Last year I posted two blogs about Neil Friedman and in both cases they were among the most widely read of 2011. Neil had recently left Mattel to go to Toys “R” Us when I wrote “Neil Friedman, Toys R Us and what it may really mean.” The other came months later and was entitled “Neil Friedman, Toys R Us: what it really meant.”
The relationship between Neil and Toys “R”Us has changed since that last post so, I wanted to know (and I figured you did too) about Neil’s next moves. I also wanted his views on the toy industry now and in the future. To find out, I sat down with Neil over lunch and asked him if he would provide Global Toy News readers with an interview. He graciously agreed.
Why is Neil important? Because, he is, without a doubt, one of the most important toy industry leaders of his generation. Just think about it, Neil has held leadership positions with the toy industry’s two most powerful product companies, Mattel and Hasbro, and its most powerful toy retailer Toys “R” Us. He is justly a member of not only the Toy Industry Hall of Fame but the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association’s Hall of Fame as well.
He is also a pretty nice guy. Neil serves on the Executive Advisory Board for the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, Board of Directors for both the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Northside Center for Child Development in New York City.
Here is my interview with Neil Friedman:
Richard: People new to the toy industry may not be aware that you were, prior to your time with Toys R Us, President of Mattel Brands; President, Fisher-Price Brands; President of Tyco Preschool; President of MCA/Universal Merchandising; Senior Vice President-Sales Just Toys; Vice President and General Manager of Baby Care for Gerber Products; Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Lionel Leisure, Inc., and President of Aviva/Hasbro. Whew! That is one hell of a resume. What worlds are there left for you to conquer?
Neil: I am continuing to work with Toys“R”Us as a non-exclusive advisor on new ventures, business alliances, etc. and I’m looking forward to advising other retailers, manufacturers and board of directors, sharing my expertise and experience with them. Additionally, as a father of five and grandfather of two, children and children’s issues will continue to be a hot button for me. My focus will turn to working closely with several children’s charities I support, including Rosie’s Broadway Kids, Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, to name a few.
Richard: Very few people, if any, in the industry have your combination of being a high level executive in both the product and retailing sides of the business. What unique perspectives have you gotten from your dual roles?
Neil: I have a broad understanding of how both the retail and manufacturing branches of the industry function and how they must do so in tandem to be successful. I’ve learned what affects and motivates retailers, manufacturers, and ultimately, consumers and how to manage and satisfy all three audiences. For example, in retailing, visualizing how a product line will be merchandised on shelf and then working with the manufacturer to put together a successful program is paramount. And that’s done all while keeping consumers top of mind, from the consumer insights on the retailer side to market research on the product side to what I know as a consumer myself. I think the combination of being a consumer, manufacturer, licensor and retailer has given me so much insight into the industry, something that many people never have the opportunity to experience.
Richard: You have been in the toy industry for almost 40 years. What do you see as the most significant change made by the toy industry during that period. And while we’re at it, what do you see as the industry’s most significant failure to change?
Neil: In the past 20 years, the most significant change has been the impact of electronics on the toy industry especially in terms of gaming and share of time. Kids spend hours playing with electronics, from video games to toys with online connectivity, electronic learning aids to robotics. From the retailer and manufacturing sides of the business, it’s been thrilling to watch as toys are developed to embrace the latest technological developments. Of course, technology will continue to evolve but, in my opinion, the last five years have been the most significant. Most recently, apps have exploded on the scene and their presence in the industry is now twofold – toy companies are developing apps based on existing properties while wildly popular apps are being turned into toys.
In the same timeframe e-commerce has had a substantial and significant impact on how people shop in general but also how parents purchase toys. Closing in on 10% of how consumers shop, e-commerce is the fastest growing retail segment and it’s a very valuable channel in understanding consumer buying habits. In turn, retailers have the opportunity to micro-target consumers and tailor their marketing strategies to their emerging needs.
I believe the toy industry has been slow to move into the social media space. Both retailers and manufacturers are just now starting to take advantage of the platform as a way to launch new products and reach today’s families. Additionally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for manufacturers to develop digital products for social media.
Richard: Can you look ahead into the future and tell me what the toy industry will look like in the year 2022?
Neil: Play will be play no matter the year. Toys in 2022 may be more technologically advanced but at their core will remain play patterns that have stood the test of time. Play fosters a child’s development – a child has to crawl before it can walk and walk before it can run. So, while toys will continue to evolve, basic play patterns – imaginative, pretend and object play, for example – will remain at every toy’s core.
Richard: And finally, our favorite question; what was your favorite toy when you were a kid?
Neil: The earliest toy I can remember playing with is my View-Master, which was one of my favorites by far.
Richard: Thank you Neil.