By Sara Karnish
As of press time, the hectic holiday season was wrapping up, and toy retailers were preparing for the New Year. In this article, they looked back on the best-sellers of 2021.
Fidgets, “pop-its,” and other sensory toys continued to dominate sales for most retailers. “If it squished, popped, stretched, or spun, it sold,” said Heather Edwards, manager/buyer for Snickelfritz Toys in Vernon Hills, Ill. “Schylling NeeDoh and TopTrenz Popits were some of the best-sellers. Lava Lamps, Micro Scooters, Bruder Trucks and Magna Tiles were also leaders for our store.”
Sensory toys were also big at Indiana’s oldest toy store, which has been in operation for 51 years, The Toy Chest in Nashville, Ind., although Owner Hilary Key said their customized packages made special occasions even more special for young customers. “This won’t come as a surprise to anyone—every item in my top is a fidget toy! Poppers, infinity cubes, Simpl Dimpl, NeeDoh, et cetera. If I sort by profit dollars, Airforts sneak in to the Top Ten as well as the packages that we make for our customers. For instance, when a customer orders a generic ‘Easter Basket”’ or ‘Birthday Box’ then we build it according to what they tell us about the recipient. Fidgets have really been the craze this year, but our custom packages are what have really increased our sales,” she said.
Besides fidgets and sensory toys, Shawnta Ray, owner of Happy Up, Inc., with locations in Edwardsville, Ill., and Clayton, Mo., said more sophisticated, next-level toys were popular. “Hands Craft makes these miniature houses and rooms that you’re making from scratch. They’re very detailed—definitely an older teenager or adult product. Almost all of them have working electricity. One of our trends has been what I call ‘tedious crafts’—you can’t think about anything else. They’re really mind-clearing. I think that’s something we all need right now!” She is also excited about their new stock of advanced wooden die-cut puzzles, aimed at “serious puzzle people,” as mentioned on the store’s Facebook page. “The ones I’m carrying now—they’re definitely an investment. They start at $35 and go up to well over $100. They have some really interesting cutouts. We’re also selling a ton of games right now.” Another item “selling great for us is ‘interactive plush.’ There’s a company called I Scream who makes a pillow-shaped plush filled with plush starlight mints, mini-waffles, gummi bears,” Ray explained.
Retailers expect the fidget/sensory toy phenomenon to continue well into the new year “I’m not sure if it’s because we’re seeing more and more anxiety in children, or if they really like to collect things. It’s probably a combination of both,” Edwards said. The fidget toys give children a way to keep their hands busy and are a healthier alternative to the hours of screen time they have been clocking with virtual schooling, playdates, and other everyday events upended by COVID. Key added, “I don’t think fidget toys are going away for a long time, because craving sensory input is driven by something much deeper than seeing an item on TikTok.”
Tactile items requiring critical thinking and creativity are popular, and their appeal is expected to continue into the new year. “I think the hot toys for us in 2022 will be the basics—arts and crafts, creatives, and new kinds of kits,” said Lisa LeStrange, owner of Lucky Duck Toys in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “We carry a line of science kits by a company called Thames and Kosmos, which are higher-end science kits for older kids and do really well. They’re educational but fun for the kids. Also, telescopes—people have been spending a lot more time looking at the stars and being outside. We carry globes you can touch and it will talk, telling you about different places in the world. Another one is InteliGlobes, which are interactive and more high-end.”
Key predicts a surge in demand for toys geared towards younger children. “I think keeping on top of innovation for my infant/toddler department in 2022 will be important. We’re seeing a lot of families around us have a third or fourth baby, and there’s always a need to stock baby toys that the big family doesn’t already have, or that you can assure grandma they don’t have because it’s only been out for six months.”
Ray is seeing strong early interest in what she refers to as “articulated slugs—they’re incredibly satisfying to hold onto,” she said. She adds, “Fidgets will continue. The sensory stuff will continue to be built on. I also think there will be more innovation in baby toys. Hopefully we will see an explosion of new stuff we missed this past year.”
Retailers frequently look to their young customers or relatives and social media to stay current with trends so their merchandise appeals to a wide age range. LeStrange belongs to a social media networking group for toy store owners on social media and says, “I listen to a lot of what these people have to say. I have to like it—even if the item is popular, if I don’t like it, I have a hard time buying it. I try to buy things you won’t find walking into a chain store. I try to find unusual things that make our mix look interesting when you walk in. You want the customers to walk in and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many things in my life.’ ”
Edwards pays close attention to social media platforms. “A lot of the trends are currently coming from TikTok and what the kids at school are talking about. I make sure to listen to the parents and kids to know what they are looking for and what they are excited about,” she said. Key also uses social media to share information about new inventory in her 1,300-square-foot store. “Our best ‘merchandising trick’ has been highlighting new items in live videos. It can be
looking through everything we’re receiving on a particular day on a video or doing a full-on demo of an item, but nothing moves a product faster than a live video,” she explained.
Many retailers changed their store layout or curbed their in-store demos due to COVID. They are slowly returning to their pre-pandemic setup, but continue to adjust as necessary. “Our demo area is not open. We have a whole playhouse built into our store which we had to block off during COVID,” LeStrange said. “We had to adjust on that [demos]. Now we have part of our counter dedicated to demos. We also keep some demos behind the counter, but our demo area is very small. We keep changing it out so customers keep seeing something new.” Ray said about displaying items, “We spend a lot of time on it. During COVID we pulled all the acrylic out of our stores. We remade everything in wood. What I’ve found with plush—you mostly just have to keep it contained. You have to have smaller wooden boxes that squish it and keep it in place. We’ve also built special displays for our plush toys. With the little stuff, I take it out of the cardboard boxes and put them in big candy jars. After COVID, we put the little things in jars so people weren’t touching it as much.” Because of the high volume of customer traffic Key gets through her 1,300 square foot store, she said her team “has to reset the store daily. I think the constant movement of our items (while it drives our employees mad) keeps everything selling and feeling fresh.”