So here it is, foreign Christmas

Few toys round the tree this year will be British made. But David Bowen says the game isn't up

Christmas is a tough time for the lonely, for turkeys and for the British balance of payments. Thirty years ago, most presents came from the UK. Children received Meccano from Liverpool and Matchbox toys from Enfield. Their parents might have got a saw from Sheffield and a Singer sewing machine from Scotland.

It is still possible to have an all-British Christmas, but it is not easy. David Hawtin, of the British Toy and Hobby Association, says at least two-thirds of toys are imported. Few household gadgets are British- made, while tools tend to come from the Continent. Sewing machines seem to arrive en masse from Taiwan.

Before we get too gloomy, though, it is worth looking for the glimmers of light. One is that K'Nex, the US construction toy company, has set up a packing plant in Kent and intends to start manufacturing there. The other, more dazzling, is that the British have a near armlock on one of the fastest growing segments of the gift market: computer games.

The story of the Christmas present is the story of British industry. Some of the products in our picture should be made in Britain, but are not because managers let the market slip out of their hands. If Sweden and Switzerland can make tools competitively, there is no earthly reason why Britain cannot. However, aggressive foreign companies moved in the Sixties and Seventies and swept markets away from the laggardly Brits; they have never been recovered.

But Christmas is about children, which is why, according to the research group NPD, more than 50 per cent of all toys are bought at the end of the year. Here, the disappearance of British labels is more a function of economics than incompetence.

Most toy making is labour-intensive. Sticking the ears on a teddy, assembling small plastic parts and stuffing hair in a doll are all activities that can be done better by nimble fingers than expensive machines. Third World countries, with their low wages, have a huge advantage here, which is why the toy sector is often one of the first to grow up. The industry has migrated as wages have risen - from Japan to Hong Kong to Korea, and now to China, where the great bulk of simple toys are made.

However, the best managers will look carefully before they indulge in a flight to the Far East, for there are good reasons why it can make sense to keep manufacturing close to home.

The first is that some toys are just too big to be transported half way round the world. That is why TP Activity Toys makes climbing frames in Stourport-on-Severn rather than Asia.

Second, not all toy making is labour-intensive. High-precision plastic moulding is best done on expensive machines operated by a few, highly skilled people. Lego manufactures in Denmark and Switzerland because it employs relatively few people and because it needs to ensure that a brick made now will fit perfectly with one made 30 years ago. K'Nex, a cross between Lego and Meccano, is now made in the US, but the company has set up a packing centre in Ashford, Kent. "We hope to start moulding here some time in 1998," says John Collins, the production director. "We wouldn't buy in from the Orient because these are very high-precision components."

The biggest British toy manufacturer is Hornby, which makes more than 80 per cent of its trains and Scalextric cars in Margate. It can do this, the marketing director Simon Kohler says, partly because it has an efficient factory, but mainly because it needs the flexibility that local manufacturing brings.

"We manufacture here because we have better control of the product," he says. "We can turn out a run of 1,000 locomotives, which would be nothing to a Far Eastern company."

Hornby has experimented with Far Eastern manufacturing, but has decided that for the moment the negatives outweigh the positives. "Two years ago we had a new loco built from scratch in China," says Mr Kohler. "The finished product came up beautifully but it highlighted the problems of making things there." The principal ones were that mistakes were unlikely to be spotted as quickly, and that when they were it was too late to do much about them.

The third species of toy best made at home is the specialist product, where price is less important than quality and a "made in Britain" tag. Lledo, which makes diecast models near the old Matchbox factory in Enfield, exports much of its production. "We hold our position because we manufacture here," says John Rome, international sales manager. "The British tag has a little bit of a magic ring."

As Britain moves from a hardware to a software economy, it is appropriate that the good news should come from computer games. No country has so many bright young men able to create sophisticated games, and this is reflected in Christmas sales. Among the best-sellers are Tomb Raider, produced by Core in Derby, Formula One and Wipeout 2097, from Psygnosis in Liverpool, and Actua Soccer and Golf, by Gremlin in Sheffield. An apparently all-American basketball-based game, Total NBA, is rather surprisingly produced by Sony's own team in London. So-called "edutainment" CD-Roms are mostly developed in the US, but the need to regionalise them has meant that UK firms have been winning increasing work. The CD-Rom encyclopaedia, Microsoft Encarta '97 World English Edition, has, for example, been totally overhauled by a team in London.

As these games and CD-Roms sell for upwards of pounds 30, their significance to the economy should not be underestimated. They may not make up the losses to the trade balance as toy making has fled abroad - but they add a little sweetness to an otherwise sour tale of Christmas trade.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

SQL DBA/Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer SQL, C#, VBA, Data Warehousi...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor