French toy industry slowly embraces digital revolution

PARIS -- Toy boutiques in France adapt, slowly but surely, to a changing industry as children prepare their lists for Pere Noel.

PARIS – A new exhibit at the museum Arts Décoratifs, connected to the Louvre, highlights over 40 years of toys inspired by the Star Wars saga. A throwback to the good old days for many adults, it's also a sign that toys as we know them are slowly becoming dated, and, potentially, going extinct as the industry evolves. Could Barbie soon be found behind glass cases at the Louvre as well?

Exaggerations aside, the toy industry in France is coming of age. While Barbie and Spiderman are still top sellers, La Grande Recré, one of France's major toy retailers, expects tablets to be number 5 on their bestseller list this year after their introduction to the market last year. Digitalized toys like readers and tablets are, unsurprisingly, becoming more and more popular among children born into an increasingly digital era.

Technology is changing not only the toys we – well, our children – play with, but also the way consumers buy their toys.

While toy sales overall are down across Europe, with Belgium as the rare exception, internet sales are on the rise. Online retailers are making headway across Europe. In the UK and Germany, nearly 20% of all toy purchases are online compared with only 10% in France.

This number is on the rise, and according to Thierry Leroux, there's a need to have an online presence as a toy seller. Owner of Tikibou, one of Paris's last independent toy shops, Leroux is focusing on setting up his own online boutique in the near future in the face of stiff competition from La Grande Recré and Toys R Us.

Tikibou has three locations in Paris with an online catalogue to browse from, but not to purchase.  Leroux purchased his first shop in old artist neighborhood Montparnasse. The store was originally owned by French cinema producer Georges Méliès, best known for his work in special effects. Afterwards, he expanded to two more locations in the 15th and the 9th arrondissements of Paris, the latter having existed as a toy store since 1884.

But with skyrocketing rents that prevent many businesses from setting up in the French capital, toy stores are also on their way out, Leroux said. "In other French cities we find small toy sellers, but the competition is really high with large commercial sellers," he said.

With only seven employees in his three stores, Leroux can be found stocking the shelves alongside his workers. The next step, before hiring anyone else, is to create an online sales platform as a supplement to the walk-in clients and those who phone asking for certain toys that they may have found online.

Unlike Amazon or eBay, however, Leroux insists on the importance of his storefronts. "I think the Internet won't replace the pleasure of shopping," he said, "and while we want to make others happy, we want to be happy as well when offering a gift."

Few other shops in Paris host the mix of commercial toys and also smaller wooden toys and collectible cars that Leroux stocks. And while digital toys are threatening the future of some of his products, he relies also on the vintage appeal of certain toys to attract customers. "We have lots of things that we knew as children, wooden toys and nostalgic products that remind adults of their childhood," he said.

While preserving a more artisanal image, selling only a limited range of gadgets and gizmos, Leroux is fully aware of what his boutique is up against. "Things change so quickly, so in 30 years I can't even imagine what's going to be fashionable," he said, but he's keeping up with the times, stocking stuffed Talking Tom cats and iPhone accessories to keep a touch of modernity alongside his nostalgic side, even if he's left the tablets and video games to the bigger companies.

"There are toys that are developing with the iPad, like cars that drive on the iPad," he said, "so it's not a threat, we just have to adapt."

Photo: Thierry Leroux

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