Over the years, I’ve the found that the hardest – and most delightful – people to buy for are kids. The toys, games and gifts that we get them represent much more than simply a nice little trinket of affection.
They’re symbols of our relationships with the children we love and who we want them to be.
In recent years technology has wreaked havoc with the toy industry, vastly expanding choice and redefining the nature of play.
“The toy industry is a 19th Century business trying very hard to break into the 21st,” says my friend, Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy Experts. Toy makers have had a devil of a time dealing with the digital aspects of play.
“The fight is no longer for space on a shelf, but time in a kid’s head.”
Video games, apps and social media present the industry with “an almost an existential crisis,” says Richard. They’ve forced the folks at Lego, Mattel, Hasbro and countless other companies to ask themselves: “Who are we? What is a toy? How do we play?”
My podcast co-host, Jim Meigs and I interviewed Richard for “How Do We Fix It?” We had a lot of fun and came away with a more open-minded view of what a great toy can be. Unlike so many in the toy industry, our guest, a long-time consultant and marketing expert, is both playful and passionate.
Richard loves the challenges that tech has brought to our world and how it’s changed our thinking on so many things. He’s in the business of unwrapping new ideas.
All of us fall into one of three categories, he says. “Digital native, digital immigrant – we speak with an accent – or you never made the trip and stayed back in the analog world.”
“Many toy companies are led by people who never made the trip.” For them and even for many parents “it’s very hard to grasp the fact that we’ve had an evolutionary change in children.”
They don’t always play the way we did when we were kids. That might be disturbing, but the change does need to be understood.
Has this ever happened to you?
“You see a kid in a restaurant with his family and his head is stuck inside of a cellphone playing a game and you say ‘what a crappy kid'”. But that child, Richard insists, “doesn’t feel like he’s in a different space. The reality is that his family is in there with him.”
Children “don’t see a bright line between what’s virtual, what’s digital and what’s real.”
Which brings me back to what we put under the Christmas Tree. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a thing, but an experience. A trip or an outing, maybe.
For two decades I produced an annual feature for ABC News Radio called “Shopping For Kids.” Richard Gottlieb was a frequent guest. So were the independent consumer experts Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim, who publish the excellent ToyPortfolio Guide.
In recent years there’s been a parade of Elmo’s, Hot Wheels and Barbies. This month almost anything to do with “Star Wars” is flying off the shelves – and perhaps for good reason.
Many parents were kids when those first incredible “Star Wars” movies came out. They had a love affair with the characters. The new toys represent a chance for Moms, Dads and their children to connect over a shared passion.
In general, instead of looking at hot toy lists (that are often paid for and promoted by large toy companies), I like what the folks at the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York have to say.
Each year, since 1999, they’ve inducted several toys and games into the Hall, using a generous definition of the popular products and experiences that have graced our lives.
Mr. Potato Head, Play Doh, Easy-Bake Oven, Barbie, and Etch A Sketch are all in there, but so are bubbles, the stick, the ball and the cardboard box.
“A lot of folks in the toy industry think they just compete with a lot of other folks in the toy industry,” says Richard Gottlieb. But the truth is “anybody who sells the tools of play competes with anybody else – whether they’re in the amusement park business, video games, apps, or whatever.”
Last year Richard organized The World Congress of Play, an event that brought together people from robotics, artificial intelligence, theme parks and the toy industry. The emphasis was on play. Not on products.
Perhaps we could all bring a greater sense of adventure, wonder and possibilities to gift buying.
Photos: Flier for Star Wars Toy, Richard Davies with Richard Gottlieb at ABC News Radio, ToyPortfolio.com