The London Toy Fair being held Jan. 25 to 27 is 30 percent bigger than last year, with 200 stands on the show floor and a fifth more exhibitors. Fifty-three companies are first-time exhibitors and Toy Fair is welcoming back companies including Hornby, Marvin's Magic and MV Sports & Leisure.
The optimism of toy fair exhibitors is reflected in NPD figures for the last nine months, which show the value of U.K. toy sales up 11 percent to September 2010.
"If this level of growth holds up it will be the best growth since 2002," NPD's Frederique Tutt tells License! Global.
The uplift has been driven mostly by core toys rather than licensed toys, with the exceptions of Toy Story adding a "wow" factor to the analysis. The growth is well-spread and helped by the unstoppable LEGO and Zhu Zhu Pets brands. Sales of building sets are up a striking 55 percent for the period with NPD "supercategories"—dolls, plush and outdoor—seeing double-digit growth. Plush is boosted by the Zhu Zhu Pets craze, which claims 20 percent share of the category.
"It's the same across Europe and the U.S. New products like accessories and items for boys are likely to help maintain this brand's performance," says Tutt.
NPD finds that licensed toys are up 9 percent to September, which is significant, but not as good as traditional branded toys. Toy Story is the No. 1 toy year-to-date and looks likely to remain strong for Christmas. It claimed 5 percent of the total toy market for September.
"There is an increased buoyancy across the industry as the market starts to believe economic recovery is coming. The marriage between toys and licensing is a key part of the optimism," says Christine Nicholls, chairman of The British Toy and Hobby Association.
She points to the ability of the toy industry to be creative and innovative throughout the recession, as well as the strength of the licensing industry with evergreen properties being continually refreshed. In addition, the frequent introduction of new, imaginative licenses can help companies feel more confident about investing in marketing and promoting their products, says Nicholls.
A star of the show will undoubtedly be LEGO, which goes from strength to strength in licensed and unlicensed products. But there are some strong growth stories from other toy companies, too. And the successes are not just being led by licenses.
This year will see a number of toy products start to take on a life of their own. Jakks Pacific, for example, which opened its U.K. office last year, will promote its Spy Net Watch and Real Construction products alongside its successful action figures.
At Toy Fair, Wow Stuff will unveil a new licensed brand and six new "blockbusters" (defined by Wow Stuff as toys that will do 250,000 units at a good price point). Wow Stuff predicts at least two of these new toys have the potential to become properties that will extend into new categories.
"It's a new but important strategy for Wow Stuff. In order to grow, we'll produce more own-brands where innovation produces the 'wow' factor and brand extension may be possible. But we will also take more licenses. It's fundamentally part of what we do," says Richard North, managing director of Wow Stuff.
Wow Stuff prides itself on innovation and its relationship with retailers, helping them to maximize sales. It runs a demonstration academy to train toy demonstrators, for example, and it produces in-store videos and product information that can be streamed to a phone. Next year, it is investing a seven-figure sum in TV advertising across brands to drive customers into stores.
North says, "The toy fair has got back its confidence and we are investing in growth for 2011."
BTHA's Nicholls agrees about a return to confidence. "The Dream Dozen, the top toys list announced earlier this year, indicated two trends: higher price points and increased use of technology. I am sure we'll see the convergence of technology with traditional play value in many toys at Toy Fair."
As toy companies go into 2011, Nicholls says one of their priorities will be sustainability. "Environmental issues, particularly in regard to packaging, are of significant importance to our members because it's also of consumer interest. We are providing a carbon calculator to allow them to evaluate and design toys with a reduced carbon footprint."
Sustainability is also top of the agenda for the Nürnberg Toy Fair this year. It is embracing what it calls the mega-trend of going green by giving over space, business forums, online focus and conference sessions to the special theme, "Toys Go Green." There will be product presentations on ecological materials and sustainable packaging and information about communicating sustainability through play. Licensing will also be given increased importance at the Nürnberg show this year with an expanded License Centre.