Hot-in-Japan Translates as Huge Over Here

Tokyo Toy Show 2016

By Steve Starobinsky, VP Diverse Marketing

Tokyo…a culture founded on respect, honour, tradition, and an approach to business and product development that is uniquely its own. Despite a population of 120 million people living on an island the size of California, Tokyo is a spotless metropolis that further reinforces how proud this society is of what they’ve built.

It is a different market than ours. But, as one infamous buyer told me when I was a 23-year-old, first-year salesman – if it’s hot in Japan, it’s going to be huge in the States!

Welcoming Trade Pros and the Public
The International Tokyo Toy Fair, held June 9-12 at the Big Sight Exhibition Center, is a two-part event unlike anything in North America. The first two days are strictly for the wholesalers, while the last two are reserved for families to come out and play.

I also came to see where the crowds formed, what licenses were embraced and, of course, how kids played with each of the new introductions. Overall, they get approximately 150,000 consumers to come to the show in two days (June 11 and 12).

With the consumer in mind, the major players like Bandai and TOMY approach toy fair much more like a spectacle than an industry exhibition. The energy, excitement, showmanship, and hype is incredible — literally nothing like I’ve ever seen.

Sumo Cat Bling Box from Re-MentThe Big Trends
Through my time at the show and after extensively comp shopping the various stores in Tokyo, I identified several trend clusters — take a look.

1. Novelty Cat Items: Whether just cats as a general motif or a riff on the crazy cat lady, you could see that there was a big affinity with felines in all colours. The top industry embraced item was the Do Re Mi Fa Cat from Takara Tomy — it had also been recognized by the Japanese Toy Association as the winner for top toy for kids with special needs. It’s a clever riff on the cat keyboard concept and the more you buy, the more fun it becomes.

Other favourites included the Cat Couch Stacking game from Epoch, (parent company of International Playthings), and the Sumo Cats Bling Box program from Re-Ment.

2. The Vending Machine Effect: The Japanese love blind box programs — they just approach the merchandising vehicle as part of the magic of the sale. These vending machines range from simple turn-and-win to complex video game hybrids that reward you different collectibles based on how well you do in the game.

According to the Japan Toy Association, there are 600,000 vending machines in the market and they are responsible for generating $320 million dollars in sales annually. The prizes themselves go from licensed impulse to the very, very obscure and peculiar. As long as they are “kawaii” — meaning cute, little, and collectible — the consumer seems to invest their loose change into it. I saw consumers of all ages buy from these machines, and I saw these machines everywhere from toy shops to sushi restaurants.

3. Retro Gaming: One of the most visible kidult trends in Japan was the obsession with retro gaming. Not the new stuff that looks 8-bit like Minecraft, but rather NES, Gameboy Color, etc. emulators and old video game cartridges that are being sold and traded.

Ampanman_hot with Japanese preschoolersNot only were there multiple stores and sections for old 90s video games, but there were arcades to play these games. One of my most memorable experiences shopping was seeing a kid about 12 playing Duck Hunt on NES one Sunday afternoon. Old school is cool in Japan and being not only familiar but good at these retro games is a badge of honour!

4. Impulse Intricate Craftables: Beautiful handmade craft projects in a tiny package retailing for under US$20 dominate the adult hobby category in Japan. A mixture of the love for “kawaii” things, collectability, the desperate need to de-stress, and a smaller apartments/storage space, this trend can be seen everywhere in Tokyo.

(This is an important lesson for the North American market as the Arts & Crafts super category had a tough year in 2015, decreasing -4.3 percent according to NPD Group.)

5. Ampanman: I was surprised to learn the number-one preschool property in Japan is something I had never heard of or seen before in all of my travels. A property that is 40+ years old and collectively has over 1,300 episodes to its credit. The property is by far the biggest for kids, infant to four years old. I wanted to include this in my trend report as I wouldn’t be surprised if this made its way to the U.S. market with kids and new age parents allowing YouTube to be the top content provider in the household. We have seen recent success stories with international preschool brands such as Masha and the Bear crossover into Europe and N. America.

Bonus – Top Anime License
Hatsume Miku was by far the biggest property. Hatsume is a computer-generated pop star who has her own global tour, Miku-Cons, and attracts over 2.5 million followers on Facebook. Her product was on display at many booths and retailers.

Steve Starobinsky, Diverse Marketing, spotted trends at the Tokyo Toy Show Steve Starobinsky is vice president marketing & product development for Dallas-based Diverse Marketing and Diverse Insights, representing some of the industry’s largest companies and brands. Email Steve or follow his everyday activities on Instagram.

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