Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hong Kong Toy Fair Day 3

And Now...The Toys

One of the remarkable things about the Hong Kong Toy Fair is its sheer size. Walking non-stop for the better part of four days, one can only see superficially the hundreds of thousands of toys on display here. More than 2,000 exhibitors from 30 countries and territories, each with a booth chock-a-block full of items that the companies are hopeful will find a market.

Now, many of the toys we see here will never be released in the U.S. So, for example, while Tomy has an impressive line of Thomas The Tank Engine toys, the company doesn't have the license for U.S. distribution. Others simply aren't going to make it. In fact, one of the fun sidelines of this 4 days of sensory overload is finding the toy or toys that get our "What Were They Thinking????" nod.

This year, that has to go to The Original Farting Gnomes. We tried to snap a picture, but the manufacturer was afraid of having the idea ripped off. It didn't seem polite to say, "Don't worry about that!" Still, you can imagine a fairly traditional gnome standing about 14 inches tall. And, boy, does it make bodily noises. The company is convinced that children around the world will find this hilarious, and who are we to suggest they haven't got their finger on the pulse of play? Stranger things have made huge hits. That's all we have to say on that subject.

Even after three days, there are no real emerging trends, and no breakthrough products. Coming off a year that was tough for virtually everyone in the toy industry, it looks like the companies here are largely playing it safe. (These companies are different from the major U.S. manufacturers, which we'll write about during The American International Toy Fair next month.) So, you'll see a lot of radio control cars, a lot of die-cast cars and a lot of fashion dolls. Many of these, again, would most likely not get to the U.S. market.

One trend that looks like it's going to continue this year is music play. The success of Guitar Hero (volumes I-III) has inspired many companies to adapt that game play into some plug and play games that don't require a console and to other instruments, most notably drums. This is a play pattern that looks like it's going to be here for a while.

We'll write more about safety and how that's impacting virtually everything here tomorrow, but the other major trend that we're seeing at least in some categories, is "green" toys. This is a trend that began to gain momentum last year, as we saw tons of wooden toys and even biodegradable plastics. This year, we've seen lots of companies using soy-based fabrics for plush and stuffed animals, as opposed to the petroleum-based synthetics that have been the norm for the past
several years.

One of the things that's always fun when traveling is to look at how toy retailing is different around the world. In the U.S., people are used to places like Toys "R" Us or Wal-Mart or Target, but here in Hong Kong, it's very different. There are street vendors who sell everything from robots to plush toys, and the famous markets have a lot of lower-priced toys brought in from China. There's a huge Toys "R" Us here where many of the tourists and some of the locals shop, but here in Hong Kong (as well as in parts of China), the traditional department store is where much of the shopping gets done.

Sogo has several outlets throughout the region, and it has everything from luxury goods and world famous brands to food, stationery, apparel and things from local manufacturers. The toy department is situated amidst a floor that is largely devoted to anything for children. The actual area for toys is small, and very brand-driven. Thomas the Tank Engine, Barbie, Transformers, Power Rangers, Fisher-Price, Hello Kitty and many brands that are familiar to kids around the world fill the departments. Oh, and since the Olympics will be here this summer, there are whole lines of toys based on the mascot for the games.

Of course, one thing never changes. You can always find kids excited and mesmerized by the choices in front of them. That's something that's consistent wherever anyone goes. It's the magical part of the toy industry that one never wants to forget.

- C. Byrne