Summer 2008
Profit from Play By Heather Johnson Durocher

Defining Specialty

Kathleen McHugh encourages you to remember this fact: Many baby boomers are now grandparents. And, says the president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, grandparents are willing to spend money and buy high-quality products for their grandchildren. “With grandparents, if a toy will provide some kind of value to their grandchild, they will spend anything,” McHugh says. “They are very generous, but they want it to be high-quality; they want it to be educational.”

It’s these kinds of high-quality, educational toys that form the basis of specialty toy retailing. They are the kinds of toys that are not going to be found at larger chain stores.

Those in the industry point out that specialty toys will stand the test of time. Think well-constructed toys that engage a child for more than a few moments at a time, tried-and-true board games and wooden puzzles that kids turn to time and again.

Doing the numbers

According to Chicago-based ASTRA, the specialty toy market is an estimated $2.1 billion industry. In addition, it’s a growing market, with a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in sales this past holiday shopping season compared to the previous year, says McHugh.

Toys that encourage children to use their minds and physical capabilities are top sellers, says Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist for the New York City-based Toy Industry Association. Along with science-discovery items, toys that claim to be eco-friendly and organic/hypoallergenic are popular, she says.

“It’s something consumers are really asking for,” Rice says, citing a 25 percent increase in the number of “green” toys featured at the Toy Fair ’08, held in New York City in February.

Toys that teach

Computer and video games may remain constants in our society, but customers are increasingly interested in buying toys that encourage more learning than can come from sitting behind a screen, says Mark Mallardi, vice president of marketing for Educational Insights. The Rancho Dominguez, CA-based company specializes in hands-on educational games, kits, manipulatives, books, toys and electronic learning aids that nurture cognitive development.

Mallardi says parents are increasingly looking for toys that can educate while being fun. “The educational component, we believe, is becoming more and more of the dominant factor in the purchasing decision for the parent,” Mallardi says. “We are always looking for products that look at critical thinking skills, higher-order thinking skills and spatial reasoning skills.”

Science and discovery toys also are popular picks. The science kits from The Young Scientists Club in Jamestown, RI, are packaged in colorful boxes. “They fit well in gift shops,” says Esther Novis, founder of The Young Scientists Club, a Jamestown, RI, company that designs science-related products. Most important, what’s inside the boxes promises high returns for your customers, Novis says. “Kids take ownership in what they create and make,” she says. Her company’s hands-on products include volcano-making, gardening and flight kits. “We strongly believe kids should use different parts of their brain. It’s all done as they’re doing the experiment, so it’s not a chore.”

Competing against computers

Robin Lehnert, North America marketing manager for China-based HaPe International, believes consumers are interested in what she calls the “come-back factor.” Before a toy makes it to market, HaPe observes children playing with it to make sure it’s something they’ll come back to. HaPe creates preschool games made out of bamboo as well as “pose-able,” whimsical-looking animals created from organic maple, Lehnert says.

“It’s about a toy that is not only used once. It’s a toy that’s enjoyed over and over again,” says Lehnert, who is based in Mequon, WI. HaPe specializes in “solid wooden toys.” “It’s something whereby we put some thought into the activity that’s involved and the learning that’s involved, and try to develop something that is engaging, that brings a sense of wonder to it.”

Experts say there are many mediums that compete for children’s attention, or “share of day,”—a marketing term used to understand how children spend their leisure time—with the Internet at the top of the list.

Even so, many customers are especially interested in non-computer play, and manufacturers are responding. Newton, MA-based Gamewright, for example, designs and wholesales an assortment of games. Card games like Rat-A-Tat-Cat and Frog Juice, which subtly strengthen math skills both among the kindergarten and grade school sets, have proved popular.

Then there’s Channel Craft, a 25-year-old company based in North Charleroi, PA, that manufactures and distributes “authentic American toys, games and puzzles made in the U.S.A.” Many are original reproductions of toys made more than 100 years ago, providing a sense of nostalgia that appeals to the child in all of us, says Dean Helfer, founder of the company.

Going “green”

With everything organic in the spotlight, it should come as no surprise that toy manufacturers are launching products that use sustainable materials—items which generally are accepted as being environmentally friendly—including bamboo, wood, cotton and hemp. Some toys teach children the ins and outs of recycling, and caring for the world, in entertaining formats, while keeping earth-conscious parents happy, according to the Toy Industry Association. An example is the Bioviva game, from Kvale Good Natured Games, in Saint Paul, MN. The game teaches the players facts about the planet as they play.

“We did notice at Toy Fair that people were really asking the question about eco-friendly toys,” says Lehnert, of HaPe. “Retailers are coming in and saying, ‘I know you have wood, but tell me more about the wood you use, and how do you harvest it?’ My guess is that consumers are asking for it, and so [retailers] are looking for it.”

To address these kinds of questions, Lehnert says, HaPe provides retailers educational materials so that they can explain to customers how their toys are made. The material might detail the testing a toy line went through before going to market, or list the raw materials used, she says.

If you carry toys that do not have some kind of safety statement from the manufacturer, request one. This information can help you market the toys more effectively, Lehnert says. The wholesaler Maple Landmark in Middlebury, VT, also creates wooden toys harvested sustainably from local wood supplies.

Selling child’s play

To boost sales of educational toys, experts advise you to achieve a true understanding of what the products are all about. In other words: Get playing! Be sure to try out the game or puzzle yourself. Encourage your employees to do the same.

Kate Tanner, owner of Kidstop Specialty Toys and Books, in Scottsdale, AZ, is a proponent of knowing the product. “You have to play with them and get to know them, because you are putting an endorsement on these toys,” Tanner says. “You have to have a reputation that you pick great toys. That’s what will bring people into your store.”

Placing a guarantee on a toy is smart, as well, she says. She suggests letting a customer know that if their child or grandchild doesn’t care for the toy, it can be returned.

The good news, according to Lehnert, is that specialty educational toys are doing brisk business around the country in specialty toy stores, as well as gift and clothing boutiques. Stocking up on a few lines of quality specialty toys and games will have you, too, profiting from play.

Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at

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