So, have they been naughty or nice? There’s certainly no shortage of options for the Santa list this year. Áilín Quinlan takes a look at what’s likely to make a splash and the role that social media plays in what children choose.
After nearly 20 years working in the toy business, nothing surprises Stephen Tymlin.
“There’s always something you think won’t fly — and then it’s suddenly huge,” laughs Tymlin, manager of Smyths toystore in Carrickmines Co Dublin.
Given Tymlin’s 17 years’ experience of the toy industry, you may be interested to know what his gut says about what’s going to be big this year.
For girls, he predicts, the massively popular LOL (Lil Outrageous Littles) Surprise doll, a collectible mini-doll wrapped in several layers of packaging with a surprise in each layer, will be the toy of choice.
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Top of boys’ lists, he believes, will be the hugely popular Nerf guns, though toy manufacturer Hasbro really has tried to do its bit for gender equity with a full range of darts, arrows, crossbows and blasters for girls too.
Two- to five-year-olds, says Tymlin, will more than likely be asking Santa for PJ Masks accessories — playsets, masks, role-play costumes, and figures, all of which mirror the popular TV series.
However, Tymlin cautions, be warned; when it comes to toys these days, nothing is set in stone. Social media can radically change buying patterns overnight, completely overturning the market with astonishing rapidity if a plaything goes viral:
“Social media has had a huge effect on the toy industry,” he explains, pointing to the colourful YouTube videos about how to open LOL dolls — these have had a big influence on buying patterns:
“Social media has really changed the picture, because it means toys may suddenly have to be available a lot quicker.
“If something is big in the states today it can be big in Europe or Ireland a day later.”
This means certain toys can go from being simply popular in a particular region to becoming an international phenomenon — look at fidget spinners, for example.
So how do toy retailers such as Smyths, which has a network of almost 70 stores throughout Ireland and the UK, and the many smaller independent toy stores decide months in advance what will be the big sellers in the world’s biggest toy-buying season?
As in the case of PJ Masks product spin-offs, Smyths buyers look to TV and Hollywood for a guide to what’s going to be popular:
“Among the big drivers, especially for younger children, are TV programmes and movies,” says Tymlin.
“A substantial amount of toys are driven by TV — look at Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, for example,” he says, adding that the Paddington movie is expected to be a big driver of demand for Paddington-inspired toys.
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“Our buyers are very hands-on in terms of what’s going to be the next big thing. They do their research,” he say.
Smyths buyers also closely watch the US toy market to see what’s been making waves there — such as the tiny, artificially intelligent toy truck which retails at around €240 and is expected to be a big seller here this Christmas:
“The Cosmo robot truck was the biggest selling toy in the US last year so we expect a surge here this year,” says Tymlin, adding that buyers also make it a priority to stay in touch with manufacturers and suppliers.
The level of marketing behind a new toy will also determine how seriously the big toy stores view a plaything, he says, adding that buyers will also ensure that they have sufficient stocks of historically popular toys — for example the FurReal range of animatronic toys which have been popular for several years now.
“They bring out a new cuddly toy every year — this year it’s a tiger,” he says, adding that Lego is also on the list of very reliable old favourites.
Toy manufacturer Hasbro — which has been recognised for its attempts to promote the fact that all its toys are suitable for both boys and girls, says it “actively” encourages parents to “choose toys on individual interests instead of by gender”.
“For instance, the Sweet Tears Baby doll has a switch on her back to choose whether she says ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ so both boys and girls are encouraged to play out these moments,” a spokesperson explains. Among Hasbro’s designated Top Toys this Christmas are the FurReal toys — Roarin’ Tyler, the Playful Tiger (€154.99) and Chatty Charlie the Barkin’ Beagle (€61.99), the Nerf Nitro MotoFury Rapid Rally (€59.99) a variety of My Little Pony playsets, Baby Alive Sweet Tears (€59.99), and a variety of Transformers figures ranging in price from €59.99 to €84.99.
Good play value, strength and resilience, and high-quality, as well as toys that suit the ambience of their shop are some of the features Wyon and Christel Stansfeld look for when they’re selecting products for their iconic Cork toyshop, Pinocchio’s which sources toys from some 50 companies from all over the world.
“We continually research the market both through catalogues and online,” says Wyon, who has also found that face-to-face customer feedback on particular toys has proven to be a good indicator over the years.
“We do a lot of looking at previous history of toys,” he says. “At the same time, we like to add in something new.”
In the old favourites line, Pinocchio’s is offering puzzles from €9.95, music boxes from €19.95 , wooden kitchens from €75, wooden dolls houses from €175, and wooden trains sets which start from €35. Train sets never go out of fashion, says Wyon.
“These are toys which have been tried and tested over the years,” he observes. In terms of Christmas 2018, he says, dolls, for girls and boys alike, are confidently expected to be among the shop’s bestsellers.
“We’ve always had a lot of really nice dolls for older children — boys and girls from ages six and seven,” he says, adding that the Irish-designed Lottie Dolls are particularly popular again this year.
In terms of new arrivals to the market, there’s a wide choice, but Wyon particularly recommends the latest in Djeco things-to-do sets, which cover everything from finger-painting sets for tiny tots to clothes-designing sets for teenagers. These are immensely popular, he says. For smaller people, the shop will also be stocking a new range of toys, including wooden pull-alongs, crafted by renowned Swiss toymaker Hape.
“We try to buy ethically — we buy from good sources at the upper end of quality in the toy world,” he explains.
Research seems to form the backbone of the toy industry. Every time Greg Dooley reads the newspaper, watches TV or listens to the radio, he finds himself making notes. The long list of facts and figures that results from this daily harvesting is crucial for keeping 30 Seconds, the popular board-game produced by Woodland Games of which Dooley is managing director, current and up to date.
From the outset, ongoing research has been central to the success of this game, which requires participants to think fast and talk quickly.
A network of focus groups with a diverse range of participants were used to determine the suitability of 30 Seconds to the Irish market, when Dooley was planning to introduce the game to Ireland in 2011.
Woodland Games, which now makes two versions of the game — 30 Seconds and 30 Seconds Junior — continues this philosophy to this day.
“Before we introduced the game to Ireland from South Africa in 2011, we carried out extensive research through focus groups all over the country, targeting people of different ages, backgrounds and genders and we still do that,” says Greg.
The company annually updates the content of the game, 12,000 editions of which sold out last year (Woodland Games is producing 20,000 editions for this Christmas 2017).
“We keep it very current — the game is extremely popular in the 18-35 age group,” he says, adding that the content must be cutting-edge, otherwise customers will not enjoy the expected buzz:
“It’s updated every year — all year when I’m reading or listening to the radio or TV I’m continually putting together a list of what might be suited for this year’s game.
“Our content is always very new and very accessible. That’s the secret — and that’s why the game is tweaked every year to reflect modern Irish popular culture.”
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