Industry leaders, retailers, and manufacturers weigh in on toy trends, changes, and more in The Toy Book’s annual State of the Industry Q&A. 

SHARON DIMINICO, Founder and CEO, Learning Express

How did demise of Toys “R” Us challenge you to rethink the way you did business last holiday season?
We are examining our product mix and adding new vendors to our line where it makes sense. Our stores average 3,000 square feet, so it’s impossible to carry large items or a vendor’s complete line of games, for instance. Many of our stores have extended their hours. I know that Toys “R” Us produced a special guide for differently abled kids that was very popular, and we will replicate it in the Learning Express way. Stores that are near a closed Toys “R” Us store advertised “Discover Learning Express” through Facebook and Every Door Direct Mail via the post office. We love it when a customer walks into our stores and says to their kid, “Well, this will be our new toy store.”

What were the bestsellers at Learning Express during the 2018 holiday season?
Our top 10 items were the Fresh Mart Grocery Store from Melissa & Doug, Laser X from NSI International, Smart Watch from iTouch, Rock ‘n Roll Rainbow Piano from MukikiM, the Lumiela Necklace, Doinket Darts from Marky Sparky, L.O.L. Surprise! Under Wraps from MGA Entertainment, Scruff-A-Luvs from Moose Toys, Speks from Retrospective Goods, and Funtime Tractor from Kidoozie—which we have carried since 1987!

What new products do Learning Express retailers carry since the loss of Toys “R” Us?
We’re expanding our selection of Barbie, Hot Wheels, Nerf, Hasbro games, PJ Masks, Paw Patrol, and Disney Princess.

What trends will have the biggest impact on the toy industry this year and beyond?
In terms of trends impacting the toy industry, I think the biggest trend that impacts all of us is YouTube videos and kids spending so much time watching them. If vendors find ways to take advantage of this (such as MGA Entertainment did with its L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, or many vendors did by capitalizing on kids watching other kids unwrap “blind” items), it can have a huge impact on what product kids will want. Specifically, unicorns are still hot, as well as sequin fashion items, animals, and pillows. Robotics and STEM toys are great, especially in the fourth quarter, but we had various impulse items prove to be popular, such as Schylling’s Nee Doh Glob, of which one of our stores sold more than $10,000 worth—that’s more than 2,600 pieces!

How would the potential 25 percent tariff on Chinese imports impact your business?
Along with the increase in the minimum wage, it will have a very negative effect. Many products will be out-priced and will not support a 25 percent increase.

Grandparents contribute $7 billion dollars in toy sales each year. How do you reach this demographic?
We sign up all our grandparents at point of sale (POS). We also target grandparents on Facebook. Several of our stores have set up a “mock store” in populated senior communities, and we offer senior discounts. Many of our stores create a “Grandparent Survival Kit,” which is a customized bucket loaded with toys, books, and games. We wrap it in cellophane and lots of curling ribbon and sign it. Grandparents will ask us if we can make up a basket for a 4-year-old-girl or a 6-year-old boy, and we say, “Of course we can!” We segregate our grandparents at POS and ask if they want to register their grandkids with us. We use it as a reminder service to call about two to three weeks ahead of time to remind them that their grandchild’s birthday is coming up and ask would they like us to recommend something and get it ready for pick-up or to mail out.