Summer 2014
A Toy Story By Haley Shapley

It’s all fun and games when it comes to toys.

A $22 billion industry in the U.S., toys may be fun, but they’re serious business. They can be a great addition to a gift store, but not just any toy will do.

“If you’re going to dabble in toys, have a reason for it,” says Phil Wrzesinski, owner of Toy House & Baby Too in Jackson, MI. “If you’re just chasing after fads, your customers will see right through that.”

At any one time, Toy House & Baby Too will have 30 to 40 items out for play. If it sounds hectic, it is. “We like havoc in the store,” Wrzesinski says. “It makes it exciting.”

That kind of hands-on experience that people crave with toys is a plus for retailers. “One of the great things about brick-and-mortar toy sellers is that you have a physical advantage,” says Marian Bossard, vice president of meetings and events at the Toy Industry Association (TIA), a non-profit trade association representing all businesses involved in creating and bringing toys and youth entertainment products to kids of all ages. “Toys are made to be played with — to be picked up, held, and experienced.”

Make sure your staff knows how each toy works. Wrzesinski holds a monthly meeting with employees to go over product knowledge and how to better connect with customers. They even spent one session learning how to draw doodles on helium balloons.

Is age just a number?

621016-Worlds-Best-Bug-Jar-copyToys are often considered child’s play, but many can appeal to the young and old alike—consider board games, puzzles, and plush toys.

“Plush is such a beloved product, it actually appeals to all ages,” says Dee Dee Valencia, manager of product & market development at Aurora in Pico Rivera, CA, which has more than 3,000 plush products. The buyer is usually female, and she may be purchasing for herself or as a gift.

When developing new products, the Aurora team looks at trends in all consumer goods: fashion, handbags, sporting goods, tech, fabrics, entertainment, and more. Currently, they’re seeing naturals as a popular color palette, along with pink and purple for girls, with teal rising in the ranks. “Chevron, animal, and gradient patterns are very popular in fashion and we use them as both primary and secondary enhancements in our various lines of plush, cloth dolls, puppets and other soft piece types,” Valencia adds.

In the case of plush, Aurora’s found that bigger is better, and has a sizable offering of larger plush to meet the demand. “One giant trend is oversize toys that are truly larger than life for smaller kids,” says Adrienne Appell, a TIA toy trends specialist. “The scale of the building sets, dollhouses, plush, and RC vehicles that we’ve been seeing packs an extra wow factor.”

While some toys span age ranges, others are experiencing a narrowing in demographics. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve really seen a change or compression on nurturing dolls,” says Marybeth King, vice president of sales at Famosa North America in Mt. Laurel, NJ. “I remember playing with dolls until I was 9 or 10, but now girls play with baby dolls until they’re 4 or 5, then they’re already bridging into the fashion doll arena.” As a result, Famosa has made its Nancy fashion dolls bigger (17 inches vs. the typical 11), which allows younger children with less dexterity to more easily change the doll’s outfits.

With any toys you carry, King recommends being focused. “You always have to make a statement in whatever you purchase,” she says. “I’ve been in stores where a retailer tries to be everything to everyone in a very small space; it ends up confusing the consumer because they don’t know what the assortment stands for. If you’re going to go into fashion dolls, then make a cohesive statement in fashion dolls — you would want some sort of presentation that says we’re in this business rather than a smorgasbord of products.”

Tech on the rise

Aeromax_Alien-Invasion-in-packaging_HRWith the increased popularity of digital devices, there’s no doubt that the toy landscape has changed in recent years. Innovative new products marry the advantages of open-ended traditional play with the capabilities of technology.

One new company in this space is Toymail, which had its soft launch in December 2013. “We’re a smart toy, but we have a mission to really use technology in a way that helps kids stay connected rather than isolating them in front of a screen,” says Gauri Nanda, CEO and co-founder of Toymail.

Nanda wanted a way to keep in touch with the kids in her life, but those under 10 don’t usually have phones—and when you do get them on the line, they’re often not so attentive.

Enter Toymail. It works like this: Mailmen, which are a cross between a small mailbox and an animal character, operate as something of a global walkie-talkie. When connected to Wi-Fi, you can record a message for the kids (in your voice or a goofy one); they’ll know they have a new message when the toy snorts, wheezes, or whinnies (depending on what kind of animal it is). Kids can respond right from their toy, with 300 to 500 free messages per month, resulting in a two-way conversation. A feature called the Daily Toymailer sends songs, jokes, and fun facts to the Mailmen, which keeps the toys talking (and unlike the talking toys of the olden days that only had a few different messages, this one can say anything).

So far, the response has been positive.

“A mom who travels a lot told us she’s been sending messages along to her boys and it’s been great,” Nanda says. “Over the holidays, one child’s father was using it as a direct line to Santa, so Santa was sending her messages all holiday long.”

Speaking of the holidays, expect tech toys to have a big presence this season. “Because gift givers typically splurge around the holidays, you’ll see some of the toys with higher price points, like children’s tablets and tech toys like Disney Infinity and Skylanders, rolling out for the Christmas shopping season,” Appell says.

Classic’s still cool

BlueBoxToys2While new products are always hitting the shelves, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for those traditional toys you, your parents and even your grandparents played with as kids. “It’s great to expose kids to technology, but I was just reading an article that said kids that don’t have exposure to toys have no idea how to problem-solve or be creative,” says Barbara Rainville, marketing manager at Maple Landmark in Middlebury, VT. The company has been in business for 35 years and specializes in the eco-friendly wooden toys and games everyone knows and loves. They’re most known for their NameTrains, wooden letters on wheels that spell out names.

This year, Maple Landmark is focusing on toy sets that allow for open-ended play but give younger kids, three and under, some guidance. For example, a 21-piece farm set has a barn made out of 11 hardwood maple blocks that can be built several ways.

“Retro and back-to-basic toys are popular because they’ve been great at bringing kids, parents, and grandparents together for what is often ‘unplugged’ fun,” Appell says.

While being a classic toy manufacturer sidesteps some of the issues of keeping up with what’s hot now, Maple Landmark does look at trends to see if there’s a way they can incorporate them that makes sense. Their line of Silly Sticks, for instance, includes plywood mustache designs, a huge trend at the moment.

Learning is fundamental

Celebriducks1-copyJust as mustaches are everywhere, so is something with a little more substance: lots of buzz about STEM, aka science, technology, engineering, and math. “The focus on STEM subjects in school and the tie-in to educational CORE standards haven’t been lost on toymakers,” Appell says. “The industry has added an A to the mix (for arts) and is ‘STEAMing’ ahead with tons of great toys that foster learning in fun and innovative ways.”

One company that’s been a pioneer in this area is The Young Scientists Club, which began in 1999 to offer science products that would engage young people. “We’re very successful because we test all our products in our own summer camps that we run for children,” says Esther Novis, president of the company.

One of their newest products is called Math Explosion, a Magic School Bus–themed game that tests each player’s math sets. Whoever gets the most correct gets to make a volcano explode. Beyond math, the game can be adapted to study spelling words or anything else.

Novis says she hopes young children will get excited about these STEM subjects and possibly consider them for careers in the future. “Our boxes come chock full of everything a child needs to do an experiment, and the manuals are very detailed,” she says. “We have online clubhouses to go with all products so children can find more information relative to whatever topic they’re doing.” Retailers who host playdates in their stores where kids can explore the kits tend to sell well.

Other companies, too, have found a market in educational toys. Safari Ltd. in Miami Gardens, FL, works with scientists and paleontologists to make accurate and authentic animal, human, dinosaur, and fantasy figures. Educators and parents who home-school their kids are the primary buyers.

“Home schooling in the last five years has become a large movement, as more and more parents are choosing to teach their children themselves,” says Matt Mullan, social media specialist at Safari Ltd. “The toys we produce are highly sought after in the home school industry because they encourage children to use their imagination to play and immerse themselves in the figure they are using.”

Safe and sound

CliffordAnimal-Science-materials_HRAlthough toy recalls tend to get a lot of buzz when they happen, they’re not a common occurrence. “It’s easy to stay on top of product recalls because the companies are required to let us know,” retailer Wrzesinski says. “Realistically, over the last several years, there really haven’t been a lot of recalls. Most are found so quick and recalled so fast that there’s rarely an issue at all.” Still, when there is a recall of any toy, whether Toy House & Baby Too carries it, Wrzesinski posts it on a bulletin board as a public service.

“Toys are safer than they have ever been,” Appell says. “Every retailer and every consumer can feel confident that the toys made for sale in the United States must follow very strict safety standards that are mandated by federal law. If a toy fails to meet those tough standards, that product must be taken out of the stream of commerce.”

That only applies to less than .03 percent (three one-hundredths of 1 percent) of all toys sold each year in the U.S. TIA’s website has a dedicated section for recall information about toys, complete with product images that make it easy for a retailer or consumer to spot a product they may have.

So play on — a world of fantastical toys awaits your customers.

Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is a Seattle-based freelance writer who 
specializes in retail, travel and health topics. Learn more at

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