The Play Is the Thing

Cynthia Compton -- June 12th, 2019

I’m spending five days in Pittsburgh for the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association annual Marketplace and Academy with several thousand of my closest playmates — so come join me for a playdate, and let’s talk toys!

ASTRA’s annual event is part educational conference, part tradeshow, and all fun and games. It’s also the place where I discover new brands and products, and finalize my ordering for the rest of the year, divided into multiple shipments and delivery dates. We have a saying in toy retail: “If it’s not on the water in June, it’s not on the shelves in December,” reflecting the importance of booking orders early for holiday sales and catalog publication. This year, in the shadow of impending tariffs, that saying could be more true than ever before.

The true value of any good conference, of course, is time with colleagues and friends from the industry to share trends, ideas, successes and challenges. No group really “gets it” like your shopkeeper colleagues – and I find that the time in the hallways, the coffee line, and the hotel bar at the end of a long day of ordering is the most valuable time of all, as we both celebrate and commiserate the challenges of independent retail. It’s also the time that we compare notes on industry trends and changes, and reflect on how the products we are seeing on the tradeshow floor reflect the demands of the children we serve and the adults who buy for them.  Here’s a few of the trends in play that we’re talking about this year:

Magnetic Attraction

The continued success of open-ended magnetic blocks and building sets was evident, as many vendors have expanded their lines to include products for babies and toddlers through teens and adults. There are a couple of very positive factors at play here, in my opinion: these are toys with long-term play value, that appeal to multiple ages without artificial gender stereotypes, and are accessible to both special needs and differently-abled play without adaptation. True play knows no such boundaries, and good toys bridge gaps between ages and stages.

Magna-Tiles by Valtech awarded “Best Toys for Kids” at ASTRA in the Construction category.

Compound Interest

While slime is waning (to the great chagrin of our carpet cleaning services), putty and molding compounds still hold the market in the palm of their hands…. ok, the puns are getting a little sticky, aren’t they? From scented putties to slow-flow dough to “living sand”…. all the tactile compounds that squish, wiggle and stretch are in high demand. Packaging of these delightful distractions that squish, ooze and flow is catching up with demand, and as the category becomes more crowded, those compounds with cool containers that “show off” their features are the category leaders.

Is it sand? Is it dough? Is it magic? Playvision’s Slo Flo is just ALL FUN.

Retro Cool

Nostalgic toys are enjoying a year out of the attic, and are definitely back in the toy box rotation. Toy purchasing driven by increases in the number of grandparents raising children or providing childcare, an increase in the baby boomer budget for discretionary spending, and the popularity of media licensed products from the ’80s and ’90s has led to huge growth in the “retro toys” category. The future looks brite for stuff that Mom and Dad had on their own Christmas wish lists.


Lite-Brite, distributed by Schylling, awarded “Classic” toy of the year.

High on Design

Simple products, beautifully designed, or beautiful toys, simply designed — however function and appearance were integrated into new toys this year, the focus was on strong design elements, and how a toy looks plays a critical role in how it invites imaginative play. Global influences were apparent in every category, as both products and packaging were more sophisticated, more elegant, and were produced in colors not typically associated with “kids’ stuff.” Original art, quality illustration techniques, and an emphasis on packaging design were evident in every aisle.

Fun in Motion’s endlessly fascinating Shashibo Shape Shifting Box won the Puzzle category award this year.

Games with Thrones

There was lots of evidence of our fascination with all things dragon, sword and shield, and complicated fantasy in both toys and games…. it was a year for the fire-breathing fantasy playthings.

A reversible knight/dragon cape lets kids play both roles in their own adventures.

Love for Mother Earth

Climate change, careful use of natural resources, and environmental awareness were all very prevalent themes in play this year. Games, in particular, reflect our concerns for careful stewardship of the earth, and this theme was presented in every age category.

Blue Orange’s ecosystem game, Planet, was awarded top honors in the family game category.

Other popular themes this year celebrated the news of the moment: for example, we saw plenty of toys, puzzles and games about space and our own solar system, commemorating this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. moon landing mission. Political topics are strong, such as voting rights, geopolitical themes, and the very “of the moment” fascination with images of U.S. Supreme Court justices on everything from bingo games to sippy cups for toddlers. Dolls and plush continued to increase in both numbers of brands presented and depth of lines, while arts and crafts held steady, but perhaps at a lower percentage of the market than several years ago.

As I return to my store later this week, I’m sure that I will have lots of conversations with customers about what I saw, what I loved, and what I bought. Many of those exchanges will end with “so, what’s hot this year?” By way of practice, I’ll just run down the list with you: Llamas (yes), Narwhals (yes, still), Mermaids (yes, but mostly products for very young children), Hamsters and Hedgehogs (yes, especially with very, very long hair), Dragons (YES), and any of the above categories is made more desirable by the addition of a unicorn horn.

The Douglas Caticorn.











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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

One thought on “The Play Is the Thing

  1. Anne Mcelroy

    Love it. Wish I was in the market to buy myself. Will confer with you if ever I am. Loved the Caticorn. I finally got on instagram recently for the B&B and guess what, my group chicken picture is beating all others hands down. If only they had hands…..

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