Like my friend and blogging colleague Elizabeth Bluemle, I have spent the last few days at the Javits Center, visiting the 116th annual NY Toy Fair (see Elizabeth’s fun roundup at Lions and Tigers and Toys, Oh My).
I come to this event wearing several hats: as a board member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association, I have some “hosting” duties at social events and use the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and projects; as a shopkeeper I have orders to place and vendors to visit in order to see new releases and make plans for the ever-important fourth-quarter sales; and as your personal ShelfTalker ambassador, I spend my time in the aisles looking for toy trends of the year. Some of these trends are actual types of products (like slime, putty, and modeling compounds), some are themes (like llamas, yetis, and pineapples), and still others are play patterns or reflections of our current societal interests (like superheroes and obsession with bodily functions). As I attempted last year in Postcard from Toy Fair, here’s my impressions of this year’s themes in play so far.
High Touch Is in High Demand
From new clay, dough, slime, and kinetic sand-type products, there is continued growth in tactile play experiences for all ages. If it can’t be modeled or squished, then cover it in sequins in 2019 – the flippable kind of sequins that can change colors when brushed with your hand. We saw putties and modeling sands that glow in the dark, change color, slip between textures (is it sand? is it putty? is it going to ruin my carpet?) and satisfy the needs of kids of all ages to get their hands INTO something, rather than swipe with one finger across a screen. Compounds encased in containers hiding small surprises inside – like an egg filled with slime that hatched a little monster when broken) combined both tactile play with the fun of a product reveal – two frequently utilized packaging themes this year. This highly tactile toy trend has also created a resurgence in the plush industry, as companies compete to produce the softest, deepest pile stuffies on the shelves. The current hygge craving for soothing and comfort in a hostile world encourages purchases of stuffed animals for all ages. More and more realistic AND highly stylized plush was evident throughout the show, in all sizes and formats. This is good news for bookstores, which typically can merchandise plush in their children’s sections with ease, but not always match that adorable merchandising with sales. This year, if it’s super soft, it will sell.
Keeping It a Secret
As we saw last year, the “blind box” trend continues, in which manufacturers create collectible items in foil envelopes, sealed boxes, and encased in other compounds (similar to the Hatchimals craze, in which one toy dissolves or is broken to reveal another). All types of toys were seen in this “unboxing” format, in which the actual opening and reveal of the toy is as much a part of playing as the eventual prize. While this certainly isn’t a brand-new trend (think of baseball cards, Pokémon, and dinosaur digs) it is a play pattern that has become commonplace. Last year I opined about the similarity of this experience to children’s daily witnessing of boxes on their doorstep, filled with products ordered from the family smart device in the kitchen. This week, however, I was thinking about the lessening of delayed gratification in our children’s lives. Many of their play needs are met immediately through electronics, or toys with more sophisticated programming but easier functioning. The “unboxing” trend celebrates the anticipation of a new toy, and may be meeting needs for both the thrill of wondering what item might be inside AND the endorphin rush of the surprise when it is revealed.
Coding was been a popular STEM topic in children’s books last year, and the source of much good-natured ribbing among booksellers (how many coding board books does YOUR store have on the shelf?) and that adult preoccupation with teaching kids to code is in every single aisle of Toy Fair. Robotics and tech toys were presented for early childhood, middle grade and teens… with lots of adult play options presented as “advanced” kits. This year, I counted three times as many robots as drones, demonstrating a real change in tech-themed play over the last few years. While robots and electronics might not be a good product fit for all stores who carry just a few toys and playthings, I think it is important to recognize this trend and support it through the literature we read and discuss with our young customers. Our young readers are also young inventors, tinkerers, and designers.
Food, Glorious Food
We like to eat, talk about eating, and play with our food! The myriad of new food-related items at Toy Fair speaks well for the development of future restauranteurs and gourmands… or perhaps the kitchen is just the safest place for kids to get messy without getting in trouble. Food-related toys are one of the few areas that continue to blur the lines of gendered play, and a number of manufacturers chose to introduce play kitchens and restaurant themed items in gender-neutral color palettes, with packaging that didn’t immediately place the items in the “girl aisle” or the “boy section.” Food-related toys reflected some more modern trends, including lots of smoothie makers, whole foods presented in realistic ways, and food truck and farmers market role play items. Of course, our national fondness for doughnuts, anything with sprinkles, and macarons was well represented in plush, crafts, modeling kits, art supplies, and giant pool floats.
A few overall impressions about this year’s Toy Fair make me very optimistic for bricks and mortar retail this year. Many of the “hot” items and trends will sell best in stores where they can be demonstrated, played with, and enjoyed by adults and children together. Cooperative play, both in building projects and cooperative games, is on the rise. Family play, shown by the growth of puzzle manufacturers and lines as well as a flourishing game inventor market, shows that while we continue to battle with screens for our children’s attention, there is a demonstrated demand for low-tech play experiences.
And because you asked (or maybe that was the unicorn talking in the corner…) this year, you would do well to add llamas, yetis, flamingos, and pineapples to your impulse item themes. Keep buying sloths, mermaids, and rainbows, and even poop will still sell, preferably covered in sequins.