As I mentioned last week, I was delighted to be invited to attend this year’s New York Toy Fair by the organisers, so this week’s blog focuses on my time at the show. The forecast said it would be cold in New York– and boy, it was not wrong. Having returned on Tuesday, I am just about thawing out now. I don’t think I have ever been so cold in my life. But risk of frostbite aside, I’m glad I got the chance to experience this fascinating show at first hand.
The show started on a Saturday this year, a day earlier than in previous years. I’m told this was due to the New York governor’s office ‘requesting’ that a boat show be added into the Javits Centre schedule, resulting in an enforced change of dates. There was apparently a modest reduction in numbers on the first day as a result: how refreshing to find an organiser willing to be so open about the situation. The TIA was equally honest when asked whether the new ‘Saturday to Tuesday’ format will stay for next year: I’m told it is not their preference, but that it will depend on negotiations, external factors and other shows (does that sound familiar?).
There was a healthy UK retail presence at the show, including a number of independents such as MidCo, Toy Galaxy, Fenwicks and Toy Hub. Speaking to them in the aisles, they were enthusiastic about the experience, and felt the trip had been worthwhile. There were also numerous UK suppliers in attendance, a few exhibiting (Hornby, Casdon, Bananagrams, Big Jigs, Bladez and Galt) and many more roaming the aisles in search of new ranges or lines to distribute. That was one of the things that impressed me most about the show: the sheer volume and quality of new products being unveiled – creativity is clearly alive and well in the States, and the New York Toy Fair showcases it in all its glory (and occasionally madness).
Big American toy companies still have a tendency to hold back headline-grabbing new launches for the show: there was no sign of Hasbro’s Furbacca in London, or Mattel’s Hello Barbie (their answer to My Friend Cayla) or the Viewmaster collaboration with Google in Nuremberg. In addition to the big guns, there are large sections populated by small inventor-driven companies – the ones that literally try to grab you as you walk past, passionate to share their idea with anyone and everyone who will listen. How about a pen that cuts paper as it draws? A radio control car guided by a glove rather than a joystick? A gun that fires marshmallows? A slap-wrist band that creates the sound of drums, guitar, fighting swords and many other role play staples? Building blocks that turn into a video game via an app? All this and more, including just about every kind of robot you can imagine, were on show. You can’t help but admire the enthusiasm and tenacity of their creators. But more than that, there were lines on show that could genuinely turn out to be real winners: I suspect the many suppliers diligently combing the halls already know that.
There are, of course, numerous influential people from the American market around: it was good to catch up with LeapFrog’s John Barbour (I just wish he’d let me print the picture he showed me…), the irrepressible Isaac Larian (I certainly can’t print what he told me….but it was fascinating nonetheless) and many others. There was also a fortuitous chance meeting which took place at the TOTY Awards on the Friday evening. I had gone to the bar to get my wife and I a drink, and came back to find her sitting with a couple who had asked if we minded them joining us at our table. I joined the conversation and we spoke for 15 minutes about where we’d been so far this year, what we’d seen that we liked and other toy-related subjects. Eventually I noticed it said ‘Toys R Us’ on his badge, so I asked him what he did: “I run the US operation” was his rather unassuming reply. It turns out that I had indeed been shooting the breeze with none other than Toys R Us President Hank Mullany, a thoroughly charming individual who clearly has a great passion for toy product and the market in general. I am no expert on the American retail landscape – and in particular the financial aspects thereof – but it struck me that the company is in good hands.
While checking in at the New York press office at the start of the week, I explained this was the final stop on my Toy Fair Season tour – the last of five shows in seven weeks. The PR said my schedule sounded gruelling: it was, but nothing plenty of industrial strength coffee and the odd glass of wine (or two) can’t sort out. More importantly, it was enormous fun. I met with hundreds of companies, and saw thousands of exciting new products. In many respects the global toy community is like a big family: everyone seems to be connected somehow. The ‘seven degrees of separation’ theory seems to hold true: whoever I ended up sitting next to on a bus heading to the show in New York – or indeed on the Nuremberg metro, or outside a bar in Hong Kong – we were able to find some experience in common that we could share. I know other people will say that this is also the case in other industries, but I’m not so sure it happens to the same extent as it does in the toy trade. And that is something we can all be proud of.
So that’s it, Toy Fair Season is over for another year. Now the fun really begins……