good for circulation so, instead, we designed a 'squiddy dots' pattern, complete with gaps between each dot that facilitated free blood flow. The finished look resembled the suction cups on a squid's tentacles, so we styled them so it was as though it was a squid's arms that held the socks up. We've only been in business for four months, but we already offer 10 different collections with a choice of dye-sublimated prints or monochrome designs."

Preventing the loss of a molar or two rather than keeping an eye on fast-vanishing foot-coverings is the raison d'être behind Utah's Baby Banana, suppliers of nautically themed training toothbrushes for the recently incisored. Heading its product range is Sharky, a baby-ready silicon brush, complete with strategically placed anti-swallowing fins.

Outlining the company's marketing strategy, Sales Manager Ryan Phillips said: "We have found that people like to buy it as a gift, but tend to feel its low price point obliges them to purchase two or three additional things to go with it. To cater for this, we now sell the Sharky in a gift box, which also contains a blanket, a plush toy and a brush with a carrying case."

Hygienic, fun and giftable as it may be, the Sharky is clearly not set to dislodge a magical pink mono-horned horse from the affections of four-year-olds the world over any time soon. Kim Ryon, though, a Sales Rep with Squishables, a New York-based toy manufacturer, believes she may have the answer…

Pushed as to her company's best-sellers, she says: "Avocadoes, well avocado toys. People love them. It's a real pop culture thing. People of all ages buy them.

"Sloths and hedgehogs have also been doing well, but lemurs are probably the Next Big Thing. Or, maybe, kangaroos."

It could just be that unicorns get to hang on to their hard-to-balance crowns for another 12 months. At least.

Photo: The ABC Kids Expo: North America’s biggest and bounciest kid and baby show.
The ABC Kids Expo: North America's biggest and bounciest kid and baby show.
Photo: The ABC Kids Expo: North America’s biggest and bounciest kid and baby show.
The ABC Kids Expo: North America's biggest and bounciest kid and baby show.

The 2018 ABC Kids Expo took place from 9-11 October at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The event featured about 2,700 exhibitors and attracted some 12,000 attendees.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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