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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 22:33 GMT 23:33 UK
Why Christmas toys aren't child's play
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Tips for the 10 top-selling toys this Christmas

"Dolls are set to dominate this Christmas," squeaks a press release from the Toy Retailers' Association.

The death-match between tweenage stalwart Barbie and sassy upstart Bratz - very much to the advantage of the latter - has been the big story of the toy trade this year.

For the first time in years, the TRA has dropped Barbie from its list of likely Christmas top-sellers.

But while the battle of the dolls has hogged the column inches in recent weeks, it's really something of a sideshow; doll sales, after all, account for only 6% of the toy industry's 2.1bn UK turnover this year.

Games people play

In fact, the industry has a number of other, more pressing issues on its mind:

  • Forget fickle tweenagers: the taste-buds everyone wants to tempt belong to pre-schoolers. "When I started out in business, the toy market ran from birth to 14 years old," says Gary Grant, chairman of the British Association of Toy Retailers.

    The toy industry is not keeping up
    Gary Grant, British Association of Toy Retailers

    "Now, it's more like birth to eight. We've lost six years."

    Toy sales to children aged three and below were worth 574m last year, more than twice the amount sold to those aged between eight and 14 - a market whose tastes run more towards DVDs and trainers these days.

    Of course, we all feel horribly guilty about spending so much - an average of 179 each, or up to 278 for five-year-olds - on our children at Christmas.

  • That's why worthy toys are back with a vengeance.

    This year, more than 120,000 trampolines have been sold in the UK, a business that market leader TP reckons is growing at more than 50% annually.

    Girl playing
    Power Rangers, 6.99
    Bratz, 9.99
    Hasbro Classic Games, 9.99-14.99
    Tamagotchi, 12.99
    Cabbage Patch Kids, 19.99
    Dora the Explorer, 29.99
    V-Smile, 49.99
    Leapster, 64.99
    Robosapiens, 79.99
    Trampolines, 149.99-299.95

    V-Tech, which makes educational electronic products for younger children, saw sales jump 40% this year, way ahead of the 6% annual growth recorded by the overall toy business.

    "A lot of our customers don't feel happy about the quality of education their children are getting at school," says Katy Chan, V-Tech's marketing director.

  • But V-Tech would scarcely be doing so nicely if its products were stolidly scholastic.

    Tellingly, the company has just launched its first foray into licensing, enlisting Disney characters for its TV-based V-Smile system.

    Licensing promises to be the industry's greatest growth area: already, close to one in four toys is licensed from film, television or other media. In the US, that figure is more than 50%, according to Sally Plumridge, marketing director of toy manufacturer Tomy.

    "The toy industry is not keeping up," says Gary Grant. A business that once took the lead in creating new ideas is now struggling to keep pace with the trends washing in from cinema, TV shows or the music business.

  • One reason why teenagers appear to buy so few toys is that, strictly speaking, computer games and other hi-tech gizmos tend to be classed as entertainment products.

    UK toy market

    Growth in that business is having a marked effect on traditional toymakers. For years, toy companies have built ever more sophisticated technology; now, the dividing line between pure toy and pure entertainment is getting blurred.

    Traditional toy company Hasbro - makers of My Little Pony - is launching Video Now, a hand-held screen which plays proprietary video discs, including feature films from next year. The device, which will sell at about 60, aims to compete with and undercut portable DVD players and other pricey gadgets.

  • With tinsel already sprouting on Tesco's shelves, it seems that Christmas comes earlier every year.

    Can Barbie retain her crown?

    In fact, the opposite is true. The great profusion of new and updated products aimed at the Christmas market means that retailers often delay stocking up until the last minute. Consumers, too - especially boys, for some reason - also hedge their bets until a playground consensus emerges.

    The net result, says Ms Plumridge of Tomy, is that much of the real business is done only in the last two weeks before the big day - and some retailers risk running short of the hottest products. "There could be some disappointed children," she warns.

    Only 81 shopping days to go...
    05 Oct 04  |  Magazine
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    09 Sep 04  |  Business
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    21 Jul 04  |  Business
    Toy maker weathers Barbie blues
    19 Jul 04  |  Entertainment
    Artist 'ecstatic' over Barbie win
    05 Jul 04  |  Entertainment
    Is Barbie past her shelflife?
    21 Apr 04  |  Business
    Passion over for Barbie and Ken
    13 Feb 04  |  Americas
    Mattel loses nude Barbie battle
    30 Dec 03  |  Business

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