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Toy and Game Conference 2019: Toy makers chase the billion dollar franchise, but retail leans on smaller companies

It was conflicting but not altogether left-field views that made up the discussion around the ‘State of Play’ between toy design, marketing and retail at last week’s Toy and Game Design Conference, as industry polars met on stage to talk about the ever-shifting dynamic.

Fundamentally Children’s Dr Amanda Gummer chaired a panel in which the relationship between toy designers, manufacturers, and the UK’s changing retail landscape was dissected by experts from John Lewis and Spin Master.

Representing the Canada-based, global toymaker and entertainment company was David Winter, director of inventor relations at Spin Master, who talked at large about the toy industry’s renaissance and a movement from companies that has put the toy space on an equal footing with the Hollywood studios.

“We’re rivalling the film industry,” said Winter to an audience of buyers, manufacturers and toy and game designers attending this year’s Play Creators Festival at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.

“Toys are becoming franchises, with not just multiple ranges around a brand, but with content and films, too.”

Just this week, Spin Master has landed broadcast and streaming platforms for its new animated series Hatchimals: Adventures in Hatchtopia, a show based on its one-time best selling toy line, Hatchimals. 

Spin Master is also the team behind the globally popular PAW Patrol franchise and the US launch of Dragamonz, that is now tackling the digital space with its own app, along with unboxing toys.

“This is what toy companies are hoping to find when they sit down with a designer today,” continued Winter. “The bar of how well developed your ideas are is so much higher; we are looking for a billion dollar concept, a concept of franchises.”

While Winter’s sentiments certainly ring true with what is currently developing around sectors such as collectables, the question over whether ‘billion dollar’ franchises are really what retailers are looking for was raised when it jarred directly with what John Lewis’ partner and assistant buyer, gift and games, Lucy Benham looks for in a supplier relationship.

“For me, having a supplier partnership is very important, and the best way to achieve sales among your demographic, and it’s very hard to achieve that with a big organisation,” said Benham. 

“I choose my designers really carefully on the basis of a close working relationship, and I tend to go with smaller businesses where we can work closer and share knowledge and data on what our demographic is looking for.

“I value this, as it shows what is going to sell and what is going to be popular. Retail is changing fast – we all know that – and we know about the macro socio-political climate, and that retail is a difficult place. So, working closely with a retailer would really benefit how that end product is received.”

However, the pair’s sentiments did align when it came to the topic of shopping habits and the paradigm shift in terms of when a consumer begins playing with a toy, with an emphasis on engagement with the product take place at shelf, before the purchase has been made. 

Spin Master’s Winter, said: “The industry has certainly capitalised on the unboxing trend. There is a whole thing about packaging, not just the toy within the box. And it’s a lot more about the experience, and there’s a lot of opportunity for toy designers to shape that experience.”

Speaking of the change of consumer habits at retail, John Lewis’ Benham, added: “It’s important that consumers are engaged with what they see on the shelves really quickly; you have a very small window to capture that engagement and to get them to buy.

“We are placing more emphasis on retail theatre. In theory, a shopper never has to come in to a shop again, they can get everything delivered to their door. So we need to reward a consumer for leaving their home and talking to us.

“Working with independent game companies, for me, delivers a lot of that experience. We like someone who is happy to come into the shop and sell their game – they are the person who developed it, they can get shoppers excited by it. 

“That’s why I tend to work with independent customers, rather than the big clients.”

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