Play turns High Tech as Toy Makers Fight Drop in Sales

By: The Associated Press
By: The Associated Press

Children's bedrooms may still be full of Christmas toys - but the industry is already gearing up for another assault on store shelves.

Here at London's Toy Fair 2014, over 280 exhibitors are showing off their brand new products which are expected to fill children's wish-lists in the coming year.

They include a bubble gun and, if you're up for getting your face dirty, how about this pie challenge game.

The event allows retailers the chance to look ahead to the coming year, while taking stock of a busy Christmas period.

But, initial signs are not promising.

Having reviewed the performance of UK toy market during 2013, global information company, the NDP Group, found that the overall value of the market shrank to £2.9 billion ($4.7 billion USD) during last year - that's down one percent compared to 2012.

Also, sales of toys fell to 364 million items - a drop of five percent compared to 2012.

Industry expert Roland Earl, from the British Toy and Hobby Association, blames the 12 percent decline in sales of toys priced £5 ($8.2 USD) and under:

"I think it's probably because of a slight decline in impulse buys which are pretty important throughout the year for the toy industry," he says.

"I mean, that said, one percent up, one percent down it's not a great deal of difference. But, yes it is slightly down on last year, but 2014 a looking pretty promising."

There are no shortage of money making toys here at the fair, this recreation of 'Toothless' - the Dragon from the 'How to Train Your Dragon' movie - by toymakers H. Grossman is retailing for £7,000 ($11,500 USD).

Roland says he expects the toy industry to come bouncing back in 2014 - using inventive new products and of course listening to some of their toughest critics:

"They do research with children, they look at different takes on existing products and they look at completely brand new products," he says.

"I mean, there's a lot of inventiveness that goes on in the industry and a lot of inventive new toys out there for summer, spring, autumn and winter."

One company showing off their new inventions here at the fair are model makers Revell who are promoting their Nano Quad - a mini, fast "Quadrocopter."

Measuring at just 4.5 centimetres in length, this new toy is priced at £34.99 ($57.60 USD) and is already turning heads - having won an award for 'Best New Toy' in the Fair's 'Hobby' category.

Despite the size, the company claims breakages would be down to bad piloting:

"Breakages is up to the ability of the pilot, so if you're a good pilot and good at flying you won't break it," says Thomas Randrup, Revell's UK and Ireland Country Manager.

"But obviously anything that flies in the air, what goes up must come down so depending on how you control your landing I suppose."

With Hasbro's Furbie being the most popular toy of last year, the trend is now towards toys children can actually care for.

Here at the Toy Fair, toy makers Flair are showing off a variety of new products including these new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines.

But these new Cupets are also drawing lots of envious glances.

These collectable 3D animals come to life with the use of various smart devices including Apple iPhones and iPads.

Using an application free to download from Apple's App Store, cameras on smart devices animate the pets in users hands - allowing users to feed and care for them.

The application also comes complete with games for users to play, meaning they can earn coins which can then spent on food, accessories and medicine for the cyber pets.

Flair Assistant Product Manager Neil Martin says people being constantly attached to their smart devices makes the Cupets a perfect toy:

"I actually think that nurturing apps work really well because people have a smart device on them all the time now, so they actually really gel well with that bond with a smart device that you have," he says.

"The difference that we've got with cupets now is that we've also managed to wire in a really good gaming structure as well. So that the more you look after your pet the more time you spend with your pet."

Flair Cupets are priced at £6.99 ($11.50 USD).

Elsewhere, there's another product which is getting people talking.

This toy - named My Friend Cayla (£59.99/$98.76) - is the first doll to literally 'exist' through an app.

When synced with a smart device Cayla has real conversations drawing on an infinite number of answers and responses from the internet.

But there are also safeguards in place - in fact there are four levels, meaning that using Cayla online could be far safer than allowing a child to surf on a typical tablet.

Cayla even has something to say without an internet connection - she can talk about photos, tell stories and play games even when offline, thanks to the programming inside of her.

Vivid marketing director, Mary Wood, says can be just like a friend to young children:

"She's a traditional 18-inch doll but she can do so much more," she says.

"You can ask her almost anything and she can respond. You can have a conversation with her, you can ask her maths questions, you can ask anything you like and she'll respond, just like a real friend."

From one innovative doll to another.

This "Lottie Doll" is the creative work of toy makers Arklu, and is intended to have a 'childlike' body, with no make-up, jewellery or high heels.

Arlu say this product is all about letting girls be girls, doing all the activities a child would do, not growing up too quickly and presenting a healthy view on body image.

Lottie is presented in a range of styles from "Kawaii Karate" to "Pirate Queen" and is priced from £16.99 ($27.97 USD).

Arklu Co-founder and Creative Director, Lucie Follett, says they've tried to encourage adventure with their individual doll designs.

"There's very much a feeling out there at the moment that girls have so much more to offer," she says.

"That the world is a very limiting place if it's just reduced to pink, glitter and stereotypically female activities so that very much why we've tried to be adventurous."

London's Toy Fair 2014 is being held at Kensington Olympia from 21-23 January 2014.

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