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Toys & Games

NYTF18: Blind Bags, Glitter & Poop

This last week saw the latest iteration of New York Toy Fair and offered a clear formula for success in toy aisles this coming year—if a toy or game includes one or more of the following fads, it might sell: (1) low-price collectible with blind packaging, (2) “cute” sparkles and magic, or (3) “gross” material like poop, slime, and dirt.

Retail sales of licensed toys and games generated over $8 billion in retail sales in the U.S./Canada for 2016—up from $7.5 billion the previous year. While sales somewhat softened in 2017, for 2018 consumer spending on licensed toys and games is expected to rebound.

Check out our Twitter @licensingletter for pictures and thoughts taken directly from the scene.

A quick note on the mood from the floor; the aisles were decidedly more sparse than in years prior, although most major booths were crowded. The historically under-appreciated traditional toys/games section actually saw a lot of traffic (and sales) in the first two days, and then saw a steep fall-off later on in the show. There were a lot more social influencers on the floor, including kids aged 14 and under—making for some strange sights.

The aftermath of the Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy had a chilling effect on the floor. Some exhibitors professed their good fortune that their merchandise wasn’t picked up by the retail giant last year—if they had shipped a couple of containers of their product to TRU in time for the holiday season (and before the announcement), their businesses wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. On the flip side, there were some rising stars from 2017 that weren’t seen in the aisles this year (hopefully for unrelated reasons). For those toy manufacturers remaining, there was a greater focus on selling into smaller, independent retailers and specialty shops.

This year’s MVP was, to no great surprise, Jurassic World—sparking the “Year of the Dinosaur” trend as described below. Licensees broke out all the stops this year, with master toy partner Mattel boasting a massive toy line including hundreds of dinosaur action figures. But the newest film in the franchise isn’t expected to generate the roughly 50% of toy sales Jurrasic Park had in years prior; the wealth is going to be more widespread in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, given the vast roster of Marvel and DC Comics films and TV shows set to be released this year, superhero properties featured prominently. The top “new face” on the floor was Nickelodeon’s Sunny Day, a preschool TV series that has sparked a resurgence in hair-based play patterns across all varieties of toys. Surprisingly, there was no action on the floor from the upcoming DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon 3—but, as discussed below, dragons more generally were popular on the floor.

The film with the most merchandise backing it? The sequel to Fantastic Beasts, to a certain extent. Warner Bros. is not pushing its licensees as hard this year to adopt the Wizarding World branding that it created as an umbrella to the broader Harry Potter universe. With the launch of the Harry Potter touring museum exhibition, the live Cursed Child theater show, and the Niantic mobile game app, the franchise is expected to sell even better than in years prior.

Looking into 2019, superhero franchises and video game brands are expected to continue to do well in one of the most crowded film years ever. The year after next will see the release of expected hits for franchises including the LEGO Movie, Godzilla, Fast & Furious, the Avengers, Minecraft, Justice League, Toy Story, Transformers, Spider-Man, Angry Birds, Wonder Woman, Frozen, and Star Wars. Franchises with films expected to launch in theaters in 2019 (but have no release date) additionally include Batman, Pokémon, Hello Kitty, Shaun the Sheep, Shrek, and Suicide Squad. Note that at this point, it’s more likely than not that a few will be pushed back into 2020 just to avoid a packed weekend.

See TLL’s complete list of upcoming feature films with licensing potential through 2025 here.

And it’s not just films—the announcement of a new, multi-season adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings from Amazon Studios has sparked renewed interest in goods for the property. All of these entertainment releases will no doubt contribute to even shorter merchandising windows—and make it increasingly difficult for toycos and retailers alike to safely hedge their bets on just one or two licensed properties.

Engineering Fun

In regard to STEM (STREAM seems to have not caught on), this year the trend was “less talking, more doing.” The biggest focus in toys this year was teaching kids basic science (read: chemistry and earth science), reading, mechanical engineering, and coding skills.

For the last two years, Mattel has been leading the pack in headline-hitting tech offerings (namely, baby monitor Aristotle and the Barbie Dream House)—this year, the toyco has scaled back. Its offerings this year might be less innovative technically, but are more focused on promoting traditional kid’s play patterns and value. And Mattel wasn’t the only one-there was much less emphasis on screen-based play on the floor, even for toys and games that had smartphone-connected elements (usually, the toy could be played with sans screen).

Last year saw a surge in alternate materials like wood, plush, and even metal. The top new tactile trend this year, however, is squishy foam. According to kids: the softer the material is, and the slower is takes to return to its original shape, the better.

A-side/B-side Dichotomy

Intelligent design is key when it comes to soft toys, play sets, mats, storage, and basically anything that won’t be relegated to a toy box at the end of a play session. Toycos are increasingly catering to parents who want their kid’s toys to match their home decor and not stick out like a sore thumb. To accomplish the dual goals of appealing to kids with bright colors and favorite characters as well as parents with discerning sensibilities, more and more goods are featuring two or more different sides to themselves.

For example, TCG Toys offers play mats with Marvel and Sesame Street characters (among others) that can be flipped over to feature fashionable home textile patterns. Pillow Pets carries licenses from partners like Disney and DreamWorks; its plush can be unfolded to create a fun character pillow, or, when flipped over, a chic patterned throw. TeeTurtle plush, on the other hand, can be flipped inside out to feature two different characters.

Year of the Dinosaur (And Don’t Forget the Dog)

The unicorn (just because) and dragon (in part because of the release of How to Train Your Dragon, in part because of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in part because it’s a cousin to the dinosaur) have taken center stage as the best-represented mythical creatures.

But the true winners on the floor were the household cat and dog, which were the most common animals featured on the floor. Somewhere in the middle of the scale between the familiar and the supernatural rests the dinosaur—truly the king of the toy world thanks to the launch of Universal’s new Jurassic World film this summer—and the narwhal, or the unicorn of the sea—which, you will remember, is a real, living creature.

Oddly enough, officially licensed merchandise from the best-selling children’s book series of 2017 and 2018 (so far, according to Publisher’s Weekly)—Dav Pikey’s Dog Man and Cat Kid—was not spotted on the floor. But there was some for Nickelodeon’s CatDog, which was close enough (aimed at adult collectors).

Hasbro impressed with its successor to the holiday hit FurReal Roaring’ Tyler, the licensed Star Wars Chewie, who is powered by the same tech. But its real star was FurReal’s Ricky, a dog who boasts over 100 sound and motion combinations including tricks like bone-flipping and shaking paws. Before you prepare yourself to retire your flesh-and-blood friends in favor of our new robot overlords, note that Ricky isn’t potty-trained (yes, he poops too). Similar offerings abounded on the floor, ranging from adorable dolls to furry plush.

The breakout animal of the year was the sloth, whose representation on the floor rose approximately 2,500% compared to the previous year. There was no specific reason for the sloth’s sudden rise; most attendees on the floor were puzzled, although one cited the Geico commercial. Nevertheless, it is true that the slow-moving creature has been trending online since at least 2012—and it might just be that the toy industry has simply caught up to the fad and is ready to embrace pent-up consumer demand.

Potty Humor

Maybe it’s just that we’re tired of STEM and ready to go back to the most base schools of humor. No matter where you went, poop featured heavily on the floor. But not all offerings were made equal.

For the youngest age group, ranging from toddlers to pre-schoolers, the inclusion of devices like poop (but mostly pee) was nothing short of inspiring. Multiple toys offered their own version of realistic baby dolls that can drink, eat, laugh, cry, and, yes, answer the call of nature. While some dolls were babies, others were slightly older toddlers that celebrated the joy of potty training (with sensors that track if the doll is on its designated spot).

Pre-tween-oriented offerings used poop as a gross-out humorous device, usually with some “cute” element (the familiar emoji shape, a friendly smiling face). For the older kids, games begin to incorporate social sharing elements by encouraging group play and having “shareable” moments that could be easily filmed and disseminated online. For adults, the humor gets a little darker—enough said.

Outside the Show: Horror

Last but not least, we close with licensed merchandise from brands that weren’t as heavily promoted, but are nevertheless expected to be big hits during the holiday shopping season. Representative properties include Hotel Transylvania, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (celebrating its anniversary), and preschool TV series Vampirina—in addition to breakout survival horror video games like Hello Neighbor and Bendy and the Ink Machine. While they weren’t represented on the floor, upcoming films like Slender Man and Goosebumps: Horrorland also fall into this category and are expected to steer toy trends.


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