Hong Kong — Like so much else here, the Chinese toy market is coming of age, but it already looks very different from the North American and European markets.
First, there's huge potential, something that was clearly on the minds of the 49,000 attendees and 2,100 companies at the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair in early January.
Toy sales in China have leaped from 89.7 billion yuan ($13.9 billion) in 2011 to 232.2 billion yuan ($36 billion) in 2016, according to London-based Euromonitor International.
By 2022, China is expected to eclipse the United States as the world's biggest toy market, the market research firm predicts.
The growth is fueled by rising incomes up and down the economic ladder and middle-class parents seeking higher-priced, higher-quality items for their children, according to Fiducia Management Consultants.
"Buying habits are very different in China," said Director Ben Yam of Hong Kong's Dynamic Scientific Ltd., which makes binoculars and telescopes under the Kon Tiki brand, along with toys for other companies.
To meet this growing market, Hong Kong toymakers are being pushed to get out of their comfort zone.
From her bully pulpit as chair of the Hong Kong Toy Council, longtime toy executive Emily Cheung is at the forefront of an effort to get local companies to design and market their own brands for the Hong Kong and mainland markets.
"I tell our members, as Chinese, you have a good sense of the market," Cheung said, noting that "in America, homes are bigger, so they can have bigger toys. In China, parents want smaller, more multifunction toys."
Beijing is also upping its spending on early childhood and kindergarten education. According to Cheung, who is executive director of Hong Kong-based plastic toy maker Tsuen Lee Group (Holdings) Inc., that broadens potential markets.
"We can target the educational market as well as the consumer market," she said.
A few firms have taken up Cheung's challenge. For example, Rico (HK) International Trading Co. Ltd. makes B. Duck-brand rubber duck toys for infants and toddlers, while Shantou Jiabele Baby Products Co. Ltd. has launched a line of robotic dancing dinosaurs.
Still, in three days of interviews at the fair, held Jan. 8-11, one got the sense that most toymakers are sticking with their tried-and-true strategy as manufacturers for big Western brands.