US-China tariffs: “Rethinking is underway, and this tax is just the fuel”

Rod Hoffman, a veteran US toy designer, speaks to TNP.MEDIA about the ways toy designers are rethinking product development amid on-going trade wars between the States and China

Written by Rhys Thomas

Posted 14.06.2019 | Products

US-China tariffs: “Rethinking is underway, and this tax is just the fuel” thumbnail

Tariff trade wars between the US and China continue to escalate. Much has been made of how this will impact distributors, importers, retailers, consumers and manufacturers – but how has it changed the way toy designers approach new products and innovation?

TNP.MEDIA caught up with Rod Hoffman, a more than 40-year veteran toy designer, consultant and owner of toy design and development firm Big Eye Studio, to learn how US toy designs is adapting to overcome the ongoing trade sanctions.
Rod, tell us what the immediate ramifications for the ongoing trade war has been for for toy designers.
In simple terms the trade war has slowed R&D. For independent toy designers, we see less new projects. This affects everyone from illustrators, package designers, graphic designers, prototype makers, and of course toy designers and engineers. For those in-house designers, they may lose their jobs as toy companies look to jettison everything considered non-essential.
Are these sanctions impacting how and what you design?

Bluntly, yes. Our clients have already begun design reviews of projects in the works as well as everything in their line now. Can we shave this down, remove these accessories, make the package smaller, use cheaper materials and my favourite…bully the China supplier until they lower their cost.
As for new designs, I predict micro will be the new black. Same play value, less cost to make.
Can you design products around a volatile situation like this using different materials, or designing toys that can viably be manufactured outside of China?
Yes of course we can design around anything. But we can’t design around a sudden knee jerk 25 per cent tax on goods soon to ship from China or loss of clients in its wake.
Now to address the issue of moving production from China. It’s not an option anyone I know is considering seriously. A 25 per cent tax will never force toy companies to bring back manufacturing to the US. Simply put, America no longer possesses the manufacturing base to build toys, nor do any toy companies have the stomach or desire to do so. Sure, we could build new factories, but impossible when strapped with 25 per cent tax.
Is there anything about the toy industry specifically that makes the tariffs particularly harmful, as opposed to, say, the footwear or electronics industries?

I personally do not see any difference. All consumer goods will suffer.

Is it simply time to rethink the current model where China plays such a crucial role in global product output? 

Yes, rethinking is already underway, and this tax is just the fuel. I believe mass produced toys are out of step with today’s parents. Parents are looking for something beyond another action hero license slapped on yet another plastic action figure. They want bespoke. They want to buy from the toy maker, not some middleman. They want authentic consumer-centric toys from makers who speak their language. They’re tired of big corporations telling them what they like.
How are you feeling overall – and what steps have you taken to make toy deign work under the circumstances?
In the end, even though I’m strongly opposed to any tax on toys and know it will have a catastrophic effect on the toy industry, I remain optimistic. I am focusing my designs and efforts on these brave toy-making pioneers.
These folks are no different to me than the countless humble toy companies of my youth. Many of which still existed when I entered this business a little more than 40 years ago. Many of which taught me the value of toys and how we the toy makers can light up a child’s face and empower them with dreams. This attitude is not dead. It’s alive and well in the backbone of this industry: small toy companies who never forgot the child in all of us.

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