Cool weather, lit-up homes, sweet and savoury treats, and presents, more presents – the festive season brings with it much cheer. For children, nothing quite beats the anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to peel through the wrapping paper that conceals their favourite toys.
What those playthings are has changed dramatically over the years and, as with most industries affected by time and technology, children's demands have altered the state of the traditional toy industry. "Globally, the toy industry has seen a decline in sales," says Payal Mirchandani, managing director of Pinca, a distribution company in Dubai. "In the UAE, there is a strong shift in consumer-buying behaviour. This is correlated with the fact that children are spending more time being entertained by YouTube content and games on their iPads. Traditional toys are not stimulating children any more, and they no longer play with them for long periods of time, which is why parents are more reluctant to spend money on these."
While Dubai resident Danielle Wilson Naqvi agrees that hearing mums complain that their children prefer screens over toys is common, she says it just means parents have to make an effort to allow children to be children – and limit screen time. "I encourage my girls to play make-believe, use their own imaginations and play with other dolls. If my son had electronic games, he would play them, for sure, but as he loves sports, we encourage him to be outdoors playing basketball or football," says the Dubai mum of twins Rio and Sisi, 6, and Amara, 7.
Naqvi considers herself lucky as her children still enjoy playing with “actual” toys. “They did ask for an iPod Touch this year, but I think that’s only because they heard other children mention it. And, no, they won’t be getting one.”
It's not just parents who are rising to the challenge of putting the fun back into traditional playtime. "Toy manufacturers have to be more innovative in the product development cycle, and take the changing behaviour of children into consideration," says Mirchandani. Here are some of this year's toy trends.
When asked about their current bestselling products in the region, leading toy stores Hamleys, The Toy Store, Toys "R" Us and Babyshop responded with a list that includes Lol Surprise!, Hatchimals, Rainbocorns and Blume Dolls. These toys also have one more thing in common: half the fun lies in their "unboxing". Once the item is purchased, the child has to do something to reveal which toy in the series he or she has. Sometimes that means unwrapping different layers, with accessories, stickers and puzzles adding to the fun, other times it involves adding drops of water.
Ironically, it may be social media that's led to the popularity of such models. We've all heard about unboxing videos where influencers reveal brands or products they've purchased. The same logic applies to the world of toys, it would seem. "Influencers and unboxing videos are making a difference in the market," says John Nevis, head of buying for toys at Babyshop. "It all boils down to the manner in which toys are marketed."
Prema Kaliyan, buying manager at Hamleys Middle East, echoes a similar sentiment. “Children are very well informed about brands and their launches well ahead of time, through YouTube. Parents are also doing a lot of research [online] before their purchases,” she says.
Given the penchant for unboxing toys, it comes as no surprise that collectibles – toy series that entice children to "collect them all" – are also gaining ground. Jonathan Watts, general manager of Toys "R" Us, says the major trends of this year was built around collectibles, with brands such as Fortnite, Poopsie, Lol and Rainbocorns leading the way. Most of these toys include the thrill of mystery characters, an unboxing experience and challenges (being dipped in warm liquid or having to dig through slime) before the final reveal is made.
These brands are also constantly releasing new series to ensure the collection process is convenient and continual.
Movie and TV characters
"Within the industry, entertainment and movies continue to play a huge role in driving brand affinity," says Nevis. Any parent who has had to deal with dolls that belt out Frozen's Let It Go will agree wholeheartedly. According to regional stores, toys based on the movies Frozen 2, Aladdin and Toy Story 4 were bestsellers this year. As further proof that what children see on television sets matters, toys based on animated TV shows Paw Patrol and PJ Masks are among the most popular with nursery-age children, says Nevis.
"Over the past decade, the industry saw a strong spin-off from mainstream and contemporary shows and movies. However, in the last couple of years, we have noticed a shift to newer media channels and interesting trends. TV and movies continue to make a difference, yet they are less dominant than in the past. For example, Fortnite [toys] were born out of a popular videogame; Hatchimals was a genius idea from a robotics company."
It may be impossible to divorce technology from toys going forward so – regular toys aside – brands are constantly looking for ways to combine the two to keep little ones entertained. "Electronics remain strong with VTech Kidizoom smartwatch and Nintendo Switch leading the way, followed by the Sony PlayStation," says Watts.
"There are more AR or VR toys being launched in the educational category. There are also toys being launched that combine both physical and digital play together," says Mirchandani. "So far these trends have not gained too much popularity here, but they are definitely something to watch for in the near future."
Many parents recognise the importance of technology in their little ones’ lives. Geetanjali Kaul, co-founder of children’s activity app TurtleCard, believes it’s all about enforcing discipline from a young age. Kaul allows her son, 3, his daily dose of game time on the screen, while “keeping a watch on video watching” to ensure he doesn’t get addicted – to the tech or the toy.
“If they view screens as forbidden fruit, they may choose to indulge in them without your knowledge. A life without technology is not possible in today’s day and age, so it’s all about finding the right balance,” she says.