NEW YORK, NY: FEBRUARY 16, 2016—My favorite parts of Toy Fair are invariably the far aisles on the main floor upstairs and the downstairs exhibits. That’s where many of the start-ups and smaller players are and where you get a sense of the ideas that are propelling toy inventors and designers.
Here are my idiosyncratic impressions after two days walking the show at the Javits Center, with a few added comments based on a recent spate of store visits.
Star Wars isn’t disappearing any time soon. Sphero will have competition for its BB-8 later this year when Spin Master brings out its own version of the robot. The creator of the Spin Master BB-8, Thomas Tretter, was doing the product demos, happily admitting he “gets paid to do what he did as a kid.” Also via Spin Master, Air Hogs will have an expanded Star Wars line.
But SW was ubiquitous, if anything moreso than even last year and eclipsing even the strongest of the strong. Manufacturers uniformly report that Star Wars is still going gangbusters, and many are still developing new assortments. Marvel is Marvel, DC is DC, and they’re next in line. I was surprised not to see more new Minions on the boards, as retail is still going strong with that as well. Universal’s Secret Life of Pets clearly has momentum, though, with Spin Master’s Best Friend Max wobbly-walking dog from that upcoming film a candidate for next Christmas’s must-have toy (Elmo beware). Commonwealth and Spin Master are also working Angry Birds in anticipation of that film.
The expansion of Melissa & Doug, once exclusive to specialty toy retail, is nothing short of astounding. The company used to eschew licensing, but has some Disney and other properties. However, unlike LEGO, which reinvented itself (and came back from the walking dead) through licensing, Melissa & Doug hews true to its origins even if distribution has expanded to mass, education stores, and more.
JoyLabz had perhaps the oddest display among the robotics/electronics startups: Makey Makey was demonstrated using a piece of tin foil folded on a table, with hand-written marker instructions, and five bananas with connector leads in them hooked up to a laptop. Touch the foil with one hand and use the other hand to hit the bananas (“it could be anything conductive; we just used bananas,” the demonstrator noted, though their sales materials feature bananas too), and you get music from the laptop. The kit can also be used to make game controllers, instruments, and “inventions.”
There’s really no breakout company in robotics. If I were a buyer, I’d be hard pressed to decide who to go with — both whether they have the wherewithal to deliver, and what might make the product stand out. Most seem to create different lighting or noise patterns from generic component parts, and there’s little guidance for what you can do further. As a group, they’re coming of age, but they’re not there yet.
Among the more traditional science kits, Smart Lab used licensed Star Wars and Disney Princess to distinguish itself. Based on retail visits as well as the show, Smithsonian and National Geographic are dominating this sector at specialty, in book stores, and at mass.
3Doodler and Creopop are among several companies offering handheld 3D printer pens. 3Doodler has had an adult version on the market at $99; the new child version is $49. Different colors of instant-hardening plastic are available. Using the pens requires pretty serious fine motor skills; not clear to me exactly who the market will be for kids versions. 3D printers are also rapidly coming down in price to where they might have potential as consumer items, but again, the killer app that could transform them from “having potential” to “must have” has yet to surface.
A year or two ago formable sand products for home and school were relatively high end, sold by Brookstone initially; the variety is expanding rapidly now under a variety of names (Kinetic Sand from Spin Master, but Magic Sand, Aqua Sand) — in colors (including glow-in-the-dark from Sands Alive), packaging, and price.
Zing’s StikBot Studio — a toy-size green screen with little characters you can use to create your own stop motion animated videos — expanded its one-year-old line with a more extensive “Pro” kit. Zing also has Wet Head, which is a hat with a little reservoir for water and stick plugs coming out. It’s essentially “Russian roulette with water,” as a demonstrator put it — the hat is filled with water, players spin a wheel to indicate which plug to pull out, and eventually one of the pulled plugs releases the water.
AzIAm Girlz yoga dolls, which first shipped this past December, is growing its line.
There’s growing availability of sophisticated tool sets. New at the show this year was Toydriver from the “smart screw specialists.” Toydriver is a mini powered screw driver designed for the small screws used in children’s toys but also for small hands. Sidenote: Toys R Us carries an extensive line of Home Depot-branded tools and child-sized workbenches and the like that are truly standout.
On the gardening front, Triumph Plant has been doing a beautiful job with Crayola for a number of years. There’s a My First Plant series, and a Color A Plant Pot kit. And they’re re-introducing a Charlie Brown tree to go with their Charlie Brown Grow a Pumpkin kit; the tree had been around for a few years, but the company wasn’t able to get the seeds for the last two years. Triumph’s Jim Johansen also said the company has licensed the Garden State Parkway for a wildflowers line. It’s an outgrowth of Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification program and could be expanded to cover other states’ highway wildflower programs.
Morphmallow’s Spaghetti Headz hair accessories remind me of the coiled shoe laces that were a fad for a couple of years. Generic versions of Spaghetti Headz have been on the market at $9.99 list for about two years; Morphmallow, exhibiting at Toy Fair for the first time, is now adding licenses including Care Bears, Garfield, Betty Boop, and the upcoming Steven Spielberg film The BFG selling at $12.49. Target is tweens to young teens, with the designs with feathers at the end appealing to the older end of the spectrum.
Capson and Zoofy, to name just two, are outfitting caps (brand name Brick Brick) and backpacks, respectively, with boards that work with Lego and other similarly sized building blocks as well as with miniature versions so kids can customize their look. Capson had the Disney logo, an As logo, and a Hello Kitty image to show what you can do, but was quick to say they don’t license those images, “they’re just to demonstrate what someone can do.” In fact, they don’t even sell blocks — those are user-supplied. Zoofy used generic designs to illustrate the potential on its backpacks.
Pinbox 3000 is likely typical of many toy startups these days: They used a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $15,000 they needed to make the diecuts they needed for the first run of their cardboard “pinball machines” which are blanks. The examples they showed demonstrate how you can draw or photograph your own backgrounds, use discarded toys or household objects, and so forth to create your own game. Make, an online magazine (makezine.com) wrote about the product last July and started selling it. That sent them back for a second run. They’ve also developed special education and library market versions. The basic kit is $49.95; a large “double kit” is $89.95.
Speaking of make your own: Yottoy, which is both a publisher and makes plush and collectibles with licenses for Babar, Madeline, and others, signed on as an Eloise licensee about a week before Toy Fair. A beautiful lunch kit was hand painted to get it on display in time, VP creative director Peter Doodeheefver showed me proudly. Sales of licensed Madeline merchandise benefited enormously from a museum exhibit at the New York Historical Society, as did sales of Paddington goods with release of the Paddington Bear movie. Next up for them is The Little Prince movie; but Yottoy typically has these properties long-term; the movie and museum shows are bonus opportunities.
Not a toy per se, but a fun product: Fan Hands (company and product name) — special gloves designed to make a loud clap when at a sports event. Marc Jones, President/CEO and inventor of the gloves, has had the patent since 2013 and has been selling a generic version. But if this isn’t a product designed for licensing… Jones has a relationship with CLC for another product line he developed; he’s looking to expand that to Fan Hands, and to add MLB and NHL “to start.” NFL, he says, is too complex and too expensive to deal with starting out.
Colorforms and Highlights are two children’s brands that have been largely dormant for a number of years. Both are re-establishing their reach through licensing programs the results of which were in evidence at Toy Fair this year and should be more in evidence at retail over the next 12 months. Colorforms is owned by Out of the Blue; Highlights is independently owned.
The success of eOne’s Peppa Pig — which itself is expanding its licensee roster through U.S. master licensee JazWares — is prompting a small surge in other pig properties. Not that pigs haven’t always been popular, but this year sees the addition of Pass the Pigs dice from Winning Moves, among others. Note to Warner Bros.: Is it time for a Porky comeback?
That’s all folks!
Ira Mayer, former publisher and executive editor of The Licensing Letter, conducts competitive research and consults for marketers; takes clients on retail tours; and offers courses on licensing through colleges and universities. You can contact him by clicking on the “Contact” button above left.