Welcome to the second episode of SuperAwesome’s #Kidtech podcast, season five! In this episode, SuperAwesome sits down with John Baulch, renowned toy industry expert and publisher of Toy World Magazine, to explore the past, present, and future of toys.
John’s journey, from working on niche trade publications to finding his passion in the toy space, is a testament to the timeless yet ever-evolving nature of the toy industry.
A Peek Into the Past
When John launched Toy World Magazine in 2011, online retail for toys was in its infancy. Now digital is the dominant force, transforming how toy brands sell products and market to their audience. As parents and kids spend more of their time online, the previous reliance on TV advertising campaigns has been largely overshadowed by digital-first strategies.
Moving beyond just marketing dynamics, the toy industry’s core has remained remarkably consistent. Its enduring appeal combined with adaptability have been key to its sustained success. Toys have evolved over the years, continuously adapting to mirror the shifting play preferences of their primary audience: kids. Data helps toy professionals respond to this audience in a way they couldn’t in the past. There was a time when decisions in the toy industry were made based on instincts or “gut feel”, leading to both monumental successes and huge failures. Today’s blend of data and intuition seeks to minimize these pitfalls, marrying the best of both worlds. Despite these changes, the essence of what makes a toy great—its ability to captivate and inspire—persists.
“A great property, a great brand, a great toy often proves itself to be great no matter whether its brand was invented last week or 40 years ago.”
Brick and Mortar Is Here To Stay
John acknowledges the difficulties of predicting future trends, emphasizing the unique nature of toy purchases as they often hold emotional significance—toys capture a child’s imagination and form connections that aren’t easily replicated. This might explain the UK’s robust specialist toy sector, with notable retailers solely dedicated to toys. These physical spaces, such as Hamleys, Selfridges, and even local branches of Smyths or The Entertainer, provide magical experiences for children, a sentiment that’s hard to achieve online.
John believes the blend of online and physical retail will persist. While digital channels are imperative, the pandemic highlighted the continued importance of brick-and-mortar stores. It’s not just about purchasing a toy; it’s about the in-person, tangible shared experience that physical stores offer.
“I think [parents] often want to take their kids to a toy shop because it’s difficult to make a website a magical experience in the same way that you can make a toy store a magical experience. … I do see as diverse a retail environment for toys as possible [in the future], because I think that’s for the good of the industry.”
The Intersection of Digital and Physical Play
The rise of platforms like Roblox underscores the blending of gaming and traditional toys, heralding a new era in kids’ entertainment and spending choices. While Hasbro, Mattel, and other toy giants have historically vied for market share, the evolving landscape introduces new avenues of engagement. Digital assets such as avatars and in-game items don’t necessarily compete with physical toys; instead, they offer complementary experiences that expand kids’ play options. For companies like Hasbro and Mattel, platforms like Roblox present substantial opportunities to bridge the gap between physical and digital play.
As the boundaries between digital assets and physical toys become increasingly fluid, the industry is ripe for transformation. The future may even see platforms like Roblox transcending their digital origins to venture into the physical toy retail space.
“I think we’ve … got to look at the positives behind something like Roblox and what it’s doing to engage kids with particular brands … so that they have a stronger affinity for them, which then probably makes it more likely that they will want to have some sort of physical representation, like a toy!”
The Toy Industry: Recession-Resistant, Not Recession-Proof
John debunked a common misconception about the toy industry: while many claim it to be “recession-proof,” he argued it’s more accurate to label it “recession-resistant.” This distinction is vital. The toy industry, like many others, isn’t immune to economic challenges. It is, however, one of the last sectors to be significantly impacted by downturns, primarily because parents and grandparents prioritize keeping children happy and content, ensuring a consistent demand for toys.
But John made an important point — the type of toys bought might change. Economic pressures might influence parents to buy fewer toys or opt for more affordable options. Each parent’s situation and decisions differ, and it’s essential not to generalize.
“I think anybody who puts their head in the sand and says, ‘No, whatever’s happening in the economy, it doesn’t affect toys.’ I think that’s extremely naive, but I think what we have to hope for is that we are protected from the worst impacts of the financial situations.”
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