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Toys & Games

What’s the [Toy] Story? Same as Last Year, Just Better!

Contact the editor at karina@plainlanguagemedia.com

Straight from the floor of New York Toy Fair, TLL brings you the latest and greatest in toy trends. They just happen to be the same as last year’s—only more nuanced, thoughtful, and developed. The good news this year: No one’s freaking out about the ability of America’s largest toy retailer to actually pay its vendors.

More good news: The hype over STEM and robotics is much less hysterical. In fact, all the trends are much less hyped up.

There are two factors behind this shift: (1) TRU’s demise sent parents and their kids to smaller chains and/or independent toy stores; and (2) retail sales through ecommerce grew as part of overall shifting consumer habits.

Although most toy/game sales are still completed in-store (turns out, kids like being able to touch them), on the internet parents are more goal-oriented (looking for birthday or holiday presents rather than a treat), more likely to consider educational value (and read reviews), and less susceptible to impulse purchases (that $5.99 or $9.99 blind box doesn’t look that great in a thumbnail—plus, your kid isn’t crying hysterically next to you—you’re doing this at work, right?).

Meanwhile, other dedicated toy stores have spent years differentiating themselves from TRU—only now are they stocking up on more faddish offerings to help compete with big-box chains like Walmart or Target and specialty stores like apparel (Kohl’s), book (Barnes & Noble), and grocery (Kroger) retailers.

The negative side to this shift in toy/game consumption is that because kids and their parents are being more considerate in what they want to buy and planning much further in advance, it will be more difficult for new brands and products to find support without a sponsor to back them up. It used to be that TRU functioned as the brand incubator; today, that’s social media (for the kids) and published toy lists (for the adults).

One interesting example of influencer-driven sales: A sales exec at Far Out Toys told us that “with Ryan[‘s World, repped by pocket.watch] our product was a shoo-in, without it buyers wouldn’t consider it.” Another part of the equation: digital content. Several respondents to TLL’s Annual Licensing Business Survey noted that they were required to contribute some monies towards funding a YouTube short series or mobile game app—even for properties that had a TV series currently airing.

Wicked Cool Toys is an example of a company doing both: working with influencers and creating new content to sell under-appreciated product innovations. Fortnite streamers Ninja, DrDisRespect, and Summit1G signed on to produce Twitch-inspired toys where a figure in the line, for example, unlocks AR content (by scanning the toy) as well as digital assets in a free-to-play mobile game (by scanning a fun-shaped QR code). Rovio‘s Angry Birds is another example of a brand actively engaging in added-value, code-scanning toys with Jazwares. The technology itself has been around for years, but never become ubiquitous despite a false start with brands like Skylanders.

The Biggest, Baddest Brands

Based on our observations, the best-selling licensed properties on the floor were, in no particular order: Disney‘s Mickey & Minnie Mouse and Star Wars (we almost forgot about Frozen, which is under lock-and-key until October), Warner Bros.‘ Wizarding World/Harry Potter, Nickelodeon‘s Paw Patrol, and eOne‘s Peppa Pig.

To a lesser extent, the list was topped off by Epic Games‘ Fortnite, DreamWorks‘ How to Train Your Dragon, Nickelodeon‘s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob SquarePants, WWE, and Pokémon.

Ugly Doll (Hasbro and Sakar are leading licensees), Line Friends (Gund is the first-ever licensee trusted with the brand), and My Singing Monsters (we loved Play Monster‘s singing collectibles) are new faces generating excitement.

And then there are the toy/game brands that aren’t licensed in their core toy/game offerings but are supported by a broad licensing initiative: MGAE‘s LOL Surprise, Spin Master‘s Hatchimals, and Hasbro‘s Transformers are just three examples.

Brands to watch include video games like Microsoft‘s Minecraft as well as digital influencers on YouTube, Twitch, and other channels—which heavily influence pop culture trends.

Despite its relatively low volume in comparison to the perennial power brands, Fortnite’s selling power can’t be underestimated. Despite being released in the last weeks of the year, NPD named Jazwares‘ Llama Drama Loot Piñata the best-selling toy of 2018. The brand is breaking out in everything from tiny speakers (Bitty Boomers) to action figures (also Jazwares).

Classic Re-Issue

Retro isn’t gone as a trend, but it’s evolved into literally re-issuing old toys again:

  • The Wiggles never left Australia, but it’s been a while since the children’s musical group came to tour the U.S. and Canada in person—this year, they’re making up for that. As for the consumer products, “it all starts with a song”—the group has partnered on everything from diapers to professional ballet troupes.
  • Hasbro is bringing back the original Kenner Star Wars dolls (the ones we’ve read about in the history books!). Not to be outdone, Marvel fans are going to see the Uncanny X-Men figures from Toybiz again. (Hasbro bought both toycos over the years.)
  • Bandai America is re-issuing the original handheld Gudetama and Tamogotchi egg-shaped pet-raiser units as well as the original Digimon device.
  • From California Creations comes the biggest action toy of the ’70s from Ideal Toys, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.
  • Super Impulse is expanding its collectibles line of mini-sized figures and normal-sized pens to span the history of Mattel Barbie figures over the decades.
  • Remember the cat in the sack toy? Leading Edge has a version with a cat in a paper bag.
  • Spin Master is re-launching ’90s skate toy Tech Deck with licensed images of actual ’90s skating brands.
  • Also from Spin Master, Bakugan is getting play again with slightly-updated technology based on classic play patterns.
  • We predict a shortage of canisters of Silly String this year, thanks to everyone from Alpha Group (in a SpongeBob blaster complete with telescoping lens) to Hasbro (specifically, we were impressed by a Spider-Man blaster that shot out perfect circles) using the material.

Compounding Interest

Slime, putty and other assorted goopy compounds remain popular throughout 2019. This year, they’re not just gross: They’re glittery, shiny/matte (take your pick), deliciously/disgustingly scented (again), and even easy to clean up (or not).

That’s not to say that gross slime isn’t still in fashion. Multiple “mad scientists” put their mark on slime, such as Crazy Aaron or Steve Spangler Science. Other slime companies included Zuru, Relevant Play, and Kangaroo. There were more companies than we care to list that offered unicorn slime. Somewhat uniquely, FCTRY is pushing its somewhat useful unicorn snot (a 40 SPF, glittery sunscreen).

  • Cra-Z-Art is taking the art to the extreme with its newest lines of Nickelodeon Slime Treats (that look and smell like real ice cream, among other things).
  • Alpha Toys brings Nick’s classic slime to blind boxes with collectible SpongeBob-shaped figures that ooze the green goop, at under 10 bucks a pop. Its collector’s figures are more sophisticated, with black-and-white, horror B-movie, and internet meme-themed offerings.
  • Brandable carries two influencer-branded lines of slime products—Guava Toys, with the mad scientist of YouTube, Guava Juice (buckets of activity slime), and Craft City, with Karina Garcia, who spearheaded the DIY slime movement (scented—the peanut butter is incredible—, glittery, and customizable goop).
  • Barbie is the latest influencer to get into the slime game; Mattel debuts a new doll which double-dips into the mermaid theme with a tail and related aquatic accessories.

A note on the glitter: It’s everywhere. You can’t wash it out. Patterned sparkles, reversible sequins, and metallic prints adorn every surface scientifically possible. (And it’s not just a girl thing.)

Lastly, in compound-related news: Slow-rise foam remains a hit this year, and the material ties in to literally every other trend you can find.

Play With Your Food

Move over, Tide Pods. The kids are ready to get confused by products that look and smell a little closer to the real deal.

  • While many toycos featured variants of tiny food collectible lines, Smart Lab gives kids the tools to make their own (real) food with its Tiny Baking! cooking kit. Other tiny STEM offerings from the company include a robotics kit.
  • Another edible offering from Sticky Lickits features Nickelodeon‘s SpongeBob and Paw Patrol on stickers you can eat (add to healthy fruits and veggies, they’re tasteless).
  • Other ways to play with your food? Hasbro‘s Transformers-based Botbots line stars tiny fast food- and restaurant-inspired collectibles that can transform into, you guessed it, robots. (The Botbots line includes more characters from stores you would find in a mall.)
  • It’s not just hardlines. The Beverly Hills Bear Co. is snacking not only on super-soft, super-slow rise, and super-small plush, but also soft scented food items packed sweetly into a picnic basket.

Hug Me Softly

Also known as “mochi” plush for their soft, squishy texture, these plush can be big or small but are usually just the right size to hug.

  • Maxx Marketing‘s consumer brand YuMe is using its worldwide Warner Bros. softlines license to bring horror properties to life with huggable villains in particular a big hit. As in, “while you’re re-watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, you can hug your Freddy Kruger plush” (“The guy who’s killing everyone on screen?”). YuMe has a similar collector’s line for Batman.
  • Related to the horror theme, Golden Bell Studios is doing quite well with a smoke monster plush from the TV show LOST.
  • AQI Intl. has not only the original moshi plush imported from Japan for San-X characters like Rilakkuma and Kaoru, but is also working on its own originals.
  • All the plush at Gund is soft, but the company is going all out for an expanded Pusheen line that includes bigger and squishier plush.
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