Star Wars, Holiday Toys and The Magic of How Kids Play

  
Have you finished your holiday shopping yet?  

Me neither.

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. 

  
Every year around this time, friends and colleagues would stop by and ask me “what’s the hot toy?” 

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

Seeking Solutions in an Age of Division, Despair and Donald Trump

  
Take a look at this slide. It’s all about hope and building a better future.

The 7 P’s were for podcasters who gathered recently at Podcast Movement, an annual industry conference held in Texas. As I’ve written before, the event was a rally: a celebration of what we do in podcasting. The message was overwhelmingly positive.

But have you ever wondered why the language used to discuss business and politics are so different?

When company profits or sales are down, ideas are shared about how to change course.  At the best institutions and firms, innovation and fresh thinking are encouraged, especially when times are tough.

Not politics.  Outage and disgust are Donald Trump’s currency.  

Instead of offering a detailed, well-thought out vision for the future, what we get are furious outbursts and personal put-downs. Much of the news media only make it worse by feasting on controversy and highlighting the day’s most outrageous comments.

That’s why my friend, Jim Meigs and I decided to do “How Do We Fix It”. Both of us spent decades as mainstream media journalists, and we thought there was room for a show about solutions. So far we’ve done 14 weekly podcasts on matters that matter: From parenting and personal debt to politics and identity theft.   

The latest show came this week in response to the turmoil on Wall Street, when words like “fear”, “pandemonium”, and “panic” were being used to describe the stock market.

We were lucky when Redfin Senior Economist Nela Richardson promptly said “yes”, to our invitation to be the guest on our latest show. With rich experience in the private sector, academia, think tanks, and as a regulator, Nela is an economist who knows her stuff and can talk about it in an engaging way.

  
While she told us that the stock market turmoil was “shocking”, Nela also said “it’s important to remember that the stock market is not the economy.”

“The economy hasn’t changed. It’s still slowly humming along, and a lot of the fear and panic came from overseas markets. It wasn’t home-bred like the financial crisis eight years ago. There’s a big difference between now and back then.”

One takeaway from our interview was “keep calm”. Compared to most overseas economies, the U.S is doing reasonably well. This week’s volatility was largely caused by fears of a sharp slowdown in China.

Nela’s special focus is real estate and young home buyers. The outlook for 2015 “looks really good,” she says. “The housing market is going to out-perform last year’s level.”

But what concerns her is that incomes are flat and that many college graduates have much big student loans to pay off. “Wages are really stagnant and yet we see every month that house prices keep grow a little a bit higher.”

On the other hand, interest rates are very low and inflation shows no sign of being a threat soon. Most millennials are patient, says Nela, and don’t appear to be in a hurry to buy their first home.

But there are signs that more young adults are responding to the housing crunch in the most expensive markets on the coasts by moving to cheaper areas.

“There are some places where we still see a lot of affordability… Places like Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina, where you can still get a good job make a good living, provide for your family, and buy a home.”

As for solutions, Nela says: “I think we need to get smart about home ownership policy.”

Because of rising income inequality, “the next generation of homeowners are going to be less wealthy, more ethnically diverse and without the same resources as previous generations. We need to figure out how to extend credit without tanking the financial system.”

“I think there are ways to acknowledge the new forms of households that we’re seeing growing up all around us.” Nela suggests that banks should be more creative about lending money to baby boomers and millennials who buy property with friends.

“There is really no banking product that takes account of three or more household incomes.” Multi-generational households with more than two wage earners are quite common among Hispanics and some Asian communities.

 “Why not create products that make sense for the new types of families and households that we are seeing pop up.”

 Another way for homebuyers and banks to respond to the changes in the economy is view rental income from spare rooms in a positive light.

But many people may never be able to afford a mortgage. “We are going to see more renters in the next ten years that homeowners. We have to make sure people have a place to live.”

As urban areas expand, says Nela, local and federal home building policies should reflect the these changes. And better data collection will be needed to show where the needs and demand for housing will be greatest.

Next week, we’ll be looking at another part of our rapidly changing economy: the jobs market. We’ll focus on fixes and real-world ideas for change.  Want to find out more about “How Do We Fix It?” Head to our web page and sign up for “The Fixer”, our newsletter.  

Smiley Face for a Troubled Economy: Why Housing Helps Build The Case

ap housing report jc 140828 16x9 608 Home Sales Bouncing Back When Economy Needs It Most

  (Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

from my abcnews,com money blog

Happy days are here again for housing … sort of.

After more than a decade of boom and bust, a vital part of the U.S. economy may be finally returning to normal. That could be very good news for growth. Signs of stability include slower price rises and fewer sales of distressed properties.

“Home prices look roughly in line with their long-term norms and, very importantly, far fewer people are falling behind on their payments,” Jed Kolko, chief Economist at Trulia, the online real estate firm, says. “More and more the housing recovery depends on what happens in the jobs market.”

Foreclosures dropped sharply in July, falling more than 21% in the past year, says data firm CoreLogic. On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures were down by 8.5%.

“The stock of distressed debt continues to rapidly decline, especially in western states,” economist Sam Khater said.

True, the housing bust resulted in years of misery and broken dreams for millions of people.  But others are starting to see their recent investment pay off.

“Based on current trends, the overall foreclosure inventory could trend down to as low as 500,000 homes by year-end, which is very positive news for the housing market,” Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic, said.

After a slow climb back from the financial crisis of 2008-9, growth may be revving up.

After a bleak start to the year,  the Commerce Department increased its previous estimate of U.S. output in the April-June quarter. The economy grew at a brisk annual rate of 4.2%, , slightly faster than expected. f

The upward revision supported expectations that the second half of 2014 will prove far stronger than the first half.

And there’s a little good news for motorists. Labor Day will be the cheapest holiday travel weekend in four years: “Mildly cheaper than last year, quite a bit cheaper than in 2012,” Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, told me.

Despite unrest in the Middle East, “We are producing about 3.1 million barrels a day more domestic crude in the United States than when the first Arab Spring took place,” he said.

U.S. gasoline demand has also been reduced by more fuel-efficient vehicles.

My 2014 Economic Forecast: More Improvement, but Flat Living Standards

RT new years nyc 4 140101 Jobs, Growth and Housing Look Better in 2014

Carlo Allegri/Reuters Photo

This may be a happy new year for the US economy with growth accelerating in 2014.  A better jobs market, lower unemployment, gains for manufacturers and more improvement for housing are all in the cards. 

Stock market averages begin 2014 at record highs. The broad-based S&P 500 – the benchmark for many stock mutual funds – closed out 2013 with an annual gain of 29.6%, the largest annual rise in 18 years.

Many Wall Street forecasters expect a correction soon as stock prices are relatively high compared with corporate earnings. But a year ago “no one was talking about a 30 percent return” for 2013, says Susan Schmidt, head of US equities at Mesirow Financial. So ….perhaps it’s best to discount predictions about what’s ahead for the coming months.

Economists may be on firmer ground as they forecast improvements for the labor market. New job creation picked up in the final months of last year. Optimism about jobs is at a five-year high, says the Conference Board.

The Federal Reserve recently cut its unemployment forecast for the year, saying the US rate could be as low as 6.3% by the end of 2014, compared with 7% now.

Long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high, however. Unless Congress acts to restore recent cuts in jobless benefits, several million households with at least one job seeker who has been without work for at least six months will face a sharp drop in living standards.

The housing market continues to recover, but rents may rise faster than average pay rates.

The listings firm RealtyTrac said foreclosure activity plunged 37%  in November from a year earlier. As home values rise in most of the country millions more homeowners are no longer under water with their mortgages. This frees more people to seek jobs and other opportunities that would involve moving. Greater mobility helps the economy grow.

While few housing experts expect a slump, rising interest rates this year may put the brakes on rising prices and home sales. This week, the National Association of Realtors said contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes rose less than forecast in November, a sign that more expensive mortgages are holding back the recovery in residential real estate.

Despite rising prospects for economic growth, inflation remains low, with average prices increases at less than 2%.

Another plus for the US economy is improving prospects overseas. Europe, the leading export market for many American companies, is emerging from the recent recession. Growth in China, the world’s second-largest economy, is expected to be about 7.5% this year, while Japan’s economy continues to wake up after a long slumber. The worst of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis may over, and EU leaders made recent progress on more forceful banking regulation.

The US oil and gas drilling boom is expected to create more jobs and bring further benefits to the economy. Tom Kloza of Gasbuddy.com expects a slight decline in average gas prices this year. American manufacturers pay significantly less for energy than most foreign competitors – bringing back more jobs and production back to the US in 2014.

One more thing worth watching this year: US innovation.  Despite a lot gloomy talk about America’s decline, advances in 3D manufacturing, robotics, and web design are all examples of positive change. Space X, Tesla, Google, Apple and Amazon are among many American companies on the cutting edge.

This blog post first published by abcnews.com

Why This May Be a Change My Mind Economy

ap new stock exchange ll 131230 16x9 608 A Tale of Two Economies

                                                            (Photo Credit: Richard Drew/AP Photo)

When will consumers change their minds about the economy?

While the stock market had a stellar year, home prices rose at the strongest rate since 2005 and auto sales hit post-recession highs, many Americans believe the United States is still in a recession.

Only 19 percent of those polled said the economy is “excellent” or “good,” while 38 percent said it is “poor,” according to a recent survey by Gallup. More than half said the economy is getting worse.

Despite such gloomy findings, however, Gallup and other pollsters say consumer confidence improved in the closing weeks of 2013. The Bloomberg consumer confidence index rose to its highest level since August. But it’s still not back to where it was before the recession.

That said, 2013 made believers out of many investors. It has been a stellar year for the stock market with solid gains for most savers’ 401(k) retirement funds. The big stock S&P 500 index rose 29 percent, its best year since 1997. The high-technology Nasdaq gained 37 percent and the Dow Jones Index added 26 percent for the year.

The housing market recovery broke new ground with average prices rising about 12 percent nationwide. New home construction rose and, in a small number of cities, home prices are now in record territory, gaining back all their losses from the housing bust.

New vehicle sales also picked up speed. The shopping website Edmunds.com expects auto sales to hit about 15.5 million this year, which is the strongest result since 2007.

The United States became the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas this year. The rise in output and increasing energy efficiency helped lower costs for business and consumers.

While gasoline prices remained high, “we’re going to end up averaging about $3.49 nationally this year which will be about 11 cents less than last year,” senior analyst Tom Kloza of gasbuddy.com said.

The cost of energy, especially natural gas, for U.S. manufacturers is far lower than in Europe and Asia, giving the United States a competitive advantage.

Despite such gains, however, living standards for most Americans were flat. “For a lot of people, their incomes haven’t increased,” Greg McBride of bankrate.com said. “When we ask about their financial priorities, people say the top priority is just staying current or getting caught up on the bills.”

Many jobs that were lost during the recession never came back. Many discouraged workers who gave up looking for a job have not returned to the labor market.

At year-end, long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans and their families were cut off.

While more than 2 million new jobs were created in 2013, a large share of them were low-income retail and restaurant positions. “I think consumers are very cautious and looking for those discounts,”  Jack Kleinhenz, president of the National Association for Business Economics, said.

Such caution underscores an economic divide. This year was especially good for the “haves,” but the “have-nots” have yet to see the real gains of the past two years trickle down to them.

This blog was first published on abcnews.com