PARIS - For Christmas this year, eight-year-old Thomas has asked for... a laptop computer, just so he doesn't have to use his mother's. Last year, when he was seven, he got an iPod.
This Christmas will be characterized by society's evolution toward high-tech gadgets; an evolution that has not bypassed children. For dozens of years, toy manufacturers have not only had to adapt to this technological revolution, but they have also had to adapt to a society undergoing profound change.
Manufacturers are the "victims of a phenomenon that is called 'age compression,' meaning that children feel older at a much younger age," says Eric Rossi, director-general of Vivid Europe, which owns Smasha-Ballz and Crayola.
The cause of this phenomenon: "The evolution of technology, of course, but also children's exposure to the media, whether that is passive media, such as television, or active, such as the Internet or mobile devices," he continues.
"Children are growing up faster than before, and are therefore not interested in the toy market. The last toy purchase for a child is around age nine, nine and a half, whereas 20 years ago, it was age 11," Rossi says.
This phenomenon, which toy manufacturers have been studying for a long period, however, does not materialize every year. In 2011, the increase in toy sales in France was highest among eight to 11-year olds, according to NPD Group consultancy firm, whereas toy sales decreased for the age zero to two category, with the market staying the same for the intermediary ages.
Last year, many big names in the toy industry brought out specific products that had a lot of success among older kids: Hasbro released its Beyblade spinning tops and Nerf blasters; Lego had its Ninjago series; and Mattel released its Monster High vampire dolls.
"Often, the next year, the younger siblings start playing with these toys, because they’ve been in contact with their older siblings, whereas the older siblings don't want to play with toys that young children like as well," explains Frédérique Tutt, an analyst at NPD Group.
Trying to wow the kids
"New forms of technology are now part of the daily life of children, who are attracted to them more than traditional toys," says Florence Pilard, a marketing manager for Meccano.
Some families do not even think twice about spending the whole toy budget for their offspring on a games console for the living room, or a video game as a collective present for all their children. Children from the age of seven are starting to ask for gadgets aimed at adults.
The loss of this target market is, however, compensated by other phenomena, such as "an increase in separated parents, leading to children getting double the amount of presents," and "a demographic phenomenon with grandparents living longer," says Rossi.
Toy manufacturers are therefore trying to adapt: "We now have to include more features, so that we can wow children," explains Rossi. "For the same price than before, our cuddly toys have more features than ever: When you press on a certain part of their bodies, they do actions as well as make sounds, whereas before they either did one or the other."
Meccano has also been forced to change its strategy in order to continue making products that would interest older children. Now it is focusing on "video game characters that children are familiar with," explains Pilard. "Nine out of 10 children play video games now."
The Meccano company has, therefore, acquired the licensing rights for Rayman Raving Rabbids, Sonic and Gears of War, while also developing specific products that children can build themselves. "It means we can hold onto this target market for a little longer," she says.