The Category Drives Out of Sales Slump with New Added Features

There’s no play experience like racing a car across the playroom floor via remote control. While the video game industry surprises us year after year with even more realistic and stunning visuals, it can’t deliver the marvel in a child’s eyes after flicking the on/off switch on their new gizmo, toggling with the remote, and watching a still vehicle come alive in real time.

R/C vehicles put kids in the driver’s seat for the first time. While there will most likely be a rocky beginning (read: bump vehicle into a wall repeatedly), it’s only a matter of time before kids are nagging Mom and Dad for a different set of wheels or wings to add to the collection.

R/C vehicles are a staple of the toy industry. But of course, not every year sees an uptick in sales. Last year, both subclasses within the category—Radio/Remote Control/Ground/Sea/Other and Radio/Remote Control Air—underperformed compared to total toy industry growth of more than 1 percent, according to The NPD Group.

In particular, the Radio/RC Ground/Sea/Other category decreased in sales by 8 percent, while the Radio/RC Air category decreased by 17 percent, showing that R/C sales are down all around, but that when it comes to picking out an R/C, fewer customers opted for ones that fly.

Pterano Drone, from Mattel

So, what exactly caused this dip in sales? Last year featured more efficient drones flying higher than ever before, and faster four-wheelers trekking in our backyards and across living room floors. Yet customers weren’t driving these R/Cs off shelves.

“Too many me toos” says Robert Sheets, the national sales manager at MukikiM. “If it’s not new, it’s just another R/C.” He says too many manufacturers are pumping out products that don’t bring a new element to the category. “To make a difference in this category you have to have something unique.”

The concept of the R/C category has remained the same over the years—to wirelessly control a vehicle. Manufacturers exploited the idea in numerous ways, yet as they work to build new models, they’re reaching a standstill. Every great new idea has been said and done already.

As R/Cs start to lose stamina, R/C manufacturers look not to design a never-before-seen prototype, but instead to engage kids in new ways. Not every year will see a groundbreaking model reveal—in fact, most years won’t. But manufacturers are thinking up some different ideas, heavily technology driven, and steering down a road less traveled: user experience. This year at Toy Fair, manufacturers unveiled innovative new features hoping to pique consumers’ interest.

To start, Jada Toys said goodbye to alkaline batteries with the introduction of its HyperChargers line. This R/C line comes equipped with a rechargeable battery that can be charged via USB plug, the same way smartphones are charged. Other manufacturers, such as NKOK, nixed alkaline batteries for more energy-efficient rechargable lithium-power batteries. This move from disposable to rechargeable will save customers money over time, as they do not have to keep replacing batteries.

A lot of thought also went into the controllers. Playmobil revved up its game with its new RC Racers, which can be controlled either by the remote included in the box or the digital remote on the free Playmobil RC-Racer app.

This year also welcomed SmartGurlz, a Shark Tank baby, and a coding robot designed to attract girls and teach STEM concepts. This doll and her R/C segway can only be controlled through the app.

Siggy Robot New York, from Smart Gurlz Coding

While the traditional remote control still made many appearances at Toy Fair, so did the pistol grip controller, showing a crossover between toy grade and hobby grade.“The pistol grip controller adds to the overall play pattern and gives the R/C a more authentic, hobby grade feel,” says Darryl Li, director of marketing at Jada Toys.

Another way to get customers interested in a new R/C is to take away the remote altogether. Air Hogs, the third most grossing R/C property (New Bright is first, Sky Viper is second), introduced Super Nova, a drone that kids control with just their hands.

Air Hogs Super Nova Drone, from Spin Master

The R/C category has also been incorporating virtual and augmented reality, such as first-person view (FPV) video, to give kids a more realistic state-of-the-art driving experience. Last year Spin Master’s Air Hogs debuted its DR1 Competition Race Drones, allowing consumers to feel like a professional drone racer. This year, Toy State’s Nikko Air, its second year in the drone market, released the Mini FPV racer, allowing junior pilots to not only engage in high-thrill drone racing, but enabling them to monitor flying through FPV indoor video piloting. These new features give kids as well as adults a reason to buy a new drone, especially as R/C competition, in comparison to solo play, is gaining more popularity. According to Toy State, FPV and robotics are only going to pick up more momentum by Toy Fair next year.

This year, robot battles have arrived from Odyssey Toys. Auto Moto: Battle Bots transform from robot to sports car with the click of a button, but also transform when it loses the battle against another bot to signal defeat.

While manufacturers continue to refine their products, the chances of this being a stellar year for R/Cs or the toy industry in general aren’t optimistic. In March, Toys “R” Us officially announced that it’s going out of business in the U.S. due to an antiquated selling model and the onslaught of digital toys.

“There will be an influx of “closeout” toys on the market that will likely drive prices down,” says Kevin Greene, designer at NKOK, predicting that the toy industry will endure an “everything-must-go” phase. With this in play, Greene says growth will be hard to detect until all “the liquidated inventory is moved out, which should result in prices stabilizing.”

The demise of Toys “R” Us could also present opportunity for local non-chain toy stores to reinvent themselves.

“My hope is that specialty retailers will capitalize on the opportunity to find ways to attract these consumers back to their stores, create reasons to visit, demo, play, and ultimately connect with a new customer,” Sheets says. It’s this spirit of playfulness that will keep the industry alive.

Although this year wasn’t the most lucrative for R/Cs, and manufacturers had to speed-race onto the digital turf to stay relevant, they aren’t too worried about the field.

“R/C will always exist and there will always be a demand for it. There is something magical about controlling something wirelessly no matter how old you are,” says Greene. ”There will always be a market for real/physical entertainment.”

This article was originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of The Toy Book.