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Plenty Of Promise In EU Markets(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 04,2007)

Educational Toys

 

 

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European toy markets are far from uniform in their tastes and trends, according to two expert speakers at the "Trend Seminar on Educational Toys" at the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair 2007.

Big differences existed from country to country, said Nadja Finkenzeller, editor of 40-year-old German trade magazine Toys. "For example, in Sweden and Scandinavia, the market is traditional to the core and parents mainly prefer wooden toys," she observed. "The traditional approach to toys is breaking up bit by bit in Germany, France and Italy."

Fellow speaker Alessandro Lonardi, chief editor of Italy's Giochi & Giocattoli magazine, concurred, noting that the Italian market has remained "essentially stable" recently. "Turnover has mainly been in so-called 'traditional' toys," he added. "The average expenditure for every individual child, however, is rising."

One universal trend was that children were growing up faster and beginning to play with sophisticated toys such as computer games, iPods and cell phones at an early age. "This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for toy companies," he noted.

Both speakers said there was tremendous growth potential in the educational toys sector, with Finkenzeller citing a recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study that pointed to the shortcomings of German preschool children compared to their international counterparts.

As a result, parents and educators are now paying particular attention that their children are spending time in a sensible manner. "Quality goods which help children to develop their skills, both physically and mentally, are therefore in high demand," she said.

According to Finkenzeller, a good educational toy can only be successful if it responds to the needs of the individual target group. "An important character is the motivation element in the game - this has first priority in any educational toy," she maintained. "Quality and safety are also of utmost concern to parents, and they have high expectations when it comes to educational toys."

A good example is My First Clock by Fisher-Price. "Two characters - Tic and Toc - help children understand analogue as well as digital time, while relating to everyday experiences like bed-time or lunch-time," Finkenzeller explained.

"Educational toys with various degrees of difficulty have to give kids the chance to learn and make the break, otherwise the motivation will slow down, and the game won't be interesting anymore."

Electronic educational toys are thriving, with parents using them to arouse the linguistic, musical and mathematical skills of their children as early as possible.

"New media are playing an important role in a child's everyday life," said Finkenzeller. "Four out of five households in Germany own a computer, and special children's computers can be found in roughly 18% of households."

The computer therefore offers huge growth potential as today's parents have grown up with electronic toys and are not as sceptical as their own parents. "This development presents a big opportunity," Finkenzeller believed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the prevalence of new media, products less than two years old account for 60% of turnover in Germany. "The market has become very competitive, and only a few manufacturers succeed in growing," Finkenzeller said. "Particularly successful are those managers who have a good nose for the right innovations."

It's hard for foreign companies to operate successfully, but German parents are more receptive to electronic toys than previously. "Also, it is not enough to put an educational toy on the shelf - the learning content should be adapted to the development and school curriculum of German-speaking children," she said.

Finkenzeller cited Hong Kong-based VTech as an example of a company that has successfully introduced educational toys to the German market.

This is largely because every VTech product should fulfil certain criteria such as:

  • the design should be adapted to the age of the child and his particular requirements
  • interactive factors should create a high and long-lasting motivation for children to play with the toys
  • learning and playing elements should be combined and balanced
  • different degrees of difficulty should be incorporated so that the child can adapt the game to suit his own ability
  • the knowledge gained through the product should be relevant to the child's academic development
  • gender-specific differences should also be taken into account by paying attention to colours and the choice of licensed figures such as Cinderella for girls or Batman for boys

There has been an equally dramatic sea change in the Italian market for educational toys, says Lonardi of Giochi & Giocattoli, who explained that there were only a few prestigious toy brands in Italy in the early 1990s.

"Toys and games were previously seen as something superfluous, if not just for keeping children quiet for a while," he said. "Now the value of play in children's development is more widely understood, and parents are expressing interest in toys and games which can assist children in their school work."

Lonardi noted that toys today allow children to learn in a playful, involving way. "For example, reading and writing, mathematics, geography and foreign languages are some of the skills that educational toys help inculcate," he explained.

Infant toys are also more developed, including interactive functions that get small children acquainted with letters, numbers, music and English words at a very early stage.

However, Italian parents are wary of computers and electronic games, as they don't like their children playing with videogames too early and are afraid of them navigating onto unsuitable sites on the Internet, Lonardi claimed.

"More appreciated are computerised games and teaching aids developed for different age ranges, in accordance with school programmes," he said. "Clementoni and MacDue are popular brands in this sector."

Many products have been introduced that assist children in the first years of their primary schooling and aim to entertain young ones while simultaneously dealing with school subjects.

"Although not strictly educational, mention must be made of all the games on the market which help develop manual motor skills and creativity, starting from simple construction toys to games that promote drawing, painting, weaving and moulding," Lonardi added.

But scientific games were "not so popular" due to the poor promotion of science, both in the schools and the media.

"Educational toys, along with the whole Italian industry, suffer from changing lifestyles that are turning children away from playing games, lured by music, fashion, cell phones, videogames and computers," Lonardi claimed.

Instead the infant/preschool sector is thriving in Italy, although it is subject to fierce competition. "However, an advantage for games and toys with perceivable educational content is the fact that the consumer is willing to accept higher prices than for the average plaything," Lonardi said.

GOOD GROWTH IN GERMANY

The educational toys market is growing in Germany despite the fact that parents are "very traditional" and like wooden toys and board games, said Toys magazine editor Nadja Finkenzeller.

She noted Germany had a significant toy industry, with most manufacturers located in Nuremberg. "The most well-known German toy brand is Playmobil," Finkenzeller added.

Germany's imports from Asia are growing, particularly from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. "On the other hand, German companies are also beginning to see the Chinese mainland as a market for their products, although they find it a difficult market to enter given the cultural differences," she noted.

Quality standards are very important for German consumers. "They are willing to pay more for a toy if it is very good quality," Finkenzeller claimed. "Quality is defined by the durability of the toy, the many possibilities for play that it offers and its safety."

According to Finkenzeller, standards are very high in Germany. "It is very difficult for foreign companies to enter the market as German parents tend to stick to traditional, well-known brands," she noted. "New entrants have to spend a lot of time and effort on publicity."

The long-term outlook of the German toy industry is "very positive" and that's what makes the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair "very important" for German buyers.

"There are a lot of manufacturers here that they can't find in Nuremberg," Finkenzeller concluded. "If you're looking for innovations, you have to come to Hong Kong."

TEXT BY HARSHA HARJANI