I wrote this article in January of 2014. I had just spent two weeks in Hong Kong and was struck by how few toy industry young people were present. I decided to write an article about it entitled: “The Toy Industry’s Graying Sales Force; is it a problem?” In light of the recent reports that young people are not interested in becoming salespeople (see Disruption Report #26) , I thought it would be a good time to republish it. I did change one thing, the title.
I am packing up to leave Hong Kong, and as I do so, I cannot escape the notion that the average age of the toy industry’s independent sales representatives is getting older. As I walked through the streets of Kowloon, I could not escape the fact that there are very few young people working in the businesses.
The toy industry’s independent sales force has always served a key role in moving the industry forward through its ability to convince buyers to take chances on new, innovative products and by its animal spirits. That sales force has historically been a multi-generational, and in some cases, a family-based enterprise. Older salespeople mentored younger ones so that the “been there done that” of veterans was balanced by the “I don’t know any better” of newbies.
So where are those hard-driving, hard-playing people in their 20’s and early 30’s? It’s a puzzle because many students are graduating from college with big debts and no jobs. Shouldn’t a chance to sell products in the toy industry be seen by them as a great opportunity?
The older we get, the more we have. This leads to a growth in selling skills but a natural loss of the excitement that comes from innocence. A great industry needs a mix of the wise and the overly exuberant to provide the kind of disciplined animal spirits that leads to a rising tide.
So what is happening? Here are some thoughts on why:
Let’s get this out of the way first. It is possible that selling as a profession may well be in decline as fewer customers and technology limit the number of positions. If that is the case, then it is the lack of new positions that are the problem.
People don’t think of the toy industry as a professional choice
Tell someone you are in the toy industry, and the response is usually a smile of delight and a question: “How did you get into the toy industry?” I think toy and circus people are probably the only ones who get that response. If you told the person you were in the shoe industry, they would, of course, figure that you worked there because you had applied for a job. For good or ill, toys are not perceived as commodities but as having a little bit of magic. Simply put, most people never think of working in the toy industry.
Digital play has the magic
If you are a young adult, you are probably still playing digital games on your mobile device. That is the industry you want to work in because it is populated by young entrepreneurs who, in some cases, make 100’s of millions of dollars overnight. That and not the toy industry is where you want to work and play.
The toy industry does not promote itself
Watch a commercial on television for your local community college or tech school, and you will see ads for classes in video game development. You won’t, however, see any ads for entering the toy industry.
Being a sales rep in the toy industry is simply not as much fun as it was a generation ago. In those days, salespeople did a lot more selling, handled less paperwork, and had a far bigger set of customers in which to fish. Today’s salespeople are in many cases worn out by a grueling process that, in many cases, leads to the anguish (and it is anguish) of managing markdowns and returns. The children of these salespeople see parents who are simply no longer enjoying themselves.
Here is what we can do:
- Gut check
What do sales reps, those who do the work and are in the trenches, think? Do they believe that there is a future in independent toy selling? Are they recommending it to their children and friends?
Is the toy industry as a whole doing enough to encourage our best and brightest to enter the industry upon graduation? Are we on campuses or at least communicating with colleges about the excitement of working in the toy industry?
- Going Digital
Are we providing products that speak to young people’s lives? Over the years, Hula Hoops and GI Joes spoke to earlier generations. What is there that excites Millenials?
Do you agree that there are not enough younger people in the sales profession? If you do, what would you suggest that could be done?