Let’s get this straight: regardless of age, we’re never too old to play with toys. Whether you’re into family board games, a master-builder, or a daredevil on a hoverboard, toys will always hold a special place in your heart. Toys take us back to our childhood, a time when the world was simpler, where limits were defined only by our imagination.
I’ve been an avid toy collector and critic from a rather tender age (I even featured on a Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends VHS introducing my favourite story as a four-year-old). In fact, I have spent countless hours with Thomas, crafted Star Wars stories with action figures, and found therapeutic comfort in LEGO after personal loss. It’s fair to say I’ve lived and breathed toys my entire life. So, when the opportunity came up to attend the 66th annual Toy Fair in London, I could barely contain my excitement.
Organised by leading trade body the British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA), the Toy Fair opened its doors to over 250 exhibiting companies last month. Rows of exhibitors showing off intricate boardgames, more than 50 shades of slime, and more superhero figurines and dolls than you could possibly imagine, filled the hall at the London Olympia Centre. Overcoming my initial instinct to just stop and play with everything in sight, I turned my attention to the real reason of my visit: toy safety.
A serious issue
Dangerous toys frequently make national headlines. It’s a serious and potentially deadly issue that takes priority for lead officers at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. But as trading standards faces a funding crisis, independent organisations have stepped up to work with manufacturers in ensuring unsafe products don’t put children at risk. From trade bodies like BTHA, to market surveillance consultants and labs testing for potential counterfeit goods, safety and responsibility is on everyone’s mind.
Growing up in the 90s, toy safety was a relatively new thing, and generally boiled down to an overly cautious grandparent taking the ball-bearings from a ‘big loader’ set in case the child decided to eat them. Conversations around knock-off toys with cancer-causing chemicals or exploding batteries didn’t really gather steam in the UK until the Toy (Safety) Regulations 1995 came into force. But as new technologies made mass production easier, and online marketplaces connected consumers with shops around the world, the concern for consumer safety became paramount.
Director of Public Affairs and Communications at BTHA, Natasha Crookes, spoke candidly on the issue: “Counterfeits, copycats, and “generic” unsafe toys are all of concern to toy brands. They are a threat to child safety as well as to the reputation of responsible toy companies. The BTHA is currently raising the issue with online marketplaces to try to obtain their support in fighting fake and unsafe toys and to keep UK children safe from the harm these toys pose.”
With counterfeit and unlicensed products continuing to prove a priority for businesses big and small, brand and consumer protection has never been more important. SnapDragon, an IP and brand-protection company, was in attendance at this year’s fair, sharing hints and tips with brands for protecting products online. Mary Kernohan, Head of Development at SnapDragon, explained: “Some 12% of the toys coming into Europe are determined as fakes so it’s quite a problem for the industry as a whole.”
The benefits of membership to trade associations, especially for small businesses, is well documented, as Kernohan elaborates: “The BTHA is very aware of the problem and actively involved in conversations with marketplaces, while also encouraging its members to learn from each other. The membership community enables the sharing of experiences, as well as free, or heavily discounted support from experts, such as SnapDragon.”
Many SMEs find themselves struggling silently, on a range of issues, as SnapDragon’s founder, Rachel Jones, discovered when her own product was counterfeited.
“Rachel set up SnapDragon to help other [small businesses] facing online issues of infringement. Small businesses are often the hardest hit in terms of copies – they don’t expect it, and they don’t have the resources to fight back. SnapDragon means they can – and that the fight can be won – saving revenues, reputations and, most importantly, keeping customers safe”, Kernohan said.
The Government has taken steps to further support SMEs in consumer protection and product safety issues. Business Companion, a free-to-use Government-backed website, offers in-depth guidance written by trading standards experts to help businesses understand the laws that affect them. Last year, the Office for Product Safety and Standards made Supporting Better Recalls (PAS 7100), the British Standards Institution (BSI) code of practice for product recalls, available for free to all SMEs.
The closure of Toys ‘R’ Us, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and the continued issue of counterfeits and licencing concerns, have led to a challenging year for the UK toy industry, which saw a 7% drop on sales across 2018. In spite of this, Toy Fair saw a significant rise in the number of innovative STEM toys and games hitting the markets in the coming months.
The surge in educational products, aimed at teaching safety and responsibility to children of all ages, provides a great alternative for the screen-age generation. Creative companies and products, such Tech Will Save Us with its wide range of electrical engineering toy kits, and Junko’s junk modelling construction sets made entirely of recycled materials, not only encourage tactile play, but more importantly, raise awareness of electrical safety and ecological responsibility.
And even digital toys and games are embracing the chance to encourage responsibility, with the upcoming mobile game ‘Nestlings’, from BAFTA-nominated studio Glitchers and Thought Machine [Labs] helping players to save real-world money whilst having fun with creative characters in a fantasy world. This merging of gameplay with real-world consequences introduces users of all ages to the otherwise dry (though vitally important) subject of fiscal responsibility.
Despite uncertainty for the future, the industry I love is in good hands, as manufacturers, regulators and brand-protectors continue to find new ways to work together to ensure a safer playing field for consumers young and old alike – after all, we’re all children at heart.