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Innovation and Multi-functionality Revive Flagging US Kids' Sector

With declining birth rates across the US inevitably constricting the expansion of the country's baby and kids' product sector, many companies are turning to 'premiumisation' as a way of bolstering sales and maintaining profitability.

Photo: Sheets ahead: Child-friendly bedding from Kip & Co and the ABC Kids Expo.
Sheets ahead: Child-friendly bedding from Kip & Co and the ABC Kids Expo.
Photo: Sheets ahead: Child-friendly bedding from Kip & Co and the ABC Kids Expo.
Sheets ahead: Child-friendly bedding from Kip & Co and the ABC Kids Expo.

You have to be a very confident parent – or one with an infinite budget – to roam the halls of the ABC Kids Expo, North America's largest trade event dedicated to the babies and younger children sector. Even if you're convinced you've made the most informed of choices when it comes to your own brood's strollers or cribs, you'll find smarter, lighter, better-designed and prettier things at every turn throughout this annual Las Vegas-based showcase.

Glasses that protect your toddler from the blue light emanating from an iPad? Check. A nightlight that looks like a firefly-full jar, while also doubling as a wireless speaker? Check. A diaper bag complete with a guitar strap and a retail price of just US$170? Check.

Overall, it may not, however, be the best time to be trading in this most junior of consumer sectors. According to Euromonitior International, as of 2016, the US market for baby and child-specific products was expected to grow by just 1% per annum until 2021, taking its total worth to about $3.2 billion.

This actually represents a slight deceleration, a consequence of the continuing decline in US birth rates, and is expected to lead to limited growth opportunities for baby and child-specific products outside of the premium natural/organic sector. Despite this, innovation in the natural products sector, as well as increased multi-functionality across a range of products, have both breathed some new life into the market. As such products can get away with higher price tags than many traditional alternatives, they are actually driving growth in the overall value of the sector through the 'premiumisation' of a number of product categories.

Indeed, premium products and innovative items certainly stole the show at this year's ABC Kids Expo. For 2017, the show had undergone a major rebranding exercise. This saw its somewhat outdated crayon motif dispensed with, while a cleaner and more modern style of signage and banners was introduced throughout the event.

The layout of the showfloor was not exempt from this rethink, with its redesign dividing the event space into nine product destinations, with On the Go – a zone dedicated to strollers, car seats and all things transport-related – proving to be by far the largest. Each area had its own dedicated facilities, including a stage for pop-up talks – a popular alternative to the more formal educational sessions – and a dedicated socialising space, typically a wine garden or something similar. With the show welcoming retailers from 60 countries, one of its most popular 2017 innovations proved to be its dedicated international and domestic buyer lounges, which were seldom less than full.

In terms of the actual products on show, with winter coming it was no wonder that Wheelblades' stroller-compatible ski sets proved particularly popular. This innovative Swiss company was founded by Patrick Mayer, a former athlete who became wheelchair-bound following a ski-boarding accident. Discovering there were few facilities designed to help the disabled navigate their way across snow, he set out to invent his own solution.

Once the Wheelblades concept was launched, he began to get enquiries from families, all of them curious to know if the system could be adapted and fitted to strollers, allowing them to handle snowy terrain. Following a relatively small amount of re-engineering, the company then entered this new sector with a dedicated range of stroller-compatible kits.

Assessing the demand to date, Mayer said: "Our stroller blades are selling very well, with demand particularly high in Europe, Russia and Scandinavia."

While snow-friendly strollers were clearly the cool accessories for some outdoor-minded folk, they were clearly not as hot as the early-learning and development toys, which continued to be among the most in demand items for many US parents. With the sector still clearly far from saturated, a number of companies at this year's event were keen to showcase items designed to stimulate even the youngest of children.

One of the most striking examples came courtesy of the People Toy Company, with the Japan-based business keen to showcase its Mochi series – a specialist range of toys designed for children of 12 months old and under. All of the items in the range are made using Japanese rice-plastic technology, with 51% of each toy made entirely from rice.

Photo: Charming: The Kudo Banz range.
Charming: The Kudo Banz range.
Photo: Charming: The Kudo Banz range.
Charming: The Kudo Banz range.
Photo: Kid-compliant cutlery from Fun Eating Devices.
Kid-compliant cutlery from Fun Eating Devices.
Photo: Kid-compliant cutlery from Fun Eating Devices.
Kid-compliant cutlery from Fun Eating Devices.

Each plaything is designed to help a baby hone a specific skill, including hand-to-eye co-ordination and the ability to push and pull, with items such as its multi-sense trumpet and magic reflection ball forming part of a month-by-month programme. Having mastered many of these basic skills, youngsters can put them into practice as they explore the company's magnetic building blocks collection.

Explaining the thinking behind the company's range of educational products, Sales Representative Rudy Valenta said: "Our toys are intended to promote interaction between parents and children, but we also recommend that kids are just allowed to play and encouraged to figure things out for themselves."

Taking a similar – if slightly more retro – approach was Arizona-based Learning Journey International, a specialist in old-school interactive child-parent products. Explaining why the company has demurred from going down the same digital route as many of its competitors, E-commerce Sales Manager Sophia Powers said: "We've noticed that parents are starting to abandon screens in favour of a more traditional approach. Many find that they – and their children – actually like to touch real, physical objects. As a result, our puzzle-sets are going like crazy."

Tapping into the current interest in all things STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths – the company has developed a series of products designed to nurture problem-solving and refine motor skills. In the case of its Wacky Robot, for instance, kids get to use motorised gears and other components as they design and build their own functioning robot.

For many parents, building a robot is simplicity itself compared with potty-training a two-year-old. This year, looking to take some of the pain out of the process, Kudo Banz, a Connecticut-based specialist in products designed to reward good behaviour, was in Las Vegas to promote its wrist band-based system of child-friendly incentives.

Expanding upon how the company's approach works in practice, Hamza Naqvi, one of the founders of the business, said: "We believe we've created a way to parent kids quickly, effectively and in a positive manner. Every time they achieve a goal you've been working towards, they earn a charm. The third charm is always magical and can be brought to life via a digital app."

The company has several ranges of themed charms on offer, including pirate, dinosaurs, kitty and superhero variants. Its app is also customisable, allowing parents to specify particular rewards, such as extended play times or even a family dance party.

Should you prefer, you could even reward your perfectly behaved child with a Sporkman or a Crabby Grabby, two of the quirky food utensils on offer from Fun Eating Devices, a Colorado-based provider of kid-friendly cutlery. According to Co-founder Michael Ly, as well as adding a little mirth to meal times, the range is also intended to help encourage independent eating.

Expanding on the thinking behind the range, Ly said: "Basically, it's all about encouraging kids, while helping to build their dexterity and refine their motor skills. We've had a lot of fun designing the range and, as it's only our second anniversary this year, we feel a bit like toddlers ourselves."

Photo: The ABC Kids Expo: North America’s largest showcase for all things baby and child-related.
The ABC Kids Expo: North America's largest showcase for all things baby and child-related.
Photo: The ABC Kids Expo: North America’s largest showcase for all things baby and child-related.
The ABC Kids Expo: North America's largest showcase for all things baby and child-related.

ABC Kids Expo 2017 took place from 17-19 October at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The event attracted some 12,000 attendees and featured more than 650 exhibitors.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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