Despite being half a world away, the concerns and demands of toy consumers in China are not all that different from their U.S. counterparts, according to China Toy Expo.

The first day of the trade fair, along with China Kids Expo and China Licensing Expo—all hosted by China Toy & Juvenile Products Association—kicked off this past Tuesday in sprawling fashion at the Shanghai New International Expo Center in Shanghai. Across three days, 1,364 global brands were on display, and roughly 80,000 visitors were expected to participate.

CTE 1

The China Toy Expo took place at the Shanghai International Expo Center in Shanghai from Oct. 14-16.

Recent news shows reasons to be optimistic about the Chinese toy market’s future, including the country’s overtaking of the U.S. in terms of purchasing power. Yet based on the flow of crowds at the show, many of the types of toys that Chinese consumers are especially interested in are ones promoting sustainability, safety, and educational development.

Although plastic toys still widely abound, this year’s exhibitor roster features many companies with products classified as wooden toys, including world-recognized brands such as Hape and PlanToys. The latter is distributed throughout China by Touda Original Toy Store (TOTS), which began selling the brand roughly 15 years ago, and presently advises PlanToys on the Chinese market.

Zheng Hui, vice president of TOTS, told The Toy Book that a great deal of work was initially required to make in-roads; today, however, more middle- and upper-income consumers are familiar with PlanToys than ever before. Hui credits the success to the product’s reputation for quality, its sustainable practices, and growing demand in the market for wooden toys. He says that among Chinese consumers today, safety ranks very high on their list of priorities, and in recent years, doubts have been raised as to how safe plastics are.

Hui also points to governmental restrictions on family sizes (Following a policy change last year, the maximum number of children for a couple is two if at least one parent is an only child) as making parents extra cautious about what they are giving their young ones. “With plastic toys, [PlanToys] always viewed them as not so safe, but now most people also think wooden toys are safer,” says Hui.

CTE 2

Toy companies such as Innovation First International, which distributes Hexbug, are focusing on education in their children’s toys.

Another Chinese toy company, EverEarth, produces a range of small kids’ play items from FSC-grade wood, meaning it is harvested from forests that are considered well-managed. Wilson Lee, the company’s director, says that for every toy purchased, a tree is planted on a mountain in China, which EverEarth owns and from which it draws its supply of wood. Customers can register to have a tree planted in a child’s name.

Lee has also noticed the increasing popularity of wooden toys, which he attributes to a growing awareness of the need to protect natural resources and to pass that information on to future generations. Overall, he says, price and quality are still the most important to the Chinese; however, environmental issues rank next in the order, and the importance of how green the toy is is increasing all the time.

“Now education is more and more important, so if [parents] can buy toys and they’re also environmentally friendly, that’s an idea that is getting more popular now,” Lee says. “In two or three more years, the percentage will be even higher.”

This year’s exhibitor list shows no shortage of companies classified as producers of what are considered either educational or preschool educational toys, including puzzles and arts and crafts kits. Indeed, looking at the map of those showing at China Toy Fair, these two categories take up significant space across four of the five exhibition halls.

Crayola, which is represented in the region by Shanghai Flomo Fancy Stationary Co Ltd.—and has benefited from a reputation for safety among higher-end Chinese consumers—plans to introduce new products such as its Marker Maker. The company is also launching a campaign tying the brand to creativity and inspiration, which includes a TV ad showing children adapting Chinese poetry into drawings.

Though not included among educational toy companies, Innovation First entered the Chinese marketplace this year, and a representative for the company credits the success on rising purchasing power, as well as parents finding learning value in the Hexbug line. The company plans to introduce more battling toys, such as its Bridge Battle, to a consumer base that increasingly wants playthings that are fun, affordable, and educational all rolled into one.