"MUSIC IS THE SPACE BETWEEN NOTES."
Claude DeBussy, French Composer
One of the local Chicago stations has been running an ad about their exclusive look at the PIRG's 2015 "Trouble In Toyland" report. PIRG is an NGO that annually posts a list of "dangerous" toys. The ad was obviously designed to scare viewers by announcing that the station would reveal the use of dangerous chemicals in toys.
It made me angry but not surprised. This is the time of year when PIRG and other NGO's raise money for their organizations by frightening consumers about toy safety. I only wish that station would have asked PIRG why, if they discovered these "problems" last April,were they just exposing them now? Isn't withholding that kind of information a bit reckless?
I have written in the past that the toy industry needs to challenge organizations like PIRG to provide detail on their testing and tester qualifications. In other words, expect from them what they expect from us. Fortunately, The Toy Industry Association sees it the same way and did all of us a service by analyzing last year's Trouble In Toyland report. The TIA response was a powerful one. Here is a graphic that was used:
PIRG was obviously stung by the TIA's analysis so they fired back. Their response was written by Dev Gowda, the Public Health Advocate for PIRG. I found Mr. Gowda's response, "Industry Tries to Toy with Our Toy Report," to be disingenuous and deceptive.
To illustrate my point, here are a list of the Toy Industry report's charges and Mr. Gowda's responses as laid out in his article. My comments follow (All italicized words are quoted from Mr. Gowda's article)::
1. Toy Industry Association charge:
"Nearly 85% of the products named in PIRG's report were tested at a lab that is not accredited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to do that testing, seriously calling into question the validity of their methods and results."
U.S. PIRG response:
We used a Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)-accredited lab, STAT Corporation, for 100% of the toys that were tested for toxic chemicals
I visited the STAT Corporation website and discovered that they do not claim CPSC accreditation. Here is a link to their accreditation page. In addition, I could not find anything on their website that indicates that they test toys. The reason for this is that the STAT Corporation only does two tests that apply to toys. Bottom line, Why doesn't PIRG use an actual toy testing lab?
2. Toy Industry Association charge:
"Many 'dangerous' toys named by PIRG...aren't even toys. Including non-toy items - like backpacks, headbands, and towels - in a toy report is disingenuous and creates confusion about the safety of compliant toys."
U.S. PIRG response:
All the products we tested were found in the children's toy section of the stores.
PIRG certainly knows that just because a store, any store, decides where to put a product says nothing about what the product is. Putting a fish in a zoo does not make the fish an animal. In the same sense,placing a backpack or headband in the toy department does not make it a toy. The government has differing safety standards for backpacks (school supplies), headbands (hair goods) and towels (soft goods). In fact, the government's standards are higher for toys than any of the other categories.
It is rare that those who make toys get to play with those who consume them. The Chicago Toy and Game Fair (ChiTAG) is a major opportunity for that to happen. The event, taking place this weekend at Navy Pier, was surprisingly busy yesterday. I say, "surprisingly", because those who attended had to make their way from the Chicago suburbs through a surprisingly heavy snowstorm.
How heavy was it? Well, to give you a sense of that, I am writing this as I unhappily sit in a hotel room near O'Hare Airport, having had my flight home last night cancelled. So, it says a lot about the vigor of Chicago's denizens and the strong appeal of ChiTAG that so many would fight through so many snowflakes.
Dan Klitsner, Founder of KID Group LLC and inventor of "Bop It" was last night's keynote speaker at the Toy and Game Inventor Awards held at Chicago's Navy Pier. I was so impressed by what he had to say that I wanted to share this quote from his speech.
Watch the kid...not the toy
Watch the player...not the game
Dan Klitsner, Founder KID Group LLC
Inventor of Bop It
You really have to hand it to Mattel. They are willing to do the new and different. That was what I thought when I saw a boy in the new ad for Moschino Barbie. The boy, who is blonde, has a mohawk and has lines (“Moschino Barbie is so fierce!”) is a prominent actor in the ad. The gender lines in the toy department are, if not completely coming down, certainly blurring. Here is a link to the video (and remember to look for the wink at the end):
Old notions of what constitutes play are giving way to a new reality in which the bright line between the purposeless and purposeful is rapidly eroding.
Peter Drucker, the business philosopher, always liked to ask: "What business are you in?" It's getting harder to know.
Last week The New York Times provided each reader with a cardboard virtual reality viewer (nytvr). By doing so they were attempting to give readers with a richer experience of the news by allowing readers to engage themselves more fully in a story. As I used the reader to immerse myself into a group of Syrian refugees I was emotionally struck by the immediacy of the experience and yet intellectually puzzled. Didn't Google just team up with Mattel to apply VR technology to the 1950's classic toy the View-Master? Was Virtual Reality a toy, a journalistic tool or both?
And what about this article by Dana Bartholomew, "California first: International drone racing competition buzzes North Hills." It tell us that "Drone racing, which began in France with pilotless aircraft whizzing through the forest, migrated to the U.S. last summer and has since taken the world by storm, according to the IDRA. Founded in April, the group is now opening a chapter a month in countries from Brazil to the Kuwait, with chapters now forming from San Francisco to Miami." IDRA, that would be the International Drone Racing Association. So what is a Drone? Is it a toy, a hobby, a sport or a weapon? Well, of course, its all four and more.
And what about Mattel's "Hello Barbie"? This talking robot that shares and senses emotion is to all appearances just a new iteration of doll play. Is she, however, much more. Is she only a doll or is she also a friend and confidant? Is she the first emergence of a far more intimate relationship between human and robot?
Eventbrite Survey - "Millennials Fueling the Experience Economy"
In my last posting I wrote about this week's 3rd quarter sales reports and the resulting worries about retail sales. Macy's reported a 5.2% drop in 3rd quarter sales as did Nordstrom. Wal-Mart is also anticipated to report a drop in same store sales.
We have been told until now to expect a very strong year for toys by those who do quantitative as well as anecdotal analysis. So, should the toy industry now be worried?
I don't think so. Here is why:
I see four other reasons toy sales will do well:
Everything is pointing to a very strong year for toy sales. NPD is predicting an increase over last year of 6.2%; Euromonitor is predicting 5.4% and Gerrick Johnson of BMO Capital is projecting 5%. Not only that, conversations with sales reps and company owners reflect stories of early and consistent reorders.
That is why it is so puzzling that bricks and mortar retail sales for the last quarter were in the doldrums. Macy's is reporting heavy inventories due to slowed sales and is beginning markdowns (its not even Thanksgiving yet). Nordstrom also reported slowed sales and their stock price fell accordingly. Its not just, the big department stores, Wal-Mart is expected to report lackluster sales later this week.
Its not all bad for bricks and mortar, however as Kohls beat projections as did Penneys. Still, the report from Macy's was unexpected. To illustrate, this is a headline that came out on November 10, the day before the retailer reported sales: "Macy's expected to report slight dip in sales." Here is a headline that appeared the day after: "Macy's cuts full-year forecast, sends shivers through retail."
Newspaper Ad - Early 20th Century
It's the Christmas selling season so we are hearing complaints about the commercial aspects of the holiday starting earlier than ever. We are also hearing concern regarding stores being open 24 hours over the Thanksgiving holidays. Is this a recent problem? Well, no it is not.
First of all, lest you think that retailers were once more reserved and reluctant to commercialize momentous events to make a buck consider an ad placed just after the fall of Richmond, VA during the Civil War. "Richmond has fallen and so have our prices! at Western Hall Clothing House." That ran in an April, 1865 Chicago Times.
According to an interesting article by Paul Collins in Slate, "Christmas Season Starts Earlier Every Year!": "Like so many of our retailing habits, early shopping dates back to the late Victorians. Along with inventing cash registers, mail-order catalogues, and escalator-filled flagship stores, the Victorians also discovered the value of starting the Yuletide shopping season before Thanksgiving."
And they weren't coy about it; not even in Salt Lake City. Here is how an 1893 ad read:" "This is no joke. We mean it. We will do it ... MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY." Now that is intense.
Here is an ad from October 28, 1928 that read: “This may SEEM a little premature to you -- but it really is NOT -- for you do not have many days left in which to do your Christmas buying.”
The "Kung Fu Panda" knock-off, "The Little Panda Fighter" would actually be pretty funny if knock-offs weren't such a continuing problem. I received an email this week from a toy company telling me that they had had a large number of their products recently counterfeited. The person told me that they were suing and wanted to know if I was hearing about any rise in the problem. There were Shopkins counterfeits earlier in the year and I am sure that others have had the problem. If you have recently experienced knock offs, write in and let us know.
What I find ironic is that China has been making efforts to curtail piracy. In fact, November 6, 2015 New York Times article by Neil Gough entitled "China Moves to Crack Down on Counterfeit Disney Products" informs us about
"[a] survey this year by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, published with Bain & Company, a consulting firm based in Boston, found that 85 percent of respondents said they believed China’s enforcement of intellectual property rights had improved in the last five years. However, 80 percent said ineffective enforcement still remained a concern. Two-thirds said that the risks of intellectual property or data being leaked were greater in China than in other countries.
What is interesting about the article is its discussion of the Chinese government's focus on The Walt Disney Company. The government is calling it a “special action aimed at stamping out imitation goods that infringe onDisney’s trademarks."
6. Eric Cartman - South Park
Eric Cartman is the ultimate bigot. He has that worst of all combinations: Bloated arrogance without confidence.
7. Mr. Burns - The Simpsons
To best appreciate how evil Mr. Burns is it is essential to read the lyrics to "See My Vest" in the "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds" episode; a satire on Cruela DeVille in 101 Dalmatians". Here is an excerpt
Like my loafers? Former gophers -
It was that or skin my chauffeurs,
But a greyhound fur tuxedo
Would be best
8. Muttley - Wacky Races
Muttley, Dick Dastardly's dog, is my choice because, while Mr. Dastardly is a parody of every early 20th century villain, Muttley is unique. His delight in doing evil plus his weird muted snicker make him a satisfying villain.
9. Plankton - Sponge Bob Square Pants
Is Plankton a true villain? He is, yet he is so tiny and, well, so pathetic in his inability to steal the Crabby Patty recipe. Still, he sees himself as a villain and enjoys a good "Wa-ha-ha."
New Proposed Emojis
I once read a book about invented languages. You may be asking yourself, why would someone read a book on invented languages? My answer is: I have no idea. It just interested me.
Invented languages are languages that did not form naturally but were artificially constructed, sometimes by one person. For example, the most popular invented language is Esperanto created by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. Its still around and 2 million people speak it.
But, I digress. I wanted to talk about a pictographic language to which we all need to pay more attention. That is Emoji, those little faces and icons.
I came to this conclusion when I read that the Unicode Consortium has announced that 67 new emojis will be voted on for inclusion in the emoji lexicon. Who votes; companies like Google and Universities like U.C. Berkely but apparently not you and me.
I am constantly amazed at how little importance the world grants to toys. In my last posting, I wrote about Lego's refusal to sell its bricks to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The reason given was that Lego “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.”
Weiwei and others argued that Lego is rapidly growing its business in China and did not want to run afoul of the Chinese government. I noted in my posting that I was struck by a Forbes author, who in defending LEGO, tried to minimize its importance. Here is what writer, Rob Cain, had to say:
When he [Weiwei] refers to LEGO as a “powerful corporation,” this is not Google or General Electric we’re talking about, it’s a little Danish company that makes injection-molded plastic shapes for kids who are primarily 10 years old and younger."
As an admirer of LEGO and as a citizen of the toy and play industry I was insulted by Rob Cain's comment. The very fact that Mr. Cain is writing about LEGO, China and Weiwei speaks volumes to how important toys are in the world.
This was a rough week for Lego as it found itself in the middle of a political controversy regarding freedom of expression. Here is what happened: Chinese, world renowned artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, had plans to use Lego bricks in one of his artistic creations. Weiwei, known for making political statements through his art has long been a thorn in the Chinese government's side.
When he reached out to Lego to purchase Lego bricks in bulk, the company turned him down stating that the company: “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” Weiwei responded by accusing Lego of giving in to the Chinese government.
As I read about the controversy in a Forbes article, "Ai Weiwei Versus Lego Toys and Artistic "Censorship," I was struck by a comment by its author Rob Cain. Cain was defending Lego from Weiwei's accusation by writing: "When he [Weiwei] refers to LEGO as a “powerful corporation,” this is not Google or General Electric we’re talking about, it’s a little Danish company that makes injection-molded plastic shapes for kids who are primarily 10 years old and younger."
Wait a minute...since when did LEGO become a "little Danish company" and more importantly LEGO does much more than make "...injection-molded plastic shapes for kids who are primarily 10 years old and younger."
In my last posting, I wrote that the Chinese Communist Party has announced they are ending their "One-Child" policy. The policy, that had been in force since the 1970's, restricted parents to one baby per household. Going forward they will allow two.
The "One-Child" policy successfully blunted China's birth rate and resulted in some true benefits. It also resulted in some unintended consequences; some of which have had an impact on those who produce products in China.
Consider these points:
Bottom line, today's Chinese young adult worker is fewer in numbers and expects more then prior generations. Because they are fewer in numbers, have aspirations and are less willing to work, there are fewer workers available to fill toy factories and that puts upwards pressure on wages and sometimes plays havoc with production planning.
Changes in birth control measures would seem to be a distant concern for those of us who make products in China. After all, what difference should it make to those of us who live in the west whether parents are restricted in how many children they can have? Well, actually quite a bit.
The "One Child" policy, established in the 1970's, was a bold attempt to blunt China's out of control population growth by limiting families to one child. It has worked and population growth has largely flattened.
Why change the law now? The policy, as most policies do, had some unintended consequences. One fascinating example can be found in an article by New York Times writer, Didi Kirsten Tatlow. The article, "Not Enough Women in China? Let Men Share a Wife, an Economist Suggests," informs us that, due to the "One Child" policy, by the year 2020, China will have 30 million bachelors. Why, because when parents having a choice between have a female or male only child, they prefer the male. As a result the "gender imbalance that hovers around 117 boys born for every 100 girls." (The global ratio of birth is 101 boys to 100 girls).
We at Global Toy News like to help out those in the industry who don't always have a voice. Particularly when they are working on something of an historic nature. "Play Me" by author and director Alison Marek, is the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has ever written a screenplay about Toy Fair. Set in the 1950's, it looks at the Mad Men era from the viewpoint of a woman trying to break into what was, to a large degree, an all boys club.
I have not read the screenplay but is sounds like its going to go a long way towards reminding us all why "Women In Toys" exists and why we need to give profound respect to women pioneers like Lynn Pressman (CEO of Pressman), Ruth Handler (Mattel), Betty James (CEO of Slinky), Betty Morris (Shrinky Dinks) and all the many others who paved the way for so many women today.
Women Toy Pioneers Inspire Ovation TV's Creative Studio Project
By Elizabeth Greenspan
Los Angeles, California – At a time when gender disparity is making daily headlines in Hollywood, a former toy reporter is staging a reading of a pilot about women who broke into the toy industry's “boys club” in the late '50s.
“Play Me,” written by Alison Marek, was inspired by the women pioneers she encountered as a reporter at TDmonthly Magazine. The reading was selected as a project for Ovation TV's Creative Studios, where Marek hopes to attract fans, a $5000 prize for developing the series ... and the eyes of Ovation's nearly 50 million subscribers.
“There are more than 50 other projects in Creative Studios,” said Marek. “It's important to build buzz to show that audiences are interested in stories about complex and flawed women who are able to accomplish remarkable things.”
Set in the 1950s, “Play Me” takes place the year before Mattel's Barbie debuted at Toy Fair.
“It was a 'different' kind of trade show back then,” explains Marek. “After the show closed for the the day, the Toy Building would be shut down for business and limousines pulled up to Fifth Avenue, filled with prostitutes and party girls who helped 'entertain' the conventioneers. It would have been pretty difficult for a woman toymaker to 'network' with that crowd!” she points out.
While covering the specialty toy industry for 9 years, Marek witnessed firsthand how arduous a journey it can be to bring a toy from inception to market – no matter what the inventor's gender. But being perceived as an outsider makes the journey even more difficult – and more dramatic.
"Every age has its storytelling form and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre."
English author as well as director and actor in films and video games
For numbers 1 - 4 see click here. For numbers 5 - 7 click here. Songs are not listed in order of preference. Each listing shows the lyrics and contains a hyperlink to the video. Let us know what I got right, wrong or left out. What is your favorite song about toys?
8. Red Rubber Ball Cyrkle
I should have known you'd bid me farewell
There's a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well
Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea
If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me
And I think it's gonna be all right
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball
You never care for secrets I confide
For you I'm just an ornament, somethin' for your pride
Always runnin', never carin', that's the life you live
Stolen minutes of your time were all ya had to give
And I think it's gonna be all right
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball
The story's in the past with nothin' to recall
I've got my life to live and I don't need you at all
The roller-coaster ride we took is nearly at an end
I bought my ticket with my tears, that's all I'm gonna spend
And I think it's gonna be all right
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball
For numbers 1 - 4 see My Top 10 List of Songs About Toys (1-4) click here. Songs are not listed in order of preference. Each listing shows the lyrics and contains a hyperlink to the video. Let us know what I got right, wrong or left out. What is your favorite song about toys?
5. 21st Century Digital Boy Bad Religion
I can't believe it, the way you look sometimes
Like a trampled flag on a city street, oh yeah
And I don't want it, the things you're offering me
Symbolized bar code, quick ID, oh yeah
See I'm a 21st century digital boy
I don't know how to read but I've got a lot of toys
My daddy's a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy's on Valium, so ineffectual
Ain't life a mystery?
I can't explain it, the things you're saying to me
It's going yayayayayayaya, oh yeah
I have, in the past, created lists of books and movies that have toys or games as a major plot device (see: "This Times it's Toys; My Top 10 List of stories and movies that feature toys"). This time I want to look at music that does the same thing.
Each listing contains lyrics as well as a hyperlink to a music video. I have numbered them 1 to 10 but they are not listed in order of best to worst as making a musical preferences are too personal. I do, however, care about what you think so tell us what is missing, what should be removed and what your favorite is.
1. Pinball Wizard The Who
Ever since I was a young boy,
I've played the silver ball.
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all.
But I ain't seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall...
That deaf dumb and blind kid
[Unique and Vocal Adrenaline:]
Sure plays a mean pinball!
He stands like a statue,
Becomes part of the machine.
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean.
He plays by intuition,
The digit counters fall.
That deaf dumb and blind kid
"Amazon's stock is up more than 80 percent this year. Walmart's has declined 30 percent."
James B. Stewart, "Walmart Plays Catch-Up with Amazon," New York Times
Wal-Mart's problems with Amazon and ecommerce keep getting worse. That fact is amply pointed out in a New York Times article by James B. Stewart. The article, "Walmart Plays Catch-Up with Amazon," I think sums it all up with these words: "Amazon’s stock is up more than 80 percent this year. Walmart’s has declined 30 percent."
I have written a number of articles on Wal-Mart's war with Amazon for the lowest price and the American consumer. I went back and reread two of them. In "Walmart,Amazon and the Price of Bananas" I pointed out that "Amazon’s number one item in 2010 was the Kindle which sold for $139 a pop. What was Wal-Mart’s number one item in 2010; it was the banana with an average price of 45 cents?" In "Who Shops at Walmart and Amazon; what it means for the toy industry," I noted that according to research:
Amazon’s shoppers are older, wealthier, better-educated and more likely to be childless. More than one-quarter are over 50, 57 percent earn over $60,000 a year, and 64 percent are childless...Wal-Mart shoppers are predominantly young women–63 percent. Nearly half have kids, and 51 percent earn more than $60,000. Shoppers under age 34 are close to half the customer base. Fewer shoppers went to graduate school or earn over $100,000 a year compared with Amazon’s customers.
Wal-Mart announced last week that it was going to invest more in ecommerce. If that sounds like a familiar line, according to Mr. Stewart, Wal-Mart first made a similar statement in 1999.
What is ironic to those who have been around is that Walmart a generation ago actually upended Kmart as the retail leader by investing in communications technology in order to dramatically reduce their costs of business. This allowed Walmart to under price Kmart, which did not invest in technology, and actually make more money while doing so.
Now they are the victim of Amazon who lives and breathes internet and mobile technology and has used it to become, for many, the low cost leader--something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Walmart is still a behemoth with $486 billion in revenue in 2014. Amazingly, only 2.5% of that was from Internet sales.
What should Walmart do?
We tend to think of branding and brand familiarity as a fairly modern concept. This wonderful poster from 1920 shows brand characters like the Michelin Man riding the Underground (subway). I posted it today because I think it is great looking and because so many of these characters, once so well known, are lost to the public memory. How many do you recognize?
The reason I am pointing out this survey is because we in the world of toys, play and children's literature have a long history with fairies. There are famous fairies like Peter Pan's friend Tinker Bell, Pinnochio's Blue Fairy, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, Shakespeare's Queen Mab, Wanda and Cosmo from the Fairly Odd Parents television show and everybody's Tooth Fairy. As Arthur Miller put it in "Death of a Salesman": "Attention must be paid."
So what is The Fairy Investigation Society and what is a Fairy Census? The Society has been around since the late 1920's. It began as a place for believers in fairies to find each other. Lets you laugh at this notion, it should be pointed out that none other than Walt Disney was a member. The organization is now open to believers and non-believers alike.
As to the survey's intent, here is how the survey website puts it: "The Fairy Census is an attempt to gather, scientifically, the details of as many fairy sightings from the last century as possible and to measure, in an associated survey, contemporary attitudes to fairies. "
Those of you who wish to participate have three surveys from which to choose:
Has the Federal government, or any government for that matter, ever required the registration of a toy? I am not aware of that happening but it is now. That drone you thought was a toy is actually an aircraft and, just like any commercial flying device, it has to be registered with the Federal government. That according to an article by Washington Post writer Craig Whitlock. The article, "Federal regulators to require registration of recreational drones," states that the government is very concerned about the number of drone incursions, several around the White House, and feels that it has to get control over something that is out of hand.
This paragraph in the article says it all:
Pilots of passenger planes and other aircraft are reporting more than 100 sightings or close calls with rogue drones a month, according to the FAA. Such incidents were almost unheard of prior to last year, but have escalated quickly amid a boom in the consumer drone market. American hobbyists are projected to buy about 700,000 drones this year, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
Depending upon how the registration is handled, this could have an impact on retailers. After all, how many retailers, other than those who sell guns, have to register purchasers with the government.
Who will benefit from this?
China is still the place to be. Strong interpersonal relationships and a powerful infrastructure will continue to make it hard to leave.
In my last article, I wrote about a New York Times article reporting that Hasbro and other large companies (General Motors, FoxConn, etc.) are moving some production out of China and into India. What has changed in the last few years to make India so compelling.
Well its certainly not India's infrastructure or fresh air. Here is how Keith Bradsher puts it in that New York Times article, "India’s Manufacturing Sector Courts the World, but Pitfalls Remain:"
Progress in improving the country’s [India's] inadequate roads, rail lines and ports has been slow. Corruption remains pernicious. Urban air pollution is even worse in India than in China, and could deteriorate further as more factories are built. Plans to rewrite labor and land laws, and to overhaul state taxes, have stalled in Parliament.
That doesn't seem very attractive. Here are some thoughts on what is happening in China and India that may explain why:
1. India's Legal System - India was a former British colony and as a result employs English Common Law with its strong respect for property rights (physical and intellectual). Western companies are find this far more comfortable.
2. India's Giant Labor Force - According to Bradsher, 10 million new adults enter India's labor force every year and there are not enough jobs for them. That means lower labor costs and fully manned factories.
3. India's Open Door - India is aggressively recruiting new manufacturers under its "Make It In India Program." Is it working, according to Bradsher "foreign direct investment in India is up 46 percent over the last two years. It is down 1.3 percent in China."
1. China's New Worker - China's young workers not that long ago were will to move hundreds of miles for a factory job; not so much anymore. Today's young worker is a product of China's "One Child Policy." These children, nicknamed "the little emperors" when they were children, have been understandably indulged by their grandparents, aunts and uncles. They have no brothers and sisters so they have not had to put up with older siblings nor learn how to get along with younger ones. They are a management challenge.
2. Chinese Labor Shortages - China's workers have become better educated and desire white collar jobs. This has resulted in labor shortages that not only impact wages but present a challenge to getting orders out the door.
There are very long and very deep relationships and friendships, some decades, between western and Chinese / Hong Kong companies.
Hasbro is making a bet on manufacturing in India and they aren't the only one. So is Foxconn, who more than likely makes your smart phone and General Motors who, you may recall, makes cars. That is according to an article in The New York Times by Keith Bradsher. The article, "India’s Manufacturing Sector Courts the World, but Pitfalls Remains," opens with this compelling statement:
[Hasbro] still sources expensive, complex toys like the electronic FurReal Friends from China, Hasbro has contracts for production in Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Mexico. It has moved most aggressively into India, where Hasbro buys from several sizable factories, and another is planned."
But why are Hasbro and these other companies moving production to alternative countries after decades of turning out toys, cars, phones and textiles at inflation shattering prices? And more importantly, why India and why now?
The first thing to understand is that moving manufacturing out of China is not an easy decision. China offers an outstanding infrastructure, savvy, veteran management teams and efficient systems. I think, more importantly, there are very long and very deep relationships and friendships, some decades, between western and Chinese / Hong Kong companies.
Secondly, moving out of China is not a new idea. Toy and other industries have been manufacturing in Viet Nam for years. To make my point, here is a quote from an article, "Corporate America’s China plus one strategy," written January 31, 2008 about the notion that manufacturers should have at least one factory located in a country other than China: "As China is getting wealthier, and its population older, it is getting more expensive to manufacture there. Wages are rising and so are the prices of commodities..."
That description could largely describe the current conditions in China. What's changed since 2008? I will have some thoughts on that in my next posting.
Kim Vandenbroucke made a comment on an earlier posting, "The Art of the Pachisi Board," that she wished there were more images. So, Kim and all you Pachisi fans, here you go:
Could not find the origin. Looks early 20th century
Pollyanna was an early 20th century version based upon a book by that name
(sounds like an early form of transmedia)
Suzy Y. Chang-Smucker has 14+ year of experience in toy and product design and is a graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, class 2001. She grew up in Chatsworth, CA, graduated from US San Diego, lived in Chicago, and now resides in Columbus, OH. She has worked for toy companies like Pleasant Company (now American Girl), Processed Plastics, Corgi Classics, MGA Entertainment and Creata. Suzy is now a Creative Girl Wonder at Tantrum Baby Designs and has been working on a variety of freelance creative projects. She has been married for over 8 years and has 3 beautiful children, ages 5, 3 and 1. She is kept very busy managing her business as well as being a mother and wife. Her children are her inspiration to so many things in her life, especially in the design field.
Happy Meal…McDonald’s Happy Meal..What can I say about this icon of my childhood? One of the best memories of being a kid…the surprise toy that you get in a box. Imagine my excitement when I was able to work on Happy Meal Toys. And when I say work on, I mean brainstorm, draw, work with amazing designers, sculptors, engineers, and account managers, create artwork, presentations and be a part of the presentations, was a dream come true.
To a child, the toy is magical and amazing. To me it was that and more. The process in which these magical toys are created is unbelievable. The quick turn around time from art board to production to the stores is unthinkable. All within a year’s time (or less), these magical wonders make their appearances in stores to be treasured in little kids hands and in collector’s treasure troves.
It all begins with a meeting. We started by getting a brief from our Chief Creative Officer who would give us the low down of which movie or property was on the calendar. There were licenses that would be evergreen properties, like Barbie and Hotwheels, or Littlest Pet Shop, and then there were the blockbuster movies hits like Transformers and The Lego Movie, and of course, there are the toy big hits like Skylanders that have become a huge niche and success.
Once our Creative team got the download on what program we were working on then we were sent out to brainstorm. Brainstorm consisted of doing retail research, online and in the bricks and mortar retail shops, as well as in some of the most interesting shops that were not deemed toy shops. I used to spend days or hours in these stores simply perusing the aisles for creative inspiration. A few of my colleagues used to call it “Suzy-Shopping”.
When I would walk through these stores, I would take photos, although it was frowned upon by the employees, and have in my very distant past, escorted out since it was “not-permitted” to take photos of products in store. This was back in the day were I had to tote my digital camera around. These days, it is much easier to be incognito when taking these “illegal” photos in the stores since the awesome invention of great quality cameras on smart phones.
I would take copious notes via voice recorder and take down the price points, features of toys and products that stood out and could be relevant in my brainstorming process. And of course take a ton of photos. I would not just limit myself to the toy aisles because my process was to walk down ever aisle so that I could think and soak in what is on shelf, and the price points. Sometimes I would walk through the housewares/kitchen aisle and find inspiration. Other times I would find weird toys, like a 6” Sumo Wrestler wind up toy that was holding a ball tethered on a string. Once this guy was wound up he would spin around and with the spinning force, it would cause the ball to then lift up and spin around. This toy was inspiration not only for myself, but for other creative on my team. Plus, it was horribly sculpted and painted, but was effective nonetheless.
A lot of the times, notes and photos would not do justice, which then led me to purchasing a ton of different toys. (I HAD to buy that Sumo Guy…too good not to) I would then unload my bags full of goodies on my desk and review my notes and photos.
I have always been fascinated by theme and amusement parks. Maybe it was because I was fortunate to have grown up in an oceanside town with an amusement park. There were rides like the Roller Coaster, a Tilt-A-Whirl, a wonderful hand carved Merry Go Round and a Tunnel of Love that ended with a sharp drop into a watery pool.
That amusement park was torn down long ago but I can still call up in memory the fun and excitement of hearing screams; smell sea water, french fries and people; feel the breeze coming off the ocean and taste cotton candy, popcorn and chili dogs.
As much as it provides me with fond memories, I think that those of us who engage in the business of toys and play need to pay more attention to theme parks as competition for play time, play revenue and talent. They are not so much vacation destinations as giant family play environments filled with massive toys. They are for some families, a major, sometimes annual, play investment. How many people go to theme parks? According to The New York Times in an article by Brooks Barnes 62 million people visited central Florida in 2014. Thats equivalent to 21% of the U.S. population.
The scale of the theme park business is impressive. Here is a list of the seven top theme parks based on revenues from Statista:
When you add that up, it comes to $25.01 Billion. Is that a lot of money? It is when you figure that NPD estimates toy industry retail sales in 2014 at $18.08 Billion.
Many of us have had a chance to play the game of Parcheesi. It's a great family game and a lot of fun too. Parcheesi is, however, a brand name owned by Parker Brothers and the latest iteration of Pachisi (a Hindi word meaning "throw of 25") also known as the Game of Kings. That latter name coming from the practice by Indian royalty of having their servants dress up like playing pieces while competing on a large, outdoor playing surface.
What I found to be of particular interest is the number of 19th century, handmade boards. They remind me a bit of quilts in their diversity of patterns. There is a collector community and some go for five figures. Above and below are some that I liked:
A French Canadian Version from Quebec 19th Century
The Playmobil Pirate Ship, pictured above, seems pleasant enough. It contains 176 pieces including 4 pirate characters. One of the pirates, however, is distinctive. He is Black and he has a shackle around his neck. Not only does he have a shackle around his neck but the instructions actually direct you to place it there (see image below).
The mother of an African-American child purchased the product, saw the shackled Black character and took to the social networks. Did it have an impact? You bet it did and that is why I got a call from the New York CBS affiliate to do an interview. (Click here to see the interview)
Here are my thoughts and some lessons we can all learn from this incident:
1. Depicting a Black character as a prisoner will be seen, particularly in America with our history of slavery, as an enslaved person.
2. The concern on the part of that mother is fully understandable. By showing the only Black character as enslaved, it provides her child with a subliminal if not overt negative message.
3. Certainly, no one at Playmobil saw this coming. If they had it would never have left the design department.
4. So, how did it get out the door? Possibly it was because the designer was a European (Playmobil is a German company) and lacked an American's sensitivity to our country's racial and slave history. Maybe because whomever was in charge of designing the directions was not talking to whomever was designing the ship. Maybe because they just screwed up.
So, what can we learn from this incident? Well for one thing, Americans are not the only ones who make cultural errors when dealing in foreign markets. European companies may want to check in with their American compatriots about potential, unintended cultural implications.
Ironically, another lesson is that being racially inclusive calls for designers and manufacturers to have an enhanced sensitivity about race and ethnicity.
In this age of social networks, it is easy for a company's stumble to turn into a fall down the stairs. California Costumes and Playmobil both made missteps over the last week. In this post and my next I will review what happened and what we can learn. Let's start with California Costumes and their Open Heart Surgeon costume for kids.
Open Heart Surgeon by California Costumes
California Costumes is a company that makes...you guessed it...costumes. I reviewed their past products and it does not seem that they have a history of gory or bad taste products. Therefore it was a surprise to many and an open wound to others when they began selling an "Open Heart Surgeon" costume. It features a realistic heart, its bloody (it pumps fake blood) and it features a scary looking doctor. Oh yes, and its designed for children. Here is how it is described by one national retailer: "Kids Open Heart Surgeon Boys Horror Costume size XL 12-14 at Walmart.com."
Parents of children who have actually undergone these operations (sometimes multiple times) have become deeply upset and have fought to have the costume removed from store shelves. It appears their efforts have borne fruit.
I have reviewed the websites of those major retailers who carried the product and it has, in all cases I could find, been removed. In addition, California Costumes removed the item and issued this apology to a mother who had written them:
Dear Elisabeth, Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We always appreciate all forms of feedback on our products. This costume was not intended to offend or make light of any situation other than it is a Halloween costume. We have already taken this item out of production immediately and temporarily suspended all distribution. We will also have the image taken down from our website. Please accept our sincerest apology. Best regards, California Costume Collection.
As a result from this one case of lack of judgement, California Costumes is going to take a hit to its bottom line. Those products being pulled off the store shelves are going to be going right back to the manufacturer.
California Costumes is also going to take a hit to its brand equity. A retail buyer is going to have to ask themselves if this company knows where the line is between acceptable and not acceptable.
What can we learn?
1. We are used to asking ourselves the question: Is my product safe and if not how do I make it so. In a similar vein, companies that engage in edgy products might want to ask themselves a values question: Who might I emotionally hurt with this product and is it worth it?
2. Gross out costumes and toys are certainly not a new thing. In this case, however, it appears that California Costumes created an adult themed costume and then sized it for kids. So, its wise to remember that, although today's kids are exposed to a lot, there is still the need for a bright line between what is and what is not acceptable for children.
Financially, we need to ask ourselves this question: "Is the risk we are going to take with this product worth the damage it could do to our bottom line and our brand equity?"
Check out this very nice, short video and take time to visit the Toys Through Time Exhibition at the Liberty Hall Museum in Union, NJ. The exhibition shares the Livingston and Kean family's toys over 150 years of living in their home that is now the museum. Much to our benefit, they didn't believe in throwing away toys. That says something about their love of play and a toys ability to be both a plaything and a legacy.
One of the joys of the Dallas Fall Toy Preview, and any toy industry event for that matter, is the opportunity it gives me to speak with toy industry members and leaders. It provides a nice way to aggregate the thoughts and the emotions of those who are struggling (don't kid yourself, we love it but its always a struggle) to bring in a good year.
Emotionally, I found a sense of optimism among those with whom I spoke. Not just optimism that sales were up but a renewed sense that the toy industry had regained faith in itself and its ability to innovate. The recession that hit in 2007 didn't just hurt revenues but caused toy companies to become understandably overly cautious. As a result, innovation in the toy industry slowed down just as social media and digital play were offering whole new ways to engage in non-traditional toy play.
What I found interesting was that the optimism took two, divergent forms:
Those two world views can and I think will co-exist as some companies double down on the purely physical while others make bets on creating seamless physical / digital experineces.
Another theme I noticed in my conversations was dramatically improving sales. I had a number of leaders tell me they were looking for a double digit increase this year. Now, of course toy shows are a time of optimism but the people I spoke with are pretty serious about their business and not prone to exaggeration. When you add that with todays announcement that jobless claims have fallen to their lowest in 42 years; that Euromonitor and NPD are projecting toy industry increases in the 4.2% to 6.2% range and over-all retail sales are expected to be up 4%, it appears that toys and play are in for a very good year.
Moore's Law: The prediction that the number of transistors that can be placed on an affordable integrated circuit will double during a specific time period, usually said to be every 18 months or every 2 years.
American Heritage Dictionary
One of the givens since 1960 has been "Moore’s Law", the observation that the number of transistors on a circuit will double every two years. Why does this happen? It’s due, at least in part, to our ability to make transistors smaller and smaller. The technological payoff has been smaller and more powerful devices. The economic impact has meant sharp reductions in the cost of these devices.
Here is how John Markoff, puts it in his New York Times article: “Smaller, Faster, Cheaper, Over: The Future of Computer Chips’”: “That improvement — the simple premise that computer chips would do more and more and cost less and less — helped Silicon Valley bring startling advances to the world, from the personal computer to the smartphone to the vast network of interconnected computers that power the Internet.”
So what happens when Moore’s law finally slows down? We may find out sooner than later. According to Markoff:
Technologists now believe that new generations of chips will come more slowly, perhaps every two and a half to three years. And by the middle of the next decade, they fear, there could be a reckoning, when the laws of physics dictate that transistors…will not function reliably. Then Moore’s Law will come to an end, unless a new technological breakthrough occurs.
Never underestimate technology and its ability to innovate, particularly when faced with a crisis. So, I wouldn’t bet that a slow down in Moore’s law would necessarily result in a slow down in innovation. There does seem, however, reason to anticipate that there could be a time-out in rapid advancement as industry adjusts to changing realities.
The toy and particularly the digital play industries have benefited from Moore’s law. What will a slow down mean for the toy and play industry. Here are some thoughts:
1. A benefit to traditional, non-technology based play.
Markoff makes the point “that…the slowdown in chip development will lead to more competition and creativity." If the chase is less for the cutting edge and more for the bottom line, prices will drop. That is good for toys and play as they depend upon providing high value for low cost.
3. Toy friendly technology breakthroughs
The New York Times article makes the point that we will see chips "… at the end of this decade [that] will in some cases not even require batteries — they will be powered by solar energy, vibration, radio
Ken Seiter is Vice President of Marketing Communications, for the Toy Industry Association, responsible for the development, implementation and oversight of the Association’s communications strategies, key messaging and brand integrity programs such as the Genius of Play. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Bridgeport.
Previously, Ken served as Chief Marketing Officer for the Specialty Food Association (SFA) He was also responsible for the Association’s annual sofi™ Awards program, which honors the best in specialty foods at the Summer Fancy Food Show. He has 25 years of advertising experience, having worked for a number of agencies on high-profile food accounts.
Ken holds a master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota and a Bachelor of Arts degree in marketing / English literature from Baruch College and the City College of New York. He lives in Stamford, CT with his wife and is the father of two children.
The Genius of Play is such a great name for this program. What is its genesis?
As we were studying all of the activity in a child’s life, we saw very clearly the incredible benefits that play provides: it supports children’s cognitive, emotional, social and physical development, boosts creativity, reduces stress and nurtures family bonds. It became apparent that today’s society isn’t fully aware of the true “genius” of what play — and toys, as the tools of play — provide the world. The Genius of Play is the perfect platform to really define what play can do for all of us.
You state that children have less time to play; can you elaborate?
Play has taken somewhat of a back seat in light of all the other demands that are placed on kids today. We live in a highly programmed world where children have overly structured schedules that often leave little time for free play. With such a strong emphasis being placed on academic rigor, schools across the country have cut back on recess (which in fact studies show has a negative impact on students’ behavior as well as academic performance). Under so many pressures, playtime is unfortunately shrinking on both the home and school front.
What are the key components of the Genius of Play program?
Built on a foundation of ongoing research that includes third party information as well discussions with experts from a variety of disciplines the program includes:
Your research shows that play is undervalued by parents. Why do you think that is and what can be done about it?
We recently conducted a survey to understand parents’ attitudes toward play. The results show that while moms and dads think play is “essential,” when it comes to actual parenting priorities play is not at the top of the list. Teaching their kids a set of values ranked #1, followed by helping with homework. Only 12% of parents thought of playtime as the key aspect of child-rearing. What they don’t realize is that play is in fact one of the best ways that kids learn, whether it’s academic subjects or abstract concepts like values. We need to help families better understand that play has immense educational value and can help moms and dads achieve their parenting goals.
Why is play so valuable and what are the negative results of being deprived of sufficient playtime?
Research shows that beyond pleasure and enjoyment, play provides stimulation for proper perceptual, motor, neural, social and emotional development. Play improves readiness for classroom learning and enhances problem solving. Play helps relieve stress and teaches children to be able to cope with their surroundings. Play prepares children to succeed in the 21st Century, enhancing creative problem solving, critical thinking and the ability to collaborate.
Lack of play contributes to childhood obesity, diminished cognitive development (decision making, creativity, imagination), hampered social development and increases in depression and anxiety
How can the toy industry get involved?
Wooden Race Car - 1930's
I had the pleasure of visiting the Bard Graduate Center for a wonderful exhibit of Swedish wooden toys. It is described by the website as "...the first in-depth study of the history of wooden playthings in Sweden from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century.
My only problem with the exhibition was that there was no book to purchase nor information to take with you. Not only that, there are very few pictures and little description of items on line.
Never-the-less It is certainly worth seeing so here are some images from the exhibit:
Big Bertha Cannon - 1920's - Wood and Metal
Greyson MacLean is sixteen years old and the inventor of BrickStix. He lives in Hartland, Wisconsin with his parents and two sisters. He is an Honor Student at Arrowhead High School where he is a member of the Lacrosse Team, Robotics Team, Spanish Club, Officer of the Chinese Club and a Tutor. He enjoys reading, especially about Physics and History, researching brick trends, listening to music, finding new comedians, and hanging out with friends.
We do from time to time have some child entrepreneurs come along in the toy industry but I am not sure I have seen a child produce anything so polished. Can you tell me how the idea for adding stickers to construction blocks came into being? In fact, who came up with the name BrickStix?
I came up with the idea for reusable stix when I was nine. I had been playing with LEGO® bricks for years at that point, and often used tape and marker to “make” the brick something it wasn’t. I never used the stickers that came with sets because once that sticker went on; it was near impossible to take off. The tape didn’t work great either. I am the type of builder who builds something once, and then I tend to salvage it for parts. One brick plays many roles. I wanted a sticker that could be used, removed, and used again. Something that would NOT ruin my bricks. I told my mom about my problem and my solution. The joke is, she was only half listening, but I kept talking. I named my solution BrickStix right then and there. She encouraged me to look into it and do some research. Neither of us thought I was "inventing" something, we figured it had already been done. To our surprise, nothing like it existed.
Though it sounds like you were the motivating factor behind BrickStix, it sounds like it was a family affair. Can you tell me about who contributed what to bringing BrickStix to market?
BrickStix was absolutely built by a team. My mom was the first to motivate me to start doing some research. She manages the day-to-day activities while I am in school. Her business card reads "Go-To-Gal." She called her college roommate who happens to be in the Toy Business, and we get a lot of advice from her. My dad worked on the provisional patent and set up the business. He deals with making deals. We call him "Business Guy". My uncle is "Chief Stix Maker," he takes all of my ideas and research and brings them to life on the sheets. If we need something designed-he designs it. My Aunt developed the website and handles Social Media, she is rightly called "Web Spinner" and "Social Butterfly." As we grew, I asked another Aunt to join the fun and she helps my Uncle with graphics. I need every single one of them to keep moving forward. I could not do it alone.
I understand that you are making Brickstix in China and the US and that you did most of the sourcing on your own. That is no easy task. Can you tell us about your adventure in doing so?
When I came up the idea for BrickStix, I can say with complete honesty, I had no idea what it would take to actually make it happen. I had watched my mom develop an idea, but I wasn’t paying attention to her daily struggles. The first material I used for BrickStix was cling. I figured out the static created between the cling and the plastic worked on my LEGO bricks. It made perfect sense to source a material and print the designs on it. However, finding that perfect material and partner to work with, was not easy. Most companies we called were not interested in working with a startup that was asking for a very small run to test the market. They were willing to run tens of thousands, but we were not willing to store a lifetime supply of BrickStix in our basement if the idea didn’t take off. Not to mention, the cost. I started calling companies, but as a pre-teen, I wasn’t taken seriously. I researched different companies, and my mom would make the calls. We focused on companies in the Midwest so we could easily visit. We found a source close to home and we worked for weeks and weeks getting the art just right. Finally, the files were sent. I went to the press check and everything looked awesome. I learned about proofs, printing and kiss-cuts. We all celebrated our first run…and then…the bad news. The ink didn’t adhere to the material properly, and it could be scratched off. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. We scrapped that run and found another source. Finally, the first set of BrickStix was ready to bring to Toy Fair. That all happened back in 2010-2011. Since then we have added Reusable Stickers to our portfolio, as well as a Stix Storage Book. We also started printing in China to make shipping overseas easier to manage. Our source in China came through contacts in the business. The sales team we work with had worked with them before, everyone met for a meeting, and now we have a source in China. A lot of our growth has happened because we met the right people at the right time.
What are your plans for Brickstix? Greyson, do you have more ideas for toys and do you intend to be a permanent player in the toy industry?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ranan Lachman, the CEO and Founder of Pley, a toy retailer that rents rather than sells. Their focus has until now been on Lego and they will happily rent you an unlimited number of sets. Called the Netflix of toys, the company has been covered by Time Magazine, Good Morning America, CNN and other media outlets. They have just successfully raised additional capital and are on the lookout for additional toy brands that lend themselves to their rental model. Here is my interview with Ranan:
I love the fact that you are referred to as Netflix of Lego and soon to be other toys. Can you elaborate on that bold, but visionary, comparison?
The vision of Pley is to deliver toys to families at a fraction of the cost in a more convenient and eco-friendly manner. When you think about it, the toy industry has not evolved much in the last 100 years, we still have designers coming up with new toy designs in a vacuum, with toy companies placing them in stores (brick-and-mortar or online) hoping that kids will like them, parents will pay for them and that couple will become blockbusters. Pley disrupts the toy industry by having a direct connection with end consumers, understanding their constantly changing tastes and reacting in a matter of days, not months, to deliver them the toys they really want.
Our service works like the original Netflix service. Users sign up on www.pley.com, select a subscription plan and add the toys they really want to their Pleylist (the queue) from a catalog of 400+ toys. We send their first choice to their home in a beautiful box, they play with it as long as they want and when they’re done playing they send it back and get the next one. We save families 70% on their toy spending, eliminate toy clutter at home and prevent toys from filling landfills as we recycle toys. For $20 a month you get unlimited toys, clean and sanitized with free shipping.
Our big data system allows us to capture likings and behavior trends immediately, months before these trends are seen on shelves in toy stores. We know about kids’ preferences and we can test designs of toys to gauge if these toys are worth producing. We measure the actual playtime and discover cross playing opportunities by looking at the massive play data that we collect. At the end of the day parents are horrible at identifying what their kids will play with and we have the ability interact directly with the kids and have a very accurate recommendation engine.
Some parents use our platform as a try-before-you-buy platform for toys. After seeing my son abandoning a $150 toy after five minutes of playtime I vowed to never buy a toy in a store. On Pley, you can get a toy, see if your child likes it and then purchase it with a single click. That a much smarter way to consume toys.
How did you decide to create Pley? Was there a Eureka moment?
I realized one day that I spent $3,000 on my son LEGOs. LEGOs are expensive toys and while in the past they promoted creativity, nowadays, they become a construction project. After couple of hours building a new LEGO set the kids are done with it and just want the next set, they rarely play with it again. Many parents have this “LEGO dilemma”: should I spend $100 to entertain my kid for two hours?. I think there is a better way to deliver the educational aspects of toys without paying too much and adding plastic to landfills.
Why do you think that people want to rent rather than own? Is it the cost of purchase, the toy clutter, the chance to try a product or something more?
We did a research on 1,500 families in the U.S. and the average family spends $11,000 on toys for a 10 years old. Kids have 248 toys in average out of which they play only with 6% - that’s a huge waste. 50% of toys are becoming unusable within 30 days. So the more relevant question would shortly become why own, if you are a smart consumer you’ll rent. With the sharing economy growing in adoption to 84%, you’ll see more toy stores closing and more people renting.
In addition, LEGO is the perfect example and that’s why we started with it. It’s a very expensive toy a subset of the population can’t afford it. The average kid gets 1-2 LEGOs a year (mainly for special occasions like birthday, Christmas) but with Pley, for the same price, they can enjoy 20-30 a year. We are democratizing creativity and bringing it to the masses currently serving 200,000+ kids.
What do you see as the future of Pley and Play?
Play is going to be a lot smarter and a lot more customized. Our nimble team works on several projects to enable kids to do just that. We launched www.pleyworld.com that enables every kid to upload a picture of their LEGO design, have friends vote on it and once it gets 5,000 votes, our automatic machines assembles these sets within seconds for shipping. More than 20% of our members prefer an exclusive Pleyworld design to a LEGO design and this ratio increases every month.
We are working on a service that will enable kids to create their customized toys at home so this will circumvent old supply chains through stores or shipping. We also about to start deliver smart toys (such as robots that teach kids how to code, sport equipment with sensors that teach kids to improve their baseball swing, soccer kick, basketball dribble skills etc.)
There are a lot of secret projects that we are working on which will bring more innovation to the toy industry. As a start-up we have the privilege to be selective and hire only ultra-smart talent, being backed by leading VCs we have deep pockets and have experienced professionals on our team such as the former COO of Netflix, CMO of Apple and the head of e-commerce of ToysRUs.
President Xi of China and President Obama held a joint press conference on Friday. Whatever is gleaned from press conferences of this nature is, for many, refracted through what the press deems to be important. But how do the results of their meetings directly impact the toy and play industry? Yes, reducing greenhouse gases and attempts to decrease cyber attacks are hugely important but what will have the most direct impact on how we do business?
So, I thought it would be interesting to look at what was said at the press conference through our own lens. What did they have to say that would have the biggest impact on those of us who engage in the business of play.
Its important because China produces 86% of the world’s toys, is a major market for American movies and a growing market for western toys. What happens in China does not stay in China but impacts the health, wealth and prosperity of the world’s merchants of play.
Below are some quotes from the press conference and my comments:
President Obama: We’ve committed ourselves to a set of principles for trade in information technologies, including protection of innovation and intellectual property. President Xi discussed his commitment to accelerate market reforms, avoid devaluing China’s currency, and have China play a greater role in upholding the rules-based system that underpins the global economy…
We’ve agreed that neither the U.S. nor the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property,
Those who do business in China know only to well the concern that building in products in China will result in knock-offs. That was why I was impressed by the reinforcing comments from the Xinhua News Agency, a service owned by the state of China. The article entitled, “Xinhua Insight: Better IP protection promises bigger fortune for China-U.S. firms,” has this to say:
China's IP regime is almost brand new. Prior to 1980, when China joined the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the concept of IP was almost unknown in China and the value of IP had yet to be recognized. Only in the 1980s did the country pass its first trademark and patent laws.” The article summarizes by stating: “If China genuinely wants to become a center of global innovation, significant improvements in IP protection are still needed.”
It is a good thing for the toy and play industry that this issue has been addressed by both leaders, a first. President Xi’s mention of it in his remarks plus the Xinhua article should give us hope that there will be more stringently applied legal protections. What we will have to watch closely is what practical steps will be taken.
CURRENCY EXCHANGE RATES
President Xi: "...there is no basis for the renminbi to have a devaluation in the long run. At present, the exchange rate between renminbi and U.S. dollars is moving toward stability."
Western companies and Chinese manufacturers desire, above all, stable currency exchange rates. A Chinese currency that is strong in relation to the US dollar can cause the price of goods to go up and for western consumer resistance to kick in. A weak Chinese currency can cause western goods to be out of reach of many Chinese consumers and similarly depress sales. It can also create problems for Chinese manufacturers who suddenly find themselves to have quoted prices that are no longer financially rational. It is therefore important for the toy and play industries that President Xi supports a stable currency.
CULTURAL AND LINGUISTIC INTEGRATION
President Xi: We have decided to make 2016 a year of tourism for China and the United States. In the next three years, we will fund a total of 50,000 students to study in each other’s countries. We also welcome the United States’ decision to extend the 100,000 Strong initiative from universities to elementary and secondary schools, and by 2020, 1 million American students will learn Mandarin.
President Xi inadvertently misstated the initiative from the US as it is actually called “1 Million Strong.” President Obama called it an initiative “…to encourage 1 million American students to learn Mandarin Chinese over the next five years.”
illustration by John Tenniel
If you are in New York City in the next few weeks, you may want to see the "Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland" exhibit at the Morgan Library. It features original manuscripts from author, Lewis Carroll, and works by illustrator John Tenniel.
I have long been a fan of John Tenniel's illustrations but was startled by Lewis Carroll's own depiction of Alice as can be seen in the below illustration. He somehow is able to capture what it would look like to have your body, and particularly your neck, suddenly elongate. I also love the non-plussed look on Alice's face.
While reading an article about Walt Disney, "A Visionary Who Was Crazy Like a Mouse", I chanced upon this sentence: "As early as 1936, [Walt Disney] refused a distribution deal because it included television rights that he wanted to retain."
1936!? I found that dumbfounding. How in the world did he know television was going to have that kind of importance. After all, the first televison set was wasn't shown until the 1939 New York World's Fair; three years later.
What's more, commercial television did not start until 1941 and at that time there were only an estimated 2,000 sets in the U.S. A major reason being the cost which was around $500 to $1,000. When you consider that, according to the Paley Center, the average income was $1225 annually, that is a lot of money.
First Television Ad from Bulova, 1941
In the 1960's there was a children's show called "Supercar" (see video below). It featured a flying car and was not a cartoon but rather was something the creator, Gerry Anderson, called "supermarionation". It involved using strange looking marionettes to act out the various adventures*.
It was, well, for lack of a better word, a weird show with a very strange looking hero with eyebrows that look like caterpillars. It also seems to have predicted an actual flying car that is now being heralded on the social networks called the TF-X Flying Car (see video below)
Take a look at both videos and see if you agree that there is a startling similarly. Also see if you can get the Supercar song out of your head - it's impossible. You will find yourself in the grocery store line and you will find yourself suddenly singing out: "SUPERCARRRRRR, SUPERCARRRRR."
*In 2004, the creators of South Park did a movie called "Team America: World Police" which was a sendup of the technology if not the show.
Thank you (maybe) Matt Gottlieb for apprising me of Supercar. SUPERCARRRRR.
I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
― Alan Turing, Computing machinery and intelligence
"It's going to be interesting to see how society deals with artificial intelligence, but it will definitely be cool."
Colin Angle, Chairman iRobot Company
"Cutting edge toys like "Hello Barbie" are getting children ready to live in a future where they will engage intelligent and even emotive robots and other AI devices on a daily basis."
In my last posting, "'Hello Barbie" Makes the Cover of The New York Times Magazine", I wrote about concerns expressed in a New York Times article about the impact "Hello Barbie", Mattel's new artificial intelligence doll, may have on children. I found the article well written and interesting but ultimately tiresome. I do consider Barbie to be more than a doll and an important part of our culture. I do, however, also get frustrated with media coverage that seems to take a dystopian view of toys and how they are going to damage children and the future of the world.
Mr. Vlahos did a great deal of research and there are a number of experts quoted each of which seemed to express a different worry. They were concerned that:
I do not share their concerns. Parents and moral authorities seem to have a historic proclivity for seeing danger in the new. Sometimes, as we are experiencing today, the world really is changing. What appears as play or leisure is actually a way for young people to engage the future they will live in via the tools of play and literacy.
Consider the below examples:
Worries About the English Bible (16th Century)
In the 16th Century there was a strong wish by some authorities to ban Bibles from being translated into any language other than Latin. Why, because authorities were worried that people who could understand Bible without the aid of a member of the clergy would become rebellious. Of course, the Bible has now been translated into 531 languages and the King James English version of the Bible is considered a work of literary genius.
Worries About the Novel
The novel in the 19th century was a major cause of worry for parents. They fretted that their children were becoming anti-social; staying inside and reading all day. And oh yes, they were getting bad ideas from the books; sound familiar?
Worries About Comic Books
In the 1950's parents and experts became worried about horror comic books because they might turn their children into murdering maniacs. The Comic Book Code was established to censor anything that was gory or sexy. Today, comic books are one of the most significant generators of popular culture, not as much through the comics themselves but the movies they inspire and the future they don't just foretell but even influence.
So, it seems to me that parents in particular get worried every time there is a shift in how children engage the world. The reality is that children are learning how to live in a future that is just over the horizon.
The New York Times arrived this morning and there on the cover of the magazine section was Barbie! I had not had any coffee yet so I had to blink my eyes a few times to take it all in. Yes, The New York Times Magazine was taking a very serious look at the new "Hello Barbie", not as a toy per se but as a first step in our coming relationship with intelligent, empathic robotic friends.
The article, written by James Vlahos, is lengthy, in depth and loaded with hand-wringing over what "Hello Barbie" means for children and our future. The piece carries three titles, each of them either snarky or ominous. Depending upon whether you are reading digitally or ink on paper, they are: "Now I Have A Brain" , "Artificially Yours" and "Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child."
"Hello Barbie", if you have missed the news, is an interactive doll that listens to what you have to say; remembers what you have to say and responds to what you have to say (for more see my earlier article: "Hello Barbie, A Major Breakthrough in Play"). The more you talk to her the more she learns about you (your name, how many siblings you have, what worries you, what makes you happy etc.). It is a major step forward in artificial intelligence and I think a major breakthrough in how children and eventually adults will play and live their lives.
Mr. Vlahos has done copious research and quotes any number of experts who are worried. Why they are worried and why I am not in my next posting.
Toy industry people certainly do clean up nicely. That was apparent on Thursday night, as many of us gathered in Rochester, New York for the ribbon cutting at the “new” Toy Industry Hall of Fame. We were at the Strong National Museum of Play where we got to see a really beautiful, and I think emotionally evocative display depicting the members of the Hall.
The Toy Industry Hall of Fame is actually not new. It once lived on the bridge that ran high above 24th street and connected the toy buildings at 200 Fifth Avenue and 1107 Broadway. It was nice but always felt like looking at pictures of your uncles and aunts that were hanging in the living room. The toy buildings were, after all, home. (The bridge is reportedly set for demolition so if you want to see a piece of toy industry history, go soon).
Now, in the new setting at the Strong, it feels like we just found out that those old paintings were actually by Rembrandt. My thoughts went to those Hall of Fame members in attendance: Neil Friedman, Arnie Rubin, Judy Ellis, Reuben Klamer, George Ditomassi, Tom Kalinski, Alan Hassenfeld, Pat Feely as well as the descendants and / or siblings of Stephen Hassenfeld, Merrill Hassenfeld, FAO Shwarz, Aaron Locker and “Spud”Melman.
"Correction: September 13, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a cartoon character. He is Porky Pig, not Porky the Pig."