Rick Woldenberg, CEO of Learning Resources, Educational Insights, and hand2mind, discusses the latest trends, industry happenings, and how business strategies are evolving in the specialty toy market.

The Toy Book: How have you done business differently since stay-at-home orders were put into place across most of the U.S.?
Rick Woldenberg: The widespread closure of schools and childcare centers created a crisis for families all over the world. We saw school closures in China and believed they were coming to the U.S., so our family of educational toy and hands-on curriculum companies — Learning Resources, Educational Insights, and hand2mind — urgently pivoted to provide special support for parents and families sheltering in place at home. Each brand team worked tirelessly to make available thousands of free online resources, daily curriculum, instructional videos, activities, workbooks, games, and more to help families and schools create fun-filled distance learning experiences in a home setting. It’s important for us to be part of the solution at a time of great need.

Easily accessible online, parents and teachers will find a host of free, family-friendly resources, including advice, DIY projects, printable activities, videos, and more, to help keep kids learning and engaged through meaningful play.

TB: What do you think the short- and long-term impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic on the toy industry will be?
RW: The future of play remains bright. Childhood is all about learning through play and we don’t expect that to change. In the short run, I think families and schools will become bigger consumers of online content. However, there is no substitute for spending time together, either in a classroom or at home. Families want to have fun together, so games, activities, and hands-on learning will remain essential and irreplaceable.

More significant for the industry may be changing consumer buying habits. The crisis drove more buying to the internet. Stores will need to continue to raise their game to compete with online merchants, or pivot to strong omnichannel strategies. Toy companies and merchants must be able to adapt to changing consumer preferences to continue to thrive.

TB: With ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy canceled this year, how do you plan to connect with retailers?
RW: While it’s unfortunate that the Marketplace & Academy has been canceled, we work hard to stay in contact with our dealers all year long. We value events like the Marketplace & Academy to nurture relationships and build partnerships. We can’t meet with our valued partners in person today, but our team is adapting to continue to provide great service, so we don’t miss a beat.

TB: What are your predictions for the state of toy retail in 2020?
RW: We’re looking forward to a good year under challenging circumstances. We think toy sales will be strong because the need for meaningful play is greater than ever. We are concerned for our communities and neighbors at a time of great economic stress, but remain optimistic about the vibrancy of the U.S. economy. We have also seen resiliency outside of the U.S. to bolster our confidence.

TB: What major toy trends are you seeing this year?
RW: We think this year it’s less about a specific category of toy that’s selling well, but rather it’s about the problem the toy solves. More specifically, as the strain of distance learning mounts, we think parents will increasingly want to reduce their kids’ screen time and replace it with engaging educational toys and family activities that provide more meaningful experiences. That aligns well with our mission to inspire a love of learning.

TB: Which products or categories do you expect to drive sales this year? How do your expectations compare to last year’s results?
RW: We see continued strength in the preschool category. More specifically, we’re seeing a significant demand in our early STEM products. We also see renewed interest in our math products. These areas are also drawing interest on our Learning@Home webpage with so many free workbooks and activities.

TB: Do you take advantage of ASTRA member programs? If so, what do you find most beneficial?
RW: We have entered the ASTRA award programs for many years and it’s always an honor to have our products nominated. Our all-new Botley 2.0, a screen-free coding robot, was nominated for the Best Toys for Kids award this year.

TB: With less consumers out shopping, how are you getting the word out to drive awareness about new product lines and brands?
RW: Whether we encounter shoppers in stores or online, we remain focused on our mission to help parents inspire a love of learning in their children. Not only are we continuing direct-to-consumer communications about new products, but we’re also promoting our free content to help parents and teachers make school-at-home a big success. Consumers are seeking out these free resources to increase their children’s engagement and make learning independently easier and more rewarding.

TB: Do you have a drop-ship program or plan on putting one in place? What are the benefits or challenges?
RW: We have had a drop-ship program in place for many years. Our infrastructure held up well under the sudden demands of the COVID-19 crisis.

TB: How have you kept up with retailer orders for your products?
RW: We are fortunate to have had deep inventory positions coming into this year and have been able to keep our service levels high. Supply chain issues have been minor so far.

TB: What are some of your most in-demand items right now?
RW: We have seen strong demand for STEM and preschool toys during the sheltering-at-home period. Buyers also sought out educational games and other hands-on products that keep kids engaged and away from screens. Tools to support teaching at home such as the STEM Explorers Mathlink Builders are popular, as are free downloadable workbooks and activities for math skills on the Learning@Home page. Toys like the Farmer’s Market Color Sorting Set teach the basics such as colors, shapes, letters, and number recognition. We continue to focus on expanding our content offerings to offer parents and teachers choice and more easy-to-implement solutions.

TB: What innovation in your products are you offering to consumers this year?
RW: We made great strides with our screen-free coding products this year, unveiling Botley 2.0, the next generation of our TOTY-award winning Botley the Coding Robot, at Toy Fair New York in February. Now kids as young as kindergarteners will be able to enjoy an even more immersive coding experience, all without being tethered to a mobile device. We also expanded our Coding Critters line to introduce preschoolers to the exciting world of hands-on coding.

TB: What are the ways in which you maintain relationships with specialty retailers?
RW: It’s all about good communication. We try to stay in constant contact with our specialty retail dealers as well our other customers and business partners. We also continue to invest in our Learning@Home webpage, which is a great resource for specialty retailers and their customers.

TB: What advice would you give to other manufacturers during this time?
RW: It’s hard to give advice during a time of such dramatic change and disruption. Obviously, the ability to adapt and reinvent will be key skills during this period. Our product category, toys, will grow in importance and childhood will continue unabated. Hopefully we all can pivot to meet demand and add value anew in consumers’ lives.


This Chatting with the Industry Q&A response originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read more!