Toy Story When Playing Around is Serious Business

Nuremberg’s toy trade fair is the biggest of its kind. This year, complex toys and electronic learning aids are popular.
Zoomer DIno: A girl's best friend?

Visitors to Nuremberg’s toy trade fair this year should watch out for the angry little lizard.

Roaring with glittering eyes, the dachshund-sized dinosaur follows people around until they calm him down by petting his head. Then he’ll happy do tricks and purr contently.

The interactive “Zoomer Dino,” with a motion sensor in its nose and electric motor under its scales. is one of the stars of this year’s toy trade fair in Nuremberg. An expert jury awarded it along with three other products a prize for innovation, beating out 600 rivals.

The little dinosaur’s success points to the industry trend towards more complex electronic toys, including aerial drones with cameras, tablet-controlled trains and dolls that can answer a child’s questions via the internet.

Video: “Zoomer Dino” in action.

By contrast, there is also return to the playtime basics of building and creating in Nuremberg – albeit with new products like water-soluble building beads and brightly colored sand.

The world’s largest toy trade fair has never had such diversity: a record 2,857 exhibitors with try to capture the imagination of the 75,000 industry visitors expected to attend through February 2.

This year’s fair comes at a time when the industry is booming. German toymakers produced playthings worth €1.58 billion ($1.79 billion) in 2014, according to the country’s Federal Statistics Office. The BVS industry lobby group said toy retailers saw sales grow four percent last year after starting off slow, but finishing with a strong Christmas season.

Even a traditional company such as board game and puzzle maker Ravensburger is turning to digital technology

Toy shops, however, are still under pressure from the internet, which is why experts are urging bricks-and-mortar retailers to shift to new concepts like “click and collect,” where customers can buy products online and pick them up at a physical store.

The biggest challenge is still spotting a trend early, because the toy business is a fickle one of seemingly unlimited choice.

A visit to the Nuremberg trade fair offers a taste of that: nearly a million products are on display. The industry giants – firms like Mattel, Lego and Hasbro – have huge stands to promote their new toys. Nuremberg’s local heavyweight Playmobil has its stand right at the main entrance to the trade fair. The German company is touting several new items for 2015, including a pirate ship, a farm with a tractor and harvester conveyor belt. But Playmobil is also offering an armored police vehicle and plastic catwalk for a TV casting show. Clearly, the company is going with the times.

The firm VTech is also showing its new learning tablet computer based on the Android operating system.

Combining learning with playtime is widespread at this year’s trade fair, with organizers even promoting the concept of making children into “little scientists” in order to prepare them for subjects like math, computers and science later in life.

The firm Clementoni, for example, is exhibiting a experiementation box that can be used to build a robot capable of carrying out various tasks.

Even a traditional company such as board game and puzzle maker Ravensburger is turning to digital technology. According to a study it commissioned, a quarter of all board game players find rules too complicated or are unwilling to read the instructions. Ravensburger is therefore offering a “smartplay” option where players can use a smartphone to analyze a board game with an app that can respond with audio prompts, sounds and music. After bringing out the adventure “King Arthur” and the family-oriented game “The Magic Museum,” Ravensburger is already planning further titles.

A highlight of toy industry this year will be pegged to the re-launch of the Star Wars movie franchise. “The Force Awakens” will spawn countless licensed products, including new buildable spaceships made by the firm Revell. May the Force be with toy-buying parents this year.

This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]