By Sara Hodon
“Timeless” is a term often applied to toys, and that description is certainly still appropriate. The technology may be more sophisticated, the consumers may be savvier, but as long as there are children, toys will always be strong sellers. Flash and flair may be hot right now, but it’s the longtime favorites that sell well. The simplicity and comfort of classics like puzzles and board games, and toys that rely heavily on imagination and creative play, still have strong appeal, according to retailers interviewed for this article.
Matthew “Ruckus” Poulson and Sarah “Glee” Fowles, owner of Ruckus & Glee in Wauwatosa, Wis., said customers are looking for both the trendy and timeless like never before. Among their best-sellers: “Fat Brain toys—SpinAgain and Dimpls—are highly durable and developmentally appropriate toys perfect for ages 1 through 5. Kids love the simple but engaging toys; parents love the bright colors and high play value. [Also] Micro Scooters. These high-quality scooters can be seen all over Wauwatosa. We are one of the few stores that carry these scooters,” the owners explained. With more customers spending time at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are looking for fun, educational activities to do both individually and together as a family. “This year customers are investing in their backyards and in educational activities. Classic yard toys like hula hoops, chalk, kites, bubbles, and jump ropes are doing very well for us. With respect to educational activities, we’re seeing interest in flash cards, educational games, and toys that build fine motor skills and help with writing,” Poulson and Fowles said.
Amy Saldanha, owner of Kiddywampus in Hopkins, Minn., said she has seen many of the same buying habits with her customers. “This summer, our top sellers are products designed to get kids outside and active—and the bigger the better! From sidewalk chalk to bubbles of every kind, giant blow up sets from Hearthsong (Inflatable Soccer, Rainbow Sprinkler, etc), Beano by Toysmith and of course the Mr. Bubble Bubble Mower by Kid Galaxy,” she explained. “Families are looking to treat their kids—to make up for missed birthdays and the cancellation of summer camps and trips. Our average ticket has gone up as families splurge on toys to help their kids enjoy the summer as much as possible. We are also noticing that parents are a bit more lenient about what their kids choose for toys—more Barbies, Hot Wheels, and licensed toys,” she said. Saldanha added she’s noticed customers are shifting away from the tech-centric items: “It’s a combination of timeless toys, as we return to simpler times and the favorites of our own youth, and trendy new items. …Kids and their families have Zoom fatigue and are looking for ways to connect and play without technology.”
Pei Lin Yap, owner of Something Safari in Excelsior, Minn., said their store’s current best-sellers are “puzzle, craft, active/outdoor and Lego,” with trends being “puzzles, retro, craft, Lego, educational game and books (depending on what happens with the schools).” As families spend more time together, toys and games that appeal to both kids and kids at heart are seeing tremendous sales.
“We’ve done extremely well with Water Bazookas, and toys by Plus Plus. We’re known for our games; we love the new Buildzi by Tenzi, and also Slam Cup by Blue and Orange,” said Connie Hoeft, owner of CR Toys in Kearney, Neb. “These toys are selling so well because we’re spending so much time at home, and outside in the backyard. …People want something fun to do with the pools closed.”
Hoeft said at her store, some of the biggest trends are crafts and puzzles—“anything you can do at home with the family. Puzzles have been huge, but now the problem with puzzles is you can’t get them in because there’s such a demand.”
Poulson and Fowles said they use a few different methods to select merchandise for their store. “We seek toys that will keep kids’ bodies and/or minds active. When we consider a toy, we consider whether it will spur the imagination, keep a child’s attention, or get a kid moving outside,” they explained. “We choose toys with high play value. A toy that is played with over and over, and then passed on to siblings to play with, has high play value. A toy that loses its allure quickly or is ‘one and done’ has lower play value. We also plug in to networks of specialty toy stores across the country to learn what is selling well in other stores and what trends are emerging.”
Saldanha said she relies on customer feedback more than ever. “This is tricky this year—the tried-and-true formulas aren’t working. We are working even more closely with our customers to understand what they want and need right now and ordering smaller amounts more frequently.”
COVID-19 changed the way virtually every business owner operates, including toy retailers. Many have long relied on hands-on sales methods, like in-store demos by employees and open product samples for customers to handle. When these practices became impossible due to large-scale store closures, retailers said it was time to put shelved ideas into swift and immediate practice. Fortunately, they are in the business of being creative and thinking outside the box. “COVID has totally changed our operation,” Hoeft said. “Now we have curbside pickup and will deliver. We’ve stepped up our social media—I’m trying to gather names for our list for our Christmas catalog. I look at product very differently—I look at something and think, ‘Can I show it online?’ [Choosing merchandise] used to be anything that was hand’s on. Now that I’m starting to order for Christmas, I want things that will show well online. We usually sell a lot of stocking stuffers, and I’m a little concerned about selling the little items because of how they may show online.”
Hoeft introduced some new ideas to her store, as well: “We never did Easter baskets, but we tried them this year and they sold like crazy. We also never did May Day baskets, but we did them this year as a way to package some of the little things, and we sold over 100 of them.”
Saldanha said it’s been a juggling act to keep up with the demand for certain items. “The most challenging part is how quickly traffic in specific categories has pivoted — and keeping enough but not too much inventory on hand is tricky. In the spring, we sold lots of puzzles, craft kits and other items designed to while away the time indoors and keep kids busy while parents and caregivers were working from home,” she explained. “Then interests shifted, seemingly overnight, and everyone wanted big outdoor and active toys. As we wait for the state order to determine how schools will reopen this fall, parents are looking for toys to help their kids learn and grow (“summer slide” is a luxury of the past—parents now are trying to recover from potentially six-plus months of disrupted learning.)”
In-store merchandising, another long-time staple in the practice of driving sales, was more difficult during the pandemic. Once again, retailers were forced to rethink their displays and how they arrange product. “Great displays can convey the fun, delight, and possibility in our lives,” Saldanha said. “They’ve never been more important.”
Hoeft said they normally have a large table of games set up in the store, but had to do away with it during the pandemic. Yet they found other ways to demo some of their products, like the Airfort, a large parachute-like tent with a fan, which they set up in the store. Retailers said a shift in perspective and the continued support of their customers and community helped them stay positive during the shutdown and re-opening. “Everyone has to start thinking out of the box,” Hoeft said. “We’re blessed to have a community of toy store owners around us, and we all support each other.”