PUBLISHER’S VIEWPOINT: The Times They Are A-Changin’

Feb.17.toybook.jsametby Jonathan Samet

On the December 21 episode of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment, Seth Meyers delivered the following:

Toys ‘R’ Us announced this week that its stores will remain open for 87 straight hours leading up to Christmas. Not to be outdone, the Internet announced that it will be open all the time, always, forever.”

This was meant to be a joke to make us all laugh (and it was funny), but at the same time it needs to be taken seriously, as the Internet has certainly changed the way we conduct our lives. One key difference is that the time of day consumers can make purchases is no longer limited by “store hours.” With a simple click of the “enter” button, toys and other products can show up at our door—or go directly to the gift recipient—in as little as 48 hours, without having to leave the comfort of the couch or desk.

Therefore, no matter what part of the toy industry you participate in, you have to take this change seriously. We all have to continue to evaluate how to best reach and win over the end user 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—or as Seth Meyers put it, all the time, always, forever! I remember talking to many manufacturers, even within the last nine years since I became publisher here, who said that Internet sales were just a tiny fraction of their business and was of no concern. To quote Bob Dylan: “the times they are a-changin’,” and to survive and succeed, we all better be a-changin’ with them.

Which takes me to my next topic for discussion—though it is one that has been addressed numerous times (including within this very column) over the last few years. The New York Times ran an article on December 23 titled “Babes in a Digital Toyland: Even 3-Year-Olds Get Gadgets.” The article discusses how the passion for playing with traditional toys and games seems to be diminishing at an earlier and earlier age. The topic of age compression and increased demand for tech toys is nothing new, but this article references a recent survey of 1,000 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 10, and a particular claim caught my attention:

“About two-thirds of those [parents surveyed], planned to give a tablet or smart-phone.”

From the referenced study, the claim of 66 percent was not as startling as the fact that the sample size began with parents of kids as young as 2 years old! Kids under age 5 possibly receiving tablets or smartphones? The times, they really are a-changin’.

So where do the above two topics leave you if you are in the business of either manufacturing traditional toys and games or owning a brick-and-mortar retail store? If you are saying to yourself, “it is time to fold up the tents,” that could be one option. The other is to continually adapt to the ever-changing marketplace and deliver a product or service your end user will demand. If you face obstacles, analyze and react to them, rather than resist or complain.

As much as the Internet, technology, and tablets and smartphones are changing our lives, it is important to remember that one of the single hottest products on the market last year was a simple plastic loom that kids wrapped rubber bands around to make colorful bracelets. There is probably no happier sight than walking into a store with the child in your life, buying him or her a product off the shelf, and seeing the instant smile and excitement on his or her   face. So, as much as the times are a-changin’, in other ways, many of the great things in life stay the same.

This column was published in the February issue of The Toy Book. Check back regularly for more toy industry commentary from Jonathan. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!

COMMENTARY: Lighting Up Imaginative Play: Light-Up Toys Provide Magical Fun For Kids

When I attended Fall Toy Preview in October, I had a conversation with a few industry executives about how when companies expand their line to include glow-in-the-dark or light-up SKUs, it often signals the end of the brand. They referred to glow-in-the-dark and light-up products as a “last resort,” and said it typically means that there are no other possible innovations for the product line.

However, I know a certain 4-year-old boy who would absolutely disagree with this idea, along with his 8-year-old sister (aka my niece and nephew!). LED lights have a strange magic to them—especially for kids. The bright colors they provide, just like glow-in-the-dark effects, seem like something out of a fantasy story that kids go crazy over—no matter how simple the technology actually is. There are some great new products hitting the market that reflect how great glow can be, here are some of my favorites:

TRACERTRACK_24

 

Tracer Racers, from Skullduggery, utilize Light Trail Technology as they blaze streaks of light on the glow-in-the-dark track. That’s right—LEDs AND glow play patterns. Lights galore! Magic frenzy!—and there’s more! Each Tracer Racer beams down purple light rays from its undercarriage onto the track, which is specially engineered to emit glow remnants only after the racer has passed. The new Tracer Racer drag racing sets include a 10-foot single lane set including one racer, an 8-foot double lane set with two racers, and a 12-foot double lane loop set with a light-up finish gate and two racers. The company will also introduce trucks to the line this year. Kids ages 6 and up are sure to enjoy all of the amazing light-up elements in this toy. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: These Valentine’s Day Toys and Activities Have Lots of Heart!

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and many people will give roses, chocolates, and jewelry to the objects of their affections. But lest we forget, toys and games also make fine presents. Looking around the toy industry, it’s clear that a number of companies were aware of potential opportunities, and responded with cool Valentine’s Day-themed products. But I also found some items that, even if they weren’t packaged specifically for the hearts-and-flowers holiday, are still perfect for the occasion. Here’s a brief rundown, though as usual, this is by no means an exhaustive list:

Phil.Feb7Plush dolls, from Aurora World Inc.: These dolls come in all shapes and sizes, and several of them sport that most familiar of Valentine’s Day icons: the heart. For example, Pink Promise, a soft, two-toned elephant, has heart prints all around the insides of its huge ears. There’s also Sad Sam & Honey, a pair of adorably sad-looking basset hounds, each bearing a heart with an “I Love You” message. Aurora World also has YooHoo & Friends, a trio of pastel-colored chimpanzees that not only present Valentine’s Day messages such as “Be Mine!” and “XOXO!,” but squeak when squeezed.

While the dolls I just mentioned are tailor-made for February 14, even if you take away the pink dye and hearts, these are still terrific plush animals. Both Sad Sam & Honey and YooHoo & Friends have big eyes and emotive facial expressions, which make them easy to empathize with and feel affection toward. Pink Promise, on the other hand, benefits from sheer generousness of proportions: It comes in four sizes, one as large as 22 inches from trunk to end. As such, this elephant is a potential pillar of emotional strength, and isn’t that what we all want for Valentine’s Day? Aurora World plush is suitable for all ages. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Makeup Kits for Girls Are Fun and Inexpensive

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 4.13.43 PMLittle girls love to play with makeup. I know I definitely did. Unfortunately for me, my mom mostly stuck to neutrals, earth tones, and pale pinks—”boring” colors, in my young opinion. I wanted to open that makeup bag and see electric blue eye shadow, fire engine red lipstick, bright pink blush, vermillion glitter nail polish—you know, the works. But I made do with what she had, bland though I may have thought it, because it was fun to play with. For years, I’ve said that if I ever have a daughter, I will keep a stash of all the fun stuff (that I would never wear myself—I now, of course, completely understand why my mom kept the palette she did) and let her have at it as a special treat. However, there are lots of great makeup kits for girls available today, which may save me a trip to the cosmetics aisle of my drugstore.

Alex Toys’ Mix & Makeup Nail Sparkle kit lets girls ages 5 and up create their own sparkly nail polish. Kids make the polish themselves by mixing the colors and glitter in the included mixing cup, then pouring their creation into the cute candy-shaped bottles with the funnel. The polish is easy to apply, and easily peels off. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Go! Go! Sports Girls Promote a Healthy Image for Girls

After struggling with self-image for many, many years, I feel that relaying the importance of confidence to a younger generation of girls is of the utmost importance. Young girls see and hear older women discussing hatred toward their bodies and the latest on fad diets; it’s such an unhealthy message to send. In a world where most “girl” action figures and dolls are stick-thin, and every famous tween girl looks ill-fed, a break in this trend is always quite refreshing. Go! Go! Sports Girl products offer girls products with a positive image to encourage healthy minds and bodies. The line was created after Jodi Norgaard had a disappointing shopping experience with her 9-year-old daughter, unable to find anything “stylish” that didn’t bare a stomach or involve high heels. Norgaard’s company, Dream Big Toy Co., aims to empower young girls with its motto “Dream Big and Go for It.” It seems that similar specialty toy companies have started to take notice, creating lines with a related approach.

ellaDream Big Toy Co. created Go! Go! Sports Girls as a fun and educational way to promote self-appreciation and the benefits of daily exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits, self-esteem, and overall healthy life skills among girls ages 3 to 12, regardless of race and socioeconomic class. The Sports Girls are age and size appropriate, and most importantly, they do not encourage an older or overly mature image. The image is innocent with a strong message to girls about appreciating and being true to yourself. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Inspirational Young Girls Can Change the World

American Girl has this wonderful program where they release a Girl of the Year doll, who comes along with stories, games, and activities that “celebrate what it means to be a girl today.” There’s a lot of dolls out there on the market that are providing great, positive messages to girls worldwide. Whether they are promoting positive body image, confidence, the drive to dream big, STEM education, or all of the above and more, girls have their pick of the litter when they are searching for a doll that is, in a sense, just like who they are or who they strive to be. American Girl announced their 2014 Girl of the Year on January 1: Isabelle, “an inspired dancer that finds her own way to shine.”

But some girls aren’t able to find that doll that would really make them feel special—and brave 10-year-old Melissa Shang has spoken out (adorably and politely) requesting that her favorite doll company, American Girl, make the 2015 Girl of the Year doll that is more like her.

Shang has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a debilitating form of muscular dystrophy, and is leading one of the fastest-growing petitions right now on change.org for American Girl to create a Girl of the Year doll with a disability. Shang is truly an inspiration. In just over 72 hours of her starting the petition, more than 15,000 people have joined the campaign she has launched. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Indie Video Games Are More Than Just Minecraft

Video games come in all shapes and sizes, and blockbuster series such as Activision Publishing’s Call of Duty and Rockstar GamesGrand Theft Auto can be fun in their own elaborate ways. But on the flip side is independent, or “indie” video games, in which each title is often the brainchild of one or a few talented persons at most. While these games don’t always provide a high degree of spectacle, all feature interesting ideas or idiosyncratic touches, making them unique and unlike much of what’s available in the mainstream.

Phil.Jan2.MinecraftThis past weekend, I got to immerse myself in indie video games, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y. Together with IndieCade, an international festival that promotes video games as a vehicle for artistic expression, the museum is hosting an exhibition, Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games, that shows off a variety of games that have been developed outside the major publishers. Among those displayed was Mojang’s Minecraft, which began life as a Swedish programmer’s side project, but has since grown into a cultural and commercial juggernaut.

(I could wax poetic all day about Minecraft, which allows users to build and share amazing homemade structures in a geometric sandbox world. But better yet, check out our recent Minecraft commentary, written by our outstanding editorial assistant Kara Faulk, for a more in-depth look at the hit game.)

The Minecraft installation drew its share of spectators, but there were plenty of other cool games on-hand for visitors to both play and experience. Many have been available on home consoles through the PlayStation Network and other download services. Here’s some of my favorites from the exhibition, but please note, this is in no way a comprehensive list, and anyone curious about the full roster of IndieCade games should check out Museum of the Moving Image’s event web site. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: #SantaCame!

Early Wednesday morning, the posts started. My Facebook and Instagram feeds were filled with images of friends and family’s kids tearing into presents, digging through stockings, and excitedly displaying their treasures for the camera. As I scrolled through the photos, I noticed several items that showed up over and over again. Having dedicated the last few months to the hottest toys on the market, it was neat to see them finally end up under Christmas trees around the country.

leappadI’d say the most common recurring toy in my feed was the LeapPad Ultra. Each time it showed up, the caption described how the kid who received it loved it and wouldn’t put it down. The LeapPad Ultra is a great introduction to tablets for kids, and lets them fully utilize its contents safely. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Minecraft Brings A Whole New World

CARSONI admittedly didn’t know very much about the Minecraft toy and game selection until Halloween, when my uncle sent a photo of the costume that he had made for his son; who am I kidding—I knew nothing until then! My cousin Carson is a 5 year-old obsessed with the stuff! At the time, all I knew was that Carson could make anything look adorable, and that he had clearly moved on from trains and into this world where players can build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3-D generated world. I can’t even begin to understand all of the insider ins-and-outs of Minecraft, and it seems as though the name represents an entity of games and licensed products. I do, though, like to get as involved as I can with Carson, as I am much more aware of the favorites of his sister, Kennedy, since they were the same as mine: all things pink. Man, girls are simple! In time for the holidays, I took the game home to see what this Minecraft business is all about, so I can get those ever-elusive little kid “brownie points” while I’m home for Christmas. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: The (Other!) Reason for the Season

While I understand and respect that the holiday season has religious roots, toys, gifts, and giving have become a huge part of American tradition—and I don’t think this is such a bad thing. As frustrating as it can be to deal with 600 impossible twist ties and Hefty bags full of plastic packaging on Christmas morning, toys bring families together. After mom and dad (or in this case, Aunt Marissa!) get to see their elated kids (or super adorable nieces and nephew!) open exactly what they’ve wanted all year long, the first thing they want to do is start playing.

Courtney (8), Aunt Marissa, Matthew (5), and our pal Stomper!

Courtney (8), Aunt Marissa, Matthew (5), and our pal Stomper!

My niece Courtney can’t even get through unwrapping her mountain of presents before saying “Can I open this one?!” And that’s where the fun comes in: When Dad arrives wielding his trusty screwdriver and a Tupperware container full of batteries (and this super awesome plastic package ripper thingy that if you don’t have you need to go out and buy RIGHT now!), Mom stands by tossing wrapping paper into garbage bags (and putting everyone’s coffee mugs on coasters, thanks Mom!), and there I sit cross-legged on the floor, instruction booklet diligently in hand, reading glasses securely fastened. Even if Santa gets all of the Christmas glory, it’s the gift-givers who get the toy out of the package, insert the batteries, and help teach kids how to play. It’s the gift-givers who get to see the excitement on their kids’ faces, who get the big fat thank you hug, and who get to watch kids enjoy their Christmas prizes. It’s really just one giant bonding experience (with maybe a few “how do you turn the damn thing on?!” and “It’s like they don’t WANT you to open it!” comments thrown in between all of the sap-fest family time). [Read more...]