THE TOYNEWS BLOG: Tablets vs toys

Should the industry fear the rapid growth of smartphones and tablets?
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My three-year-old niece has an iPad. 

Ok, so it’s the family iPad, but she uses it frequently. As do her parents and her 12-year-old brother.

Although they like the idea of kids’ tablets, for whatever reason her parents haven’t purchased one just yet. But my niece doesn’t mind. She gets to watch cartoons, play games and draw pictures on it, which keeps her occupied (and her parents happy).

However, she’s also obsessed with a couple of other more traditional toys in particular. She has a pair of talking Woody and Jesse figures from Toy Story, and takes them with her absolutely everywhere – especially Jesse the cowgirl whom she adores. 

She was playing with them one day over Christmas, acting out her own little story as usual, when her brother took the iPad and sat down next to her. You can guess what happened next. 

He began playing an alien shooter game, akin to the kind you might find on an Xbox or PlayStation console (but not the 18-plus variety of course), and her attention was immediately pulled from the physical toys to the digital screen. 

My niece didn’t even like the game as such; she was just entranced by the colours, the game world and the dazzle of it all. Her Toy Story figures fell to the floor and within moments she was asking: “Can I have a go?”

Now, you might argue that this simply boils down to child psychology. If my brother is playing it, it must be good, right? Better than my toy? 

Well, I’d argue tablets and screen-based electronic devices offer far more than just a quick play. You can do so much with them, from watching videos to playing games and even learning. They’re not the next five-minute wonder; they will be around for years and decades to come.

Toy market trouble

Tablets hurt toy sales in Christmas 2012. The British Retail Consortium said that toys didn't have the best Christmas, as traditional toys suffered at the hands of electronic items, particularly tablets.

It’s not all bad news. The toy industry is only estimated to be two per cent down year-on-year over 2011, so while not a disaster, it is a little disappointing. 

Sales of certain kids tablets do benefit the toy industry, with retail sales tracker NPD classifying products like the VTech InnoTab and LeapFrog LeapPad as toys in the UK, because they’re ‘designed for children and marketed as electronic learning toys’.

Not all tablets count as toys, but that’s another point for another blog.

The challenge now is, of course, making sure the toy industry isn’t hampered by other electronic products. So how can tablets offer a great play experience while also complementing physical toys? Yes we’ve had early app toys, like Mattel’s Apptivity line, where you can drive a Hot Wheels car across a tablet’s screen. But while it’s innovative, we’ve only just scratched the surface (literally).

There are plenty of companies out there looking at app-cessories and app toys today, including Wow Stuff, Cheatwell Games, Flying Toys, Apptoyz, Jumbo, Mind Candy, Hasbro and many more. 

You can move remote control helicopters using the iPad these days or even scan in figures. Skylanders proved digital and physical toys can co-exist (and make the industry a lot of money), and these recently gained iPhone and iPad connectivity.

Disney, Jakks Pacific and NantWorks have just announced the ‘groundbreaking’ DreamPlay Toys, which bring characters to life on a tablet’s screen using Augmented Reality-style iD image recognition technology. It’s this kind of creativity that will let kids play for hours on their iPad, but also recognise the value of their favourite toy character.

Kids play tablets a lot these days, so there’s no doubt they’ve taken a slice of the toy market. Children are tech savvy, so touch screens are a normal thing to them – although that doesn’t mean they don’t want to play with their toys as well.

Tablets have only been around for a few years, while toys have existed for seemingly forever. 

But we shouldn’t sit back and expect toys to sell strongly just because they’re traditional.

Innovation is key, as they say. And the toy industry’s innovations can help not to fight tablets, but to accept them, complement them and take advantage of their immense popularity.

Photo courtesy of Ambro and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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