THE BIG INTERVIEW: Gilles Sautier, European CEO, VTech

Following a successful 2012, what's next for VTech? We ask Gilles Sautier about the new InnoTab, new products and the popular kids' tablet sector.
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How have you performed in the UK and Europe over the past 12 months? 

Last year was a fantastic year for us – actually the best year ever for the VTech European group ofcompanies and we grew at a time when the toy industry was in decline. In Europe, despite a difficult economic situation in Spain, VTech grew to the number seven Overall Toy Manufacturer and by 7 per cent, whilst in the UK it grew to the number five manufacturer up by seven per cent, according to NPD (Dec 2012).

2012 also saw VTech become the largest infant manufacturer in Europe for the first time, if we consider the five countries where VTech is present through its own business (i.e. France, UK, Spain, Germany and Benelux).

The InnoTab was the top-selling toy in Europe last year in terms of value sales. Why do you think the InnoTab was No.1? Do you feel pressure to retain that No.1 position?

The best way to judge is the sell through that means parents and children liked it enough to go out and buy it more than any other toy and InnoTab was number one in Europe as stated by NPD.As for why, when people think of VTech they think of excellent quality standards with long lasting, safe play with specially tailored educational values to develop young minds. 

The Electronic Learning sector is proving to be a robust area of development, as more adult technology trends come to market it is a great opportunity to allow children to have their own pad style learning system or E-book to learn and play with. The InnoTab was a perfect example of how VTech harnesses the current adult technology trends and adapt and moulds it into something that is child friendly, we strive to quite literally make technology child’s play. 

And yes we do have pressure to retain this position, but pressure is a good fuel and we have the new InnoTab developments to make it happen.

Is there anything you can tell us about the next iteration of the InnoTab? What does the future hold for InnoTab?

Unveiled at Toy Fair 2013 was the InnoTab 2 Baby (12 – 36 months) which picked up much attention from the media as it is the first tablet ever created for babies. InnoTab is a recognised and trusted brand in the VTech portfolio and we are keen to constantly keep innovating and updating the technology much like we have done in our award winning Kidizoom range, which has been in the top 10 toys since 2008.

We have a couple of new InnoTab developments which we start being shown to the trade in the coming weeks. When more advanced, our English marketing team will make a press announcement. 

Are there any other toy categories you’d like to enter in the future? Is it better to have a few products in all categories or to specialise in a small number of categories?

VTech has grown from ELAs into multiple categories, offering a streamlined product offering. We are constantly looking to improve our product range and introduce new toys that are exciting and engaging for all ages. Our research and development team is based in Hong Kong and is at the forefront of technology which enables us to harness the latest trends and technological developments in our products. 

Our current success in Europe allows us as well to do specific developments for Europe and actually some phenomenal successes such as Kidizoom, bath toys and many others have been developed for European markets at the specific demand of European teams.

Can you give us a rundown of your big products and plans for 2012/13?

The award winning KidiCreative range from VTech, will be expanding with two new and exciting additions. Kidizoom Touch (three to nine years) is the brand new Kidizoom, Kidizoom Twist Plus (three to nine years) has been enhanced and updated with the latest technology for 2013, boys toy collectable Switch & Go Dinos will get new additions. The VTech Mega T-Rex (three to eight years) is stomping his way into the Switch & Go Dino’s range later on this year. 

Throughout this year, VTech will also be introducing some exciting new developments to the Toot-Toot Drivers range such as VTech Baby Toot-Toot Drivers Train Station (one to five years) which contains an electronic motorised train and two smart point carriages.

What are your sales expectations for the upcoming Kidizoom Twist Plus?

Kidizoom is an ever popular range and the Kidizoom Twist Plus is the latest offering from it, enhanced and updated with the latest technology for 2013. Kidizoom has been in the top 10 toys based on sales for the last six years and we expect Kidizoom Twist Plus to extend the life even further. The UK has already sold over 1.5 million units since 2007.

Kids’ tablets and electronic learning products have been incredibly popular over the past few years. Do you feel the categories have reached their peak or is there plenty more to come? How do you feel this space will evolve?

The Electronic Learning sector is a robust area of development, as more adult technology trends come to market it is a great opportunity to allow children to have their own pad style learning system or E-book to learn and play with. Electronic Leaning is a large and growing area within the whole toy market and VTech are pleased to be driving this growth. VTech products have consistently appeared in the top 10 of all toys for the last four years, which shows how important they are and continue to be.

The US toy market has faced a tough time over the past year. How does Europe (and the UK) compare for you? Do you think they’re in a healthier position at the moment?

The US market was just flat or down a little in 2012 after another flat 2011 but among the suppliers we see big ups and downs. It seems though the market was more favourable for some but in the US as well as in Europe VTech is in a very healthy position with established subsidiaries in the US, Canada, UK, France, Spain, Germany and Benelux and a strong network of distributors and/or agents. This fact is important as it enables us to maximise sales of products that are educational and rely on local knowledge of how children learn and as well as local language support, in each of the individual countries.

What do you make of your competition? Do you expect more companies to enter kids' tablet/ELC space over the next few years?

Firstly the market of high educational content with proprietary system tablets in which VTech is present, is a difficult market to enter because of the experience needed and time to offer such content.

Secondly, the market of tablets is closer to electronic consumer products. Most of these tablets are using Android and do not offer what the DNA of VTech is. The offer will be by far larger in 2013 than in 2012. 

Which marketing plans are in the works?

We will be following up our new position as number one infant manufacturer, with a VTech Baby ATL/BLT marketing drive which will commenced in mid-March to support the launch of several new and exciting additions to the portfolio. This includes Toot-Toot Driver TV advertising coupled with strong PR, online and press campaigns which are parent targeted. What’s more for 2013, VTech Baby has maximised exposure with showcases at the NEC Baby Show and the Olympia Baby show in October. 

For the rest of the ranges such as Switch & Go, Gadget the Robot, InnoTab and Kidizoom, these will all be supported by a wide marketing mix, including TV, print, online (including e-CRM programmes, advertising, unique microsites), the development of apps, social networking sites such as Facebook and exciting media link ups. 

What would you like to have achieved by the end of the year? Do you expect another year of growth?

Yes, we do expect another year of growth in Europe: we do have the products, both carry forward and new items are terrific and have got a very good reception, we have built a very strong marketing plan with the biggest amount of investment yet coupled with strong support given by the trade, so all the ingredients are there to achieve our ninth year in a row of growth in Europe. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to thank the trade for the continuous support they give us year after year. I would like also to thank the great teams we have in UK and in Europe which enable us to achieve such a position: I don’t think there are many toy companies which do more business in Europe than they do in the US.

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