The Toy Year Starts Again

Last week was Jim’s turn to be in Hong Kong, this week it’s mine. The trade show here is the second largest in the world, and it’s where the “toy year” officially starts. Many manufacturers started showing things privately in October, but here in Hong Kong at the amazing Convention Centre that juts magnificently into the harbor from Hong Kong Island, or in the hundreds of showrooms and hotel suites on the mainland, this is where the toys you’ll be trying to find ten short months from now start to take shape.

Many of the executives and designers have been here since just after the New Year. They work with buyers and have easy access to the factories in China—a couple of hours away by train. The suggested changes that are devised in these meetings can quickly be implemented and new models delivered in a few days’ time.

One of the big things everyone is talking about is cost—how to give consumers more value for their money. That’s great news for anyone buying toys, but it can cause headaches for the companies trying to meet that challenge. For example, I spent an hour today with a small toy company that has a line of awesome products that will be unveiled in the U.S. this year. (Sorry, specific details are under wraps.) I talked to the lead inventor, who has a Ph.D. in robotics, and he told me that it took six months to figure out how to get a toy to run for a long time on AA batteries. Why even bother trying to do something like that? Well, it allows the toy to be sold at an affordable price and to perform at a level that won’t disappoint kids. Sounds like a pretty good reason to me.

And this show is big, there are more than 2,000 companies exhibiting from 46 countries. And there are thousands of buyers here from all over the world, all of them hoping that they will find a market for their toys.

It’s a lot to try to see it all in only a few days!

But this is truly where the toy year starts. A lot of people in the toy business are on the road for the first few months of the year non-stop. At the end of this week, many of the companies leave here and head for the Nuremburg toy show in Germany—the largest toy fair in the world. It’s so big, they have one huge convention hall that would easily cover the space of five football fields devoted only to model trains. (Model trains are big in Europe, still.) There the manufacturers will show their toys again, with some improvements.

Another company I spoke with today has an amazing electronics product. (Sorry, still top secret.) They showed it to me and said that by next week when they head to Nuremburg they hope to have the next round of development complete.

After Nuremburg comes the London toy show and finally, New York. Even then, though, the work isn’t done. After all the shows, manufacturers still have to work out details such as how to manufacture the toys, and how much it will cost the retailers to buy them and how much they can sell them for. It’s a long process that ends with final meetings and the hope that after all is said and done the retailers will begin placing orders and production can start. In many cases, orders are finalized by the end of March or the beginning of April, so the toys can be made in time to spend 6 weeks being shipped from Asia and be on the shelf at the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

It’s also a very risky business because there’s no guarantee that a toy will make it through the process and thousands of dollars—or more—may go down the tubes. A toy might ultimately be too expensive. Or there could be too many other things like it on the market or… There are lots of reasons, and many of them might not be that obvious. However, every once in a while, I’ll stumble across a toy as I’m roaming the shows that makes me scratch my head and say, “What were they thinking?” My favorite right here in Hong Kong two years ago was a two-foot-tall purple plush gorilla that was operated by remote control and played “Johnny, Be Good.” I guess somebody thought it was a good idea.

If this year is like the past, though, the good ideas will far outweigh the bad, and at the end of the toy year for us, there will be tons of excitement for you. Stay tuned!

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