Times continue to be tough for most everyone in the toy industry. Retailers are struggling with disappointing consumer traffic, inventories left over from last Christmas and general uncertainty about whether this Holiday Season will be the same, better or (gulp) worse than last year. Many big box retailers are shrinking their toy space, crediting data that kids are growing out of playing with toys at younger and younger ages that is supported with sagging sales. Toy manufacturers are experiencing significant pricing pressure, less shelf space for our product and a general reluctance from retailers to take a chance on new items in all of this uncertainty. In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has put new rules in place for the entire industry in response to the lead, magnet and other product recalls that occurred two years ago. While I’m hopeful that these new rules will minimize similar issues going forward, it has created significantly more cost for every toy manufacturer in the industry.
Do I have everyone in a joyful Holiday mood? Me too. I was sitting around this weekend on my back patio on a glorious Ft. Collins afternoon wondering why I still love being a toymaker in this challenging environment. Perhaps it was the fantastic weather or perhaps it was the Zinfandel, but the reasons quickly started flowing from my pen. I came up with 17 in all although upon further reflection, some of the latter reasons (like eating at Carmine’s during New York Toy Fair or visiting my old rugby club at Hong Kong Toy Fair) were clearly influenced by the vino. I thought I’d share the top reasons I listed in no particular order, perhaps for no other reason that it serves as a reminder why soul searching shouldn’t happen after two glasses of wine on the first afternoon in a week that didn’t include snow:
• The Team: I’m continually amazed at the creativity, passion and commitment of the group here at Sprig. As an example, this week we were looking for a creative packaging and product solution for a particular customer. The challenges were significant to the point that I suggested we might be better off passing on the opportunity so that we could focus on other, less thorny prospects. The team asked for two days to work out a solution. What they came up with not only turned out to be a home run with retailers, but it gave us a broader packaging concept that potentially shows off our product more clearly, more securely and with less material used. I don’t know why I ever doubted them.
• The Product: in my nearly 15 years in the toy industry, I’ve been very lucky to work for two design driven companies with teams committed to creating an environment that inspired unique, ground breaking product. I’ve said it in another blog post, but I’ve never been more proud of the product I’ve been involved with than I am with our Sprig line. We can always do better and continue working towards developing the “perfect product”, but the response of parents, children, and retailers is always great validation that we are on the right track.
• The Partners: we’ve had to kiss a lot of frogs over the past two years, but we continue to develop great partnerships with vendors, buyers, inventors and even competitors. Some of the partnerships almost fell into our lap, like Tami Kelly, our wonderful PR person. Others, like our current manufacturing partner, Manufacturing Marvel, were discovered only after a lot of trial and error with other manufacturing partners. Either way, we are developing some lasting partnerships that we hope to carry forward for a long time to come.
• The People: three weeks ago we attended the Dallas Fall Toy Preview, our first opportunity to show our 2010 line to retailers. Beyond the excitement of showing our product, I love trade shows because it gives me an opportunity to see all of the great people I’ve worked with in the past, retelling war stories, catching up and generally reconnecting. The industry is filled with some great people and these shows always serve as affirmation.
• The Question: I’m not a particularly comfortable person in social settings, especially those filled with people I don’t know. However, “I work for a toy company” is a great icebreaker when people ask the dreaded “so, what do you do for a living?” question. Most everyone I meet loves toys and it serves as the springboard for a lot of great topics, like “what was your favorite toy growing up?”and “what types of toys do your children love to play with?”.
• The Fight: as a company, Sprig has put a lot of self-imposed roadblocks in its way. We are committed to making products without paints, BPA, phthalates or other toxic materials. We are committed to using as many recycled and recyclable materials as we can in our product. We are committed to maximizing the fun in the product by adding features rather than relying on licenses or electronics for the sake of electronics. This creates a lot of product development and sales challenges, but when I look at the big, cheesy recycled grin of our Dinosaur or hold the faceless Princess with the giant, cartoony pink hat, it reminds me that the challenges we set are really opportunities that, when combined with passion and talent, can be turned into some pretty magical stuff.
I walked back in the house after the sun had set feeling pretty good about being a toymaker. I also had a very strong desire for Carmine’s. Soul searching sometimes comes at a price.