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Toy Fair 2017: Shrink Rays, Traditional Play & Robotics

To all those who attended North American Intl. Toy Fair in New York—hope you had a great show! This year was bigger than ever, with expanded floor space for new exhibitors and packed crowds during the weekend. The Toy Industry Association (TIA) reported that 1,126 total exhibitors from 31 countries were in attendance this year, with 103 new faces.

This last year ended with a 5% increase in overall U.S. toy sales, according to The NPD Group. Growth categories included: games and puzzles (18%), dolls (10%), outdoor and sports toys (10%), plush (6%), infant and toddler preschool toys (3%), youth electronics (3%), and vehicles (1%).

Here are some of the notable trends TLL saw on the floor this year.


It’s almost too obvious to include on this list, but classic properties with a nostalgic element are entering another year of strong sales. Whether it’s a reboot of a classic franchise or a nostalgic throwback of a modernized show, as long as a property tickles the nostalgic senses of someone (millennials are the biggest focus with 80’s and 90’s properties trending in particular) it was on the floor.

Toys themselves are also diving headfirst into this trend, as traditional toys and games grew in prominence. And even modern electronic toys stuck to the basics, maintaining familiar play patterns, materials, and (if all else fails) branding.

Licensed Films

This year will see a host of big budget films with equally expansive licensing programs. Let’s go down the list (in no particular order), based on the films featured on the floor.

The Despicable Me franchise is going strong with the third film being released this summer. Universal and Illumination reported that the 100+ licensing deals struck for the second film were valued at approximately $250 million—and there’s no sign of the Minions mania dying down.

By the same token, Star Wars’ presence was strong. Most of the new product launches available on the floor were based on the ships and robots, in line with last year—but licensees reported that there is more to come that is still being kept under wraps by the ever-elusive Disney. 2017 marks the franchise’s 40th anniversary.

Warner Bros.’ two LEGO movies (Batman and Ninjago) gathered a lot of excitement, but there wasn’t a lot of merchandise based directly on the films.

The newest addition to Disney’s kid’s franchise, Cars 3, had a lot of support from licensees that distribute globally. But those from the U.S. were uncertain of how well the property would do locally. Another franchise car film, The Fate of the Furious, seems to be following the same trend. But sales for the Fast & Furious franchise have remained relatively steady over the years, and it’s expected to enjoy a good year once more.

Merchandise based on Smurfs: The Lost Village (I.M.P.S.) is expected to perform well, with retail sales expected to reach a level similar to the previous filsm. Most showings on the floor were geared towards impulse, with small figures and novelties at (relatively) low price points.

Sony’sEmojiville is one of the trendiest films to hit theaters in 2017, and both licensed and inspired options were booming on the floor. Most were skeptical about how well the movie would perform, but no one’s expressed any particular concerns about how well merch would sell—the brand is strong irregardless.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was a floor favorite, with impressive showings from licensees. This is the live action adapatation that will finally enjoy robust licensed sales.

While licensees for Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts reported low sales for merch based directly on the movie, Harry Potter not just survives, but thrives. The licensing program is booming after Warner Bros. took over licensing, and 2017 is expected to be the best year yet for J.K. Rowling’s creation.

The same trend continues with Doctor Strange—which, despite low ticket sales, is selling well in merchandise. Moana licensees reported a similar phenomena.

DreamWork’s Trolls goods were surprisingly undersold in the U.S., although merchandisers reported strong sales internationally. On average, the property fared quite well worldwide. But some cited the disparity between the film’s marketing in Europe versus the U.S. as one reason for soft sales (both ticket and merchandise).

Move Aside, Disney

Throughout the show, the top properties that people were excited about were Paw Patrol (for boys; we expect that retail sales will reach over $100 million this year) and Shimmer & Shine (for girls). Nick isn’t the only winner, however. This year won’t be dominated by any one property, with properties like My Little Pony (Hasbro), Peppa Pig (eOne), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (OK, that one is Nick’s too), DC Comics, etc. Video games are entering the pop culture fold, closely followed by anime properties.

But that’s not to say that Disney is dead. Star Wars, Marvel, and Frozen retail sales still outpace the former by a wide margin. While Moana was relatively underhyped, licensees reported strong interest from consumers. And Cars 3 is expected to be a strong comeback for the franchise.

I Need a Hero

Marvel and DC Comics got lots of love from licensees, and even the less popular heros are getting dedicated figures, role play, and toys.

The big news, of course, is Wonder Woman’s new film. Merchandisers were eager to showcase her many appearances and costumes throughout the movie, including her horse.

Build It, Shrink It, Wrap It—Now Upgrade It

Last year was nothing if not the year of blind packs. NPD reported that the collectibles as a category grew 33% to reach $1.8 billion in retail sales in 2016. And the growth isn’t coming just from original toys like Shopkins (Moose Toys) and Splashlings (Shaftsbury), but from seemingly everyone. One of the hottest toys of the 2016 holiday season, Hatchimals, is getting the shrink-ray treatment later this year from Spin Master. And they’re not the only ones—it might be faster to make a list of brands that don’t have a blind pack licenseee or two in their pockets than not.

Everyone’s doubling down on their collectibles ranges: adding new characters and themes, introducing new play sets (that double as storage), plush versions, and interactive tech elements (where the toys change color, for example). What I didn’t see? Scented, glow-in-the-dark, or AR-enabled collectibles. But I expect they will arrive soon as consumers become more open to buying blind packs at higher price points ($3.99 versus $1.99).

Luckily for us all, love is blind—merchandisers and buyers on the floor remarked that families tend to buy multiple packs from different series for a unique playing experience.

My favorite shrink-sized toy? Fully playable, classic arcade games. Perfect cross between nostalgia and miniature.

No-screen Zone?

Bafflingly, there were few screens to be seen in the halls of Javits. Last year, app-controlled toys, robots, story books, and drones were all the rage—but this year, good old fashioned remote controls have made a comeback. At this point, they should be considered to be traditional toys/games.

Even toys with strong tech elements (that teach coding skills, etc.) are choosing to emphasize tactile controls that promise greater interaction, and thus, learning opportunities. Connected toys use Bluetooth technology wrapped inside traditional materials like wood and plush, and screen functionality is usually being reserved for parents to interact with their kids.

Mattel’s holographic Barbie (to be released later this year) is one example of the trend, where manufacturers are shying away from pushing technology on kids. The toy includes some simple personal assistant functionality (scheduling, looking up the weather), but its main focus is on interactive play (asking Barbie to change her outfit, dance, etc.).

AR Revolution

But that’s not to say that screens have entirely disappeared. Augmented reality (AR) technology is being introduced into decals, bedding, and more as the technology is becoming more advanced and cheaper to implement. Thanks to the popularity of Pokémon Go, consumers are already familiar with and excited about AR. And now, they don’t even have to go outside to enjoy it.

Because AR content is accessed through mobile apps, it can be easily updated and expanded to keep products fresh. For example, Decalcomania launched its AR-enabled line of decals in just three months. Possibilities include live streaming of video, updatable games, and event- or time-based content.


The beloved acronym gets another letter—and the “R” doesn’t stand for “reading.” The U.S. Toy Industry Association (TIA) trend readers decided to add “robotics” to the line-up this year. (Please, let’s learn our lesson from LGBTQIA.)

Construction was key to the robotics featured on the floor; most sets could be assembled and reassembled into multiple forms. The toys aim to teach coding skills, construction, problem-solving, and basic logic to kids as they build, deconstruct, and play.

Lego’s Boost blocks will launch later this year, but they’re facing fierce competition from many companies on the floor.

Taking to the Seas

Although it wasn’t particularly widespread or systematic, there was an uptick in goods that featured marine creatures on the floor—sometimes, seemingly, just because. The logical aftermath of Frozen? Jokes aside, we likely have 2016’s Finding Dory to thank for this trend.

Asia Rising

Although the Hong Kong and China-dedicated zones shrunk this year, that doesn’t mean that Asia is loosing traction with American consumers. Japanese, Korean, and homegrown Asian-inspired brands are booming once more.

The trick for “kawaii” character brands in 2017? Food. Tiny, squishy animal-inspired creatures paired with bananas, donuts, cupcakes, and more are flying off shelves, no questions asked. My personal favorite from Asia? Iwako’s tiny puzzle erasers (hundreds of designs include sweets, animals, and even guns) are getting an American manufacturer and distributor.

The same trend is appearing in anime (Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop, Attack on Titan) and video games (Capcom and Sega in particular are pushing their nostaligic properties). Oversees properties are gaining more traction, and American brands are getting a boost. In particular, licensees for Rooster Teeth’s RWBY gave the animation property more space than expected.

Scents, Gunk & Other Notes

This year, licensees selling scented products reported increased interest from brand reps looking to extend their properties. While the goods themselves have remained largely the same (stationery, plush, accessories, etc.), the scents have gotten sweeter.

Artificial goos, slime, sand, snow, dirt, rubble, and other unidentifiable gunk is making its way into homes with both edible and inedible varieties—all of which, we hope, are non-toxic.


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