HONG KONG — The bulk of toy makers at the Hong Kong Toys & Games Show are still focused on the mass-production market, either making generic plastic cars, scooters and dolls, or offering low-cost manufacturing services to foreign buyers.
But some ambitious toymakers eager to break out of the low-margin OEM rut are trying to build their own brands.
“It's a tough challenge,” admits Jeffrey Huang, president of Hong Kong-based PVC inflatables manufacturer New Time Plastic Manufacturing Ltd. The company is trying to crack the booming mainland toy market with its Doctor Dolphin and Little Dolphin line of bath tubs, ball pits, mini-pools and floatation devices for the newborn-to-6 crowd.
Compared to selling to big overseas agents, building a brand requires lots of footwork. “We have to contact many small wholesalers and retailers,” Huang said.
New Time has an online storefront on Alibaba Group business-to-consumer site TMall.com, even though Huang commented “Ninety percent of Tmall retailers lose money. It's [Alibaba Chairman] Jack Ma who's getting rich.
“I know we can't make a profit on Tmall. But we need to build up our brand.”
The Dolphin products appear tailor-made for the Chinese market. While outdoor pools are a staple of American life, most middle-class Chinese live in apartments — hence the pint-sized Dolphin offerings can easily be set up in a kitchen or living room.
Like almost every Hong Kong toy company at the show, New Time has a head office in the city, but factories on the mainland, where labor and land are cheaper — though getting more expensive every year. Currently, New Time has 400 workers at factories in Zhongshan and Wannian.
“It's difficult to find workers,” Huang said, echoing a familiar complaint among manufacturers here. Younger workers “don't want to work in a factory. They want to get rich quick.”
That home address in Hong Kong carries great cachet: mainland parents surveyed by show sponsor Hong Kong Trade Development Council last year said they had much greater confidence in Hong Kong brands than in mainland brands.
Still, New Time's bread-and-butter business for the foreseeable future is making inflatables for the water- and outdoor-sports-crazy European and American markets.
The company's many OEM water-sports offerings include boats, swim rings, surf boards, waterpark tubes, pools and floatable lounge chairs, mattresses and can holders. The company's land-locked inflatables include sofas, snow sleds and saucers, camping mattresses and play structures and slides. It also manufactures branded promotional items such as balloons, blimps and bags, and giant inflatable figures, cans and bottles.
“[Inflatables] are for rich countries — poor countries can't afford our products,” Huang said.
Compared to hawking the Dolphins brands, “It's easier for us to find a U.S. importer to buy our products,” said Huang, an affable veteran of the inflatables business.