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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 April, 2005, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Is Lego losing out to computers?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Child playing Lego
Happy kids, messy floors
Lego has been voted the best plastic product ever made, but in an age when children have computers, mobile phones and even iPods, is its appeal fading?

From a brick came a business empire and a cultural icon.

Coloured pieces of Lego feature strongly in the childhood memories of many adults, who as parents and grandparents have become the toy-buyers of today.

It has accrued plenty of accolades, including Toy of the Century twice. And this week it is crowned the best plastic product, beating Tupperware among others, in an online poll of the British public and designers ahead of a plastics exhibition in Telford by PDM.

Old Lego box
There are 52 Lego bricks for each person on Earth
Children spend five billion hours a year playing with Lego bricks
If all Lego sets sold in the last 10 years were placed end to end they could reach from London to Perth in Australia
A Lego brick is measured to the 2/1000th of a millimetre

Source: Lego

But nostalgia and the popular vote does not necessarily translate to sales, and the last few years have been rocky. Although it says it's the fourth largest toy manufacturer in the world in sales, Lego suffered its first financial loss in 1999 and this year decided to sell its four Legoland parks to private owners.

So in the face of countless other distractions for children, mainly computer generated, is the time up on such a classic toy?

Lego has been a family run business ever since the Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making wooden toys in 1932. The name came from two Danish words "leg godt", meaning "play well". He later discovered that "lego" in Latin means "I put together".

The plastic brick was introduced in 1949 and soon took off in the UK as a child's building tool. New ranges since then have become more advanced and more recently, the company has embraced Hollywood by launching sets based on Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Stagnant market

But the brick remains at the heart of the business, says Tania Williamson, Lego's PR manager.

"We have this incredibly simple product, a brick. When the technology came in the early 50s to make it click together, suddenly we had an entire play system so simple, but the kids can create anything.

"There's no end to what they can imagine and whatever they imagine they can build into a physical creation. It's social, it's active and it's fun."

Lego model railway at museum in Swindon
Not one easily built at home...
The fall in profits is blamed on a stagnant toy market and the challenge of computer games, mobile phones and iPods, but Ms Williamson is confident the firm has turned the corner.

Fortunately, the market is not restricted to notoriously fickle children.

A glance on eBay indicates the popularity of the product for collectors. A discontinued Star Wars set is asking 340.

And there is also a wider adult fascination. The generation that grew up with it has returned in later life.

Dark Ages

Tony Priestman, 41, of the Brickish Association, spends five hours a week building Lego, having got hooked again in 1998. His addiction means brick storage at home is becoming a problem, having progressed from ice cream tubs to drawers to crates.

"In the Lego community, there's a phrase called The Dark Ages, which is what happens between your teens, when you've grown out of it and it all goes in a box in the attic, and the time when you come back from university and your missus buys you a set and you discover it again."

They've made a toy which is virtually indestructible
Tony Priestman
Lego enthusiast
He helped to build a 40ft model railway at the STEAM museum in Swindon, and says disappearing into the attic to build Lego for a couple of hours can be a therapeutic exercise.

Mr Priestman is among a group Lego is keen not to alienate as it tries to keep apace with modern tastes and embrace new technology.

Although all the ranges are compatible with the original bricks, the Bionicle universe in 2001, which uses movies and games to tell a fantasy story, was condemned by some as straying too far. But not Mr Priestman, who says "All it does is challenge people's creativity in a new way."

But Lego's efforts to retain the function of the bricks, even five decades later, may have contributed to its troubles.

"People can still play with the stuff from the 60s so in a sense they've shot themselves in the foot because they've made a toy which is virtually indestructible," says Mr Priestman, who nonetheless is optimistic the market is big enough for Lego to go from grow further.

Lego train
The parts have become more advanced but the bricks remain
But its durability is part of its beauty, says plastics recycler Colin Williamson, a founder of the Plastics Historical Society.

"Lego gets to you when you're young, so it forms in your mind quite early and the colours are very good. Most plastics are recyclable but it is even better to re-use and keep the stuff forever.

"Lego lasts for such a long time, handed down from generation to generation, and bags of second-hand Lego are sold at car boot sales. Very few things enter all our lives like that."

The design is well-honed and the colours excellently chosen, he says.

But will its appeal last? Yes, in 20 years' time Lego will still be in the top five of such polls, he says.

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