The power of Mums

Triceratops mother and baby

OK this post could be about the impending mothers day (2 weeks this Sunday, Dads mark your calenders), it could even be a post about how great Mums are but it’s not: instead I want to highlight just how much Mums count as a factor for the toy industry now. On the 16th May ‘Mums Show Live’ will open its doors to a host of companies aiming to show their wares to the mothers community and now that the regular toy shows/fairs are out of the way many companies who are associated with providing family/child orientated products or services are preparing for this event (full list of companies here).

mumsnetWhat I think this shows is that Mums are being recognised as a (if not the) major factor in how a family budget gets distributed. Companies are finally starting to recognise the need to pay attention to the parent’s expectations and wishes when trying to sell a product to children. I’ve heard from a number of sources (though I can’t find any statistic to back it up) that Mums make up the vast majority of bloggers and blog readers, and this I could believe. What is clear is that the online presence of mothers is both vast and organised and when a multitude gets organised they typically get powerful. One funny thing about this mum empowerment is the distinct lack of a Dads alternative and this isn’t the fault of mumsnet or any other mother-orientated community, in my experience as a dad it comes down to one thing: we just don’t typically befriend other men just because they are a dad.

Despite a clear common interest and shared experiences many Dads are reluctant to talk to each other, preferring to hang out with the same friends they’ve had for years, regardless of where those friends are in life (single friends, friends in couples with no kids etc.). Maybe we do it to keep in touch with the ‘rest of the world’ (you know non-parents) but I think there’s something deeper going on here. Whilst there are cultural niches set up for mothers to connect within (parenthood seems to act as membership to the exclusive club of Mums), being a dad isn’t as celebrated or inclusive. In some respects, in terms of one’s being seen as a father, it’s a rite of passage; other Dads will have a laugh about their situation and recognise in each other ‘proper men’ or ‘real men’. However, once the mutual respect is in place there isn’t a set-up in which to explore the kinship any further. Culturally it was once the case that Dads were expected to be at work and then at home and occasionally to go hang out with their friends/team/band/workmates etc. and to an extent not much seems to have changed.

DadsI recently watched ‘What to expect when you’re expecting’ and in it there’s a group of Dads that often meet in the park and talk about their lives. There’s an element of ‘fight club’ to this group (what passes between them is divulged to no one, especially their wives), which I don’t see working in real life as keeping secrets from your wife isn’t really on the list of advisable/healthy activities for a man. However, the general idea that Dads might hang out with other Dads purely on the basis of their shared status is great. Crieff has its own attempt at this with a Dad’s group where you bring your kids along on a Monday night (I can’t remember specifics about where it’s hosted or exact times, maybe someone could let me know in the comments). This is a fantastic idea and much needed but it has the issue of being a place where kids are probably more likely to mingle than the Dads, perhaps I’m wrong, not having attended yet I don’t really have a say in how the dynamic works out.

Anyway back to Mums, the recognition of Mummy power is on the rise within many different industries (just look at the exhibitor list I linked to earlier in this post) and one thing that is becoming clear is that Mums are definitely seen as the representatives of family households. Dare I say it, they seem to be steadily seen as something like the traditional ‘head of the household’. So I suppose there are two main points I want to try and get across in this post: i) The toy industry (and many others) are starting to take mothers very seriously ii) If anyone has a problem with a particular business tell the Mums, if the complaint reaches a significant number of Mums something will be sent that company’s way and by the sound of things, often, companies will listen to them.

I could harp and moan that Dads aren’t fairly represented but as I think I’ve made clear the kind of representation they get is fair because we Dads (as a group) are not anywhere near as unified under the banner of ‘parenthood’ as the Mums. If we want more representation we’ll just have to work for it, building the same kind of organised setting as groups like mumsnet to allow us to come together and discuss our issues as parents.

mum powerSo the Mums are our representatives when it comes to family allegiance to providers of products and services. Typically they are the ones that advertisers aim at, they are the ones that companies are scared to anger. The message I suppose is that Mums are powerful, possibly more so than any other demographic group, thanks to their number, their ability to find kinship with other Mums (often solely through that common ground) and their ability, as a group, to disseminate both complaint and compliment. In terms of having a hand in the way many markets will turn Mums have the rest of us beaten hands down. (N.B please don’t take offence at the image on the left, motherhood is a choice that, were women not making it, would leave the human race in a bit of bother in around 75 years, I have no intention of looking anti-feminist by saying this, I simply intend to be realistic about where human beings come from)

I love to hear what people think about topics like this so please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom or on the Fun Junction facebook page. Perhaps people disagree with my depiction of the power of Mums, I’m sure as individuals many mothers have had very different experience to what I’m describing here. However, what I wanted to make clear is that, in terms of getting companies to pay attention, an individual Mum does not have to stand alone and that when Mums, as a group, get mad about something a lot of people not only will listen; they’ll want to listen. Again thanks for reading, feel free to comment to your heart’s content. Cheers, John

Company profile: Hape toys

hape

I’ve done this kind of product focused post before and it’s nice to be nice, especially where it’s due. There are lots of brands that we stock and I’ll tell you about their benefits in other posts but in this one I’m focussing on Hape toys. We’ve been stocking this brand for over a year now and the range often surprises us in terms of its innovativeness and in it’s attention to detail.

animal blocksOne of the key components of the company which allows it to stand out is its attention to both the environmental and social impact of its products: their eco range is more than a token gesture (as you see from some companies), it has been carefully thought out, not simply as a means of ticking the ‘eco’ box but also as a selection of toys that work well on their own merits. In particular the ‘animal blocks’ have been a very successful addition to the shop’s play table: they’re well made (they survived on our play table in store through the Christmas rush without a blemish so that says a lot about their durability), they’re well sized for little hands and come with fun animal print designs on the blocks which allow kids to build their favourite animals. The water based inks used to colour the blocks are vibrant but calmer in tone than those used in other sets of blocks, offering a distinctive colour palette which is both striking and fun.

bamboo hot rodHape also offer a range of bamboo toys, producing a range of toys with a unique look from a sustainable source of wood-like material. This range is mostly made up of transport based toys (though it does include such diverse categories as games and doll houses), the cylindrical shape of bamboo lends itself particularly well to making the streamlined shapes associated with a variety of vehicles. We really loved the range when we got it in, unfortunately it didn’t go down well on the shop floor and we’ve had to reduce the range which we sell now. However we’d happily restock if we received enough demand for them.

Hape's 'First Pounder' suitable from 12mnths £6.99, in store now

Hape’s ‘First Pounder’ suitable from 12mnths £6.99, in store now

I’ve highlighted their more obviously ecologically centred ranges of toys but I should point out that their whole wooden range is 100% FSC approved as being made from wood from well managed forests and, as I said earlier, they are also socially responsible: so far they have built 3 schools and are working on an ‘Early Childhood Education Center and Environmental Development facility’ in China.

With all this in mind you would normally expect such toys to have a fairly high price tag but Hape’s toys are generally quite competitive on price, so you get high quality toys that are distinctive, and that are ecologically and socially responsible, for a fairly normal price (e.g. their animal blocks are £11.99 and their ‘first pounder’ is £6.99). If you want to have a look at their range in more detail then head on over to the shop’s website, we’ve got a load of their products listed there (please note this link will show you both Hape products and other lines we get from a company called Marbel).

Well that’s my wee company profile for Hape toys, hope you enjoyed it. I should be doing more of these company/ product profiles as time goes on (unless of course people really don’t like them) so if you have any particular companies, or even a particular product, that has impressed you in some way let me know in the comments section below and I’ll see what I can put together.

Challenge accepted!

rush hour

I often post about slightly ‘younger’ toys, this is probably because my sons are 2 and 4 so my home experience is limited to this. This week I thought I’d try and get outside this box and talk about some toys aimed at older children: those toys/ games described as ‘logic puzzles’. They can range from simple (yet frustrating) tangles of metal that you get in a Christmas cracker and have to untangle, to large complicated sets incorporating multiple pieces which have to be moved around in designated ways (such as Think Fun’s ‘rush hour’ game where you have to get a car out of a traffic jam).

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

36 cube is like sudoku on steroids, your brain will melt. One of each colour per line and each peg is a different size and can only fit in certain positions on the board.

I love these sorts of games and at the same time I hate them. Because of my stubborn streak (and I have to confess a little over-confidence in my intelligence) once I start one I have to complete it and this can, in some cases, take hours. I’ve solved most of the smaller puzzles in the shop at least once and some many more times than that. Completing a logic puzzle can give you that wonderful and guilty mixture of a sense of achievement coupled with a feeling of superiority (“I completed this and you haven’t”). That said, I have genuinely given up with some puzzles, e.g. I have never solved a rubik’s cube and I gave up on Think Fun’s ’36 cube’ game after 4-5 hours. I think I like the challenge but there’s a limit on how much of my time I’ll put into it and that’s kind of what I’d like to ask people to comment about today.

What’s the ‘sweet spot’ of enjoyment between the eureka moment associated with completing something that is genuinely challenging, and the frustration of inability? For me it is probably the time factor that marks this out: if it takes too long I’m just not going to try any more, that perhaps sounds lazy but part of me becomes increasingly aware, as time goes on, that I’m playing a game and that there are other things I could be doing with my time. It’s different for conventional board games because then there’s the socialising aspect to make the time appreciably more meaningful.

This said I’ll often come back to a logic puzzle on a number of occasions to try my luck again thinking: “I may have wasted four hours on this yesterday but I think I know how it works now so I should be able to do it in a bout twenty minutes”. I’ll delude myself like this repeatedly in some cases, but I must admit I will probably never return to the two puzzles mentioned above as I just can’t get them and ‘getting’ them will likely take more time than I could ever excuse myself for taking.

I wonder if there could be other factors, aside from time, which might make someone abandon a logic puzzle; perhaps a lack of confidence in your ability to solve it (I suppose that’s part of my cop-outs too) or even using the ultimate excuse and blaming the toy for being defective (e.g. giving up based on the belief that a rubik’s cube has been tampered with and so will be impossible to solve). Comments are welcome, and feel free to taunt me on my lack of Rubik’s skill pointing out how intellectually superior you are for having solved it (you know you want to, that’s part of the fun). It would also be interesting to know what logic puzzles have really got under your skin. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Fashionable toys

furby

Toys become popular for a variety of reasons. We just got some mini ‘Furbies’ into the shop (they don’t do all the things that their big cousins do but they do sing) and it got me thinking about the way that some toys get popular. You get trash packs which were handed out as freebies in schools to kick start their popularity, and there’s moshi monsters which have lasted longer than any collectible I’ve seen in years (think they’ve been on the go for about 2 years now), their popularity seems to come from the online experience you get from using the ‘secret code’ you get in a pack of moshis. The main thing that seems to do it though is a peculiar mix of familiarity and unattainability, this typically comes from various forms of advertising combined either with ‘rare’ or ‘super rare’ items in a collectible series or good old fashioned restricted supply.

Years ago there was a ‘buzz’ about Buzz Lightyear toys, as parents scoured the country trying to track one down. The general story was that suppliers had underestimated demand, however many of us got our conspiracy theory caps on and noted that they were able to maintain that big price tag across the board and no one was complaining, they were so thankful to have Buzz that their criticism of price was dialled down (or absent). Fashionable toys don’t have to be overpriced, but in the case of restricted supply there’s always the option for people to drive up price to a level they know people will still pay happily.

When I was a kid I rarely, if ever, got hold of a fashionable toy. I dreamed of an Optimus prime transformer (you know the big one with the removable freight unit), of a game boy, I even begged for football stickers (I don’t even like football). My parents got me some stuff, if they could see its merits and it didn’t help that they both worked in retail and were acutely  aware of what was being done to them as consumers.

We all know that fashionable toys can be expensive what I’m wondering is whether they really are better. You could advertise the life out of a lump of plastic and make it as rare as you like but is that enough? Does the toy need some ‘special spark’ to kick off a craze?

Let’s go back to Furbies, the originals were one of the most advanced technological soft toys anyone had seen (bar perhaps ‘Teddy Ruxpin’), they were responsive and what’s more they had their own language which made them seem instantly more exotic. It also probably didn’t hurt that they looked like ‘gremlins’ in their fuzzy state. The new ones have this going for them (though I doubt kids know what gremlins are now) plus they have an accompanying smart phone app which lets you ‘feed’ them, communicate, and interact with them in a way that you could never have dreamed of doing with the previous incarnation of Furbies. To be honest if I was a kid today I would want one, the thing just looks awesome. The funny thing is there have been forays into smart phone compatibility for toys before (too many to list here). The thing that really seems to have re-ignited the Furbies craze is kids’ awareness that they are joining in with a pre-existing culture around Furbies: they’re ‘retro’, they’re unique and the particularly interesting thing about Furbies this time round; their parents may have had one when they were younger, and so literally can’t say no without looking like a hypocrite.

I genuinely don’t have a problem with fashionable toys. Many provide a fantastic play experience and small swappable collectibles provide life experiences that you can’t get in a classroom (how to make a deal, understanding the potential finality of actions etc.). I do however find it odd to see which toys kick it into high-gear to become the ‘big toy’ of that year and which fall by the wayside or find themselves pegged as stable and dependable (viz. demand doesn’t shift from one year to the next, though that demand could of course be pretty high e.g. Lego). The ‘dependable’ toys, no matter how popular they might get, never quite seem to reach the dizzy heights of their ‘fashionable’ brethren, they are seen as constant, unending, a steady background feature of childhood, the fashionable toys on the other hand are special, fleeting and nearly unattainable (or at least rare). Perhaps that is at the heart of the appeal, human beings can’t help but get enamoured with the exotic, the fleeting and the rare, it makes us feel like we have somehow broken away from the every-day and had a taste of something truly unique, and this makes us feel more like individuals, more special and unique ourselves in light of this experience.

On a side note, there’s chatter in the industry that Meccano are in trouble financially, they were never a ‘fashionable’ toy when I was a kid so I had a bucket of the stuff. It was genuinely one of my favourite toys (possibly even above Lego) and I can’t even imagine a toy shop without it. I can’t do much as an individual either, my eldest son is still 3 years too young for the standard sets, they do produce a plastic version for his age but he always seems to get enamoured with some other type of toy just before birthdays and Christmas and I don’t get much of a chance to slip some Meccano in there surreptitiously. I hope it survives through so that I can get him some of the basic metal sets when he’s old enough, I really do.

Anyway back to fashionable toys. I’d welcome any comments about favourites of the past or ideas about what drives these toys to become toy celebrities. Again thanks for reading, look forward to seeing your comments.

moshi dressEdit (22.02.13): Just wanted to add a picture of this moshi monster dress, apparently it was doing the rounds at London Fashion Week. Kind of a different take on the notion of ‘fashionable toys’. (image found at MindCandy)