Can traditional toys fend off the tablet?

by Alfons Luna

AFP-JIJI

The big players in the traditional toy market have come out fighting in Britain as little fingers are increasingly occupied by iPad-type devices at playtime.

Previously seen as the preserve of grown-ups, tablets are increasingly top of children’s wish lists.

The best-selling toy in Britain last year was Furby, the cuddly robotic “pet” that has irritated millions of parents with its constant chatter. But tablet computers designed specifically for kids came close behind, according to the NPD market research group.

With toddlers frequently more nimble on touchscreens than their parents, major players including Samsung are cashing in with tablets designed for the lucrative and tech-savvy youth market.

At this week’s London Toy Fair, manufacturers of traditional toys insisted they face a bright future — but admitted the rise of tablets means they’re in for a tough fight.

“We have to recognize these days that there’s a place for tablets and for technology,” said Jamie Dickinson, marketing manager at Playmobil, the Germany-based brand that has produced some 2.6 billion plastic figures since 1974.

“When children grow up and go into the adult world, they need to know how to use the technology,” he said as he stood in front of a display of Playmobil figures at London’s Olympia exhibition centre. “But there are lots of other skills that they need to learn, which only traditional toys can give them.”

Playmobil is resisting the digital onslaught, with its global sales increasing by 5.3 percent to €531 million ($726 million) last year.

In the British market, the building sets and action figures markets will enjoy a 10-percent jump in growth this year, NPD predicts, partly thanks to toys linked to the football World Cup in Brazil.

Many of the toy firms displaying their wares in London were counting on the support of parents with an instinctive suspicion of the Internet and, by extension, tablets.

Metal construction kits by Meccano have been a boys’ favorite since they were invented in England in 1909 — and are “still very popular, especially in the eyes of parents, grandparents and those who buy gifts,” said Kevin Jones, European marketing director for the brand’s owner, Spin Master.

“The great thing about traditional toys is that they have longevity. It’s great value for parents,” he said.

Lego is another perennial favorite that has diversified its range, partly through movie tie-ins. The Danish firm saw a 13-percent increase in global revenue in 2013, with Asia accounting for much of the positive figures.

Roland Earl, director general of the British Toy and Hobby Association, played down the threat posed by tablets, arguing that there is plenty of space in the playroom for a variety of games.

“We’ve found that the traditional toy market has held up very well over the last 10 years,” he said.

“In fact, we’ve posted growth in the U.K. in most years out of the last 10 — and the computer game industry has actually suffered in the last year, possibly from less expensive (or) free games that are available on the Web.”

Tablets have a “novelty value” that may yet pass, he suggested.

Some parents may worry that having these gadgets at such an early age could create a dangerous tendency toward lethargy — but after all, say manufacturers, iPad-loving adults are hardly setting a good example.

French maker Lexibook said it now makes tablets aimed at users as young as 2.

“They want to copy their parents and use a tablet themselves,” said Lexibook CEO Emmanuel Le Cottier. “So we’ve created a range of tablets going from 2 to 14 years old, with dedicated content for each target age group.”

He added that Lexibook’s kids’ tablets — like many of their rivals — come with parental control features, including the ability to set a daily time limit on their usage.

Nine-year-old Emilie Brun said she prefers playing with her parents’ tablet to traditional toys — but she’s usually ready to move on to something else after a couple of games.

“There’s loads of interesting games on the tablet to play when I’m bored in my room,” she said. “But I’m also happy to play ‘teachers’ with my sister.”