Thursday, January 31, 2008

What European toys say about European views

Consider toy brands, such as Denmark's Lego or Germany's Playmobil. These firms may be dwarfed in America by titans like Mattel, but in
Europe they are cultural giants, vying for top spots in markets such as
France and Germany. In their designs, business models and philosophies,
they offer a striking snapshot of European aspirations, anxieties and
foibles. (Tellingly, toy bosses see Britain as a case apart, closer to
the American market in taste, and showing what they call an
“Anglo-Saxon” fondness for heavily marketed novelties tied to films or

Playmobil's chief executive, Andrea Schauer, [says]: “the dream of every German
mother” used to be to have an engineer for a son. Parents liked to see
boys assembling elaborate structures in their bedrooms; Lego is the top
toy brand in Germany. In contrast, the French shun construction toys,
preferring the world of the imagination. Playmobil is their leading toy

Most Playmobil figures are made in Malta and their accessories made in Germany. Playmobil plants are highly automated—its main factory in Bavaria is
strikingly empty, with tiny dinosaur arms or car parts falling from
unmanned injection moulds as a few blue-dungareed staff trundle about
on large tricycles. Its young customers are fickle and unpredictable,
meaning that production volumes often need swift tweaking. Like many
“fast fashion” chains, Playmobil suspects the lead times demanded by
factories in China are too long for it.

When the firm experimented with making toys in China four years ago,
the costs of moulds and raw materials were no lower than in Europe. And
it took too much time and effort to prod suppliers to set standards
high and keep them up.

Europeans are squeamish about warfare and armies. American shelves
groan under tanks and muscle-bound action heroes; European parents are
less keen. The firm [...] avoids links with violent licensed brands, such as
Spiderman, saying it prefers older stories that leave children's
imagination free to roam.

When it comes to race, Playmobil figures are almost all white. European children have never asked for anything else. American customers are different.

Article Link (Economist)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Toys 'R' Us stages a comeback

"Toys "R" Us, [...] gets nearly half its sales and all of its profits
from the all-important fourth quarter, and has struggled to stay afloat
for the last few years.

Analysts expect the $22 billion toy industry to contract slightly
this year, perhaps by 1 percent, as consumers rein in spending and
think twice before snapping up toys that may be coated in lead paint or
some other harmful substance. With $13 billion in annual sales, Toys
"R" Us remains the second largest toy retailer in the country behind
Wal-Mart. [...] although more consumers were out shopping on Black Friday, they spent an average of 3.5 percent less per transaction.

To ensure Toys 'R' Us not only stays competitive, but also keeps on top
of new ideas, [CEO] Storch hired fellow Target alumni Robert Giampietro, who
was named senior vice president of trends and innovation in May.

This year, Storch wanted to make an even bigger statement with pink. He turned to toy manufacturers like Hasbro (Charts) and Fischer-Price, which is owned by Mattel (Charts, Fortune 500),
and asked them to develop special products that would only be available
at Toys "R" Us, including a pink version of Monopoly and a pink Twister

"The way Toys 'R' Us went about this was very similar to what Target (Charts, Fortune 500) does," McGowan, the analyst, said. "They didn't just say to Hasbro, 'Show me what you've got.' Instead, they worked together to come up with ideas that would make these products stand out."

After several years of shrinking its store base by closing or selling
stores, Toys "R" Us, opened four superstores this year, the first time
it has grown since 2004. Dozens of new stores are planned for 2008,
though Storch would not reveal an exact number. The company operates
586 U.S. toy stores, 678 toy stores abroad and 251 Babies "R" Us

Article Link (Fortune)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dancing Keepon Robot Teaches Author How To Love

Remember cute Keepon, the little robot that's part Muppet, part dancing dynamo? He's back, teaching Daniel H. Wilson, author of How To Build a Robot Army,
how to stop worrying and embrace cybernetics. Now that Wilson and
Keepon are friends, we're imagining the undefeatable army of Keepons
that will result: every opponent would compulsively drop his weapon and
start disco gently on the spot. At least, that's what we'd do. [Keepon at Carnegie Mellon]
Article Link (Gizmodo)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Build-A-Bear Workshop® Successfully Launches™

ST. LOUIS--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Build-A-Bear Workshop® Guests
are bringing their furry best friends to life in
The new virtual world, which launched on December 11, is on track to
reach one million unique monthly visitors by the end of January.

We are thrilled that so many Guests have
visited, said Maxine
Clark, founder and chief executive bear of Build-A-Bear Workshop. Our
virtual world experience extends the emotional bond that is created when
a Guest makes a new furry friend. Guests are able to bring their new
friend to life online and continue to play and grow the friendship that
begins in our store.

Article Link

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

iRobot CEO Colin Angle talks about the future of robotics

The soldiers complained about using “toys” in the field, saying that
they were specially trained to clear caves. This went on until they
were faced with the entrance to a dark cave in the mountains where they
suddenly discovered that sending a robot into the darkness was far
better than sending in a soldier. It was this point, the “cave mouth
epiphany” that convinced the Army that robots are a way around the
asymmetric warfare that has become the norm for today’s conflicts.

His main point, that robots will soon do the jobs we don’t want to or
can’t do, is a quite cleary coming to pass. I asked him if there was a
“cave mouth epiphany” in the home robotics industry and he shook his
head. “We’ve sold 2.5 million robots, but that’s 1 to 2% of market
penetration. The digerati love robots, but our real audience is middle
American homemakers.” Looking at his Scuba, Looj, and Roomba, it’s
clear that his audience is missing out and when the finally see the
value of a cleaning robot, the cave mouth epiphany is right around the

Article Link

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