Classic toys’ low-tech chic lures back consumers

You can write it off as an inevitable by-product of disenchantment, or maybe it's just that the assembly instructions to the latest cutting-edge toys have become too difficult for the average parent to discern. Whatever the reason, classic toys-sans sound...
September 1, 2000

You can write it off as an inevitable by-product of disenchantment, or maybe it’s just that the assembly instructions to the latest cutting-edge toys have become too difficult for the average parent to discern. Whatever the reason, classic toys-sans sound chips and artificial intelligence, many made of wood and other materials that predate the Internet-are making a serious comeback at retail.

Leading the retro toy renaissance are board games, which saw a whopping 60% rise in sales last year, growing faster than video games, which recorded an 11% increase for the same period. Other traditional toys, like action figures and building sets, were up last year too, 14% and 17% respectively, according to market research firm The NPD Group. C.B. Roberts, VP of merchandising at Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based KB Toys, reports that sales of classic toys like Easy Bake Ovens, Tonka Trucks and Slinkys have increased 10% at the national chain in the last year.

Why consumers’ sudden infatuation with the toys of bygone eras? There are several explanations. Roberts attributes part of the growth to lower prices, which he says toycos have achieved by using inexpensive materials and, in some cases, outlicensing toy production to other companies. Others in the industry, though, believe that the low-tech toy aesthetic of the classics appeals to the childhood memories of Boomer parents who, increasingly, are being besieged by a cacophony of electronic blips and mechanical whirs every time they stroll down the toy aisle.

‘Toys that go back to basics and require some old-fashioned interaction-imagination, if you will-are still needed today. People see them as a refreshing alternative, because they’re not so high-tech,’ says Tracey Tsontakis, VP of product development and marketing at New York-based Eden Toys. In June, Eden shipped its inaugural line of tin metal Jack in the Box toys, which come in three styles and retail for US$25 each, to specialty and upper-tier retailers. According to Tsontakis, Eden plans to add to the number of classics it produces over the next year, and at press time, she was brainstorming with her staff on other toys they can revive.

Boomer nostalgia aside, there’s no replacing the power of old-fashioned marketing support to help ignite interest in a toy. Take board games, for example. Four years ago, the prospects looked dire for game makers like Hasbro. Sales of the category were stagnant. To add insult to injury, stories started surfacing in the press that proclaimed the death of board games was near at hand, says Mark Morris, spokesperson for Hasbro’s Games division. The solution for Hasbro was to fight back with a multimillion-dollar TV and print ad campaign extolling the familial benefits of playing board games. ‘We knew we had to get our message out, that playing board games is a great forum for parents to communicate with their kids,’ says Morris. Tagged Family Game Night, the campaign has proven an unqualified success. Unit sales of the company’s children’s game titles, such as Operation, Twister and Trouble, shot up 14% last year, and Hasbro’s family games, including Scrabble and Monopoly, have improved also, rising six points in `99. Additionally, the annual Monopoly and Scrabble competitions that Hasbro organizes have seen attendance soar by 200% in the last decade.

In recent years, other toys-like Slinky, for instance-have also benefited from exposure in movies. Since `95, when Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania-based James Industries’ Slinky Dog first appeared as one of the characters in Disney’s Toy Story, sales of the company’s Slinky Pets line have jumped 1000%, according to company president and CEO Ray Dellavecchia. Dellavecchia hopes for a comparable spike for the company’s classic Slinky in November, when the toy makes a a cameo appearance in Sony Pictures’ remake of the 1970s cops-and-babes TV show Charlie’s Angels. As well, James Industries (now a division of Poof Products) will release a Grinch Slinky toy that ties in with the Universal Studios film adaptation of the Dr. Seuss children’s book, due out this holiday season.

Also hoping to tickle the nostalgia bones of Boomers, Napa, California-based Hasbro subsidiary OddzOn will rerelease Tinkertoy to stores this month. OddzOn is bringing back the activity toy, after an eight-year hiatus, in its original cardboard canister and with all-wooden parts.

‘We went with the retro look with bold primary colors because that’s how our core customer group-people in their 40s or older who have young kids-remember it,’ says Tom Flaherty, marketing manager at OddzOn.

OddzOn will bow with three Tinkertoy SKUs: A 60-piece (Junior, US$19.99), a 104-piece (Jumbo, US$29.99) and a 140-piece (Colossal Constructions, US$39.99) set. The company is also producing exlcusive sets for Toys `R’ Us and FAO Schwarz. The reintroduction of the classic toy is the first step in OddzOn’s strategy for acquainting kids with the franchise. In fall 2001, the company plans to come back with special themed sets and Tinker Tech, a set that will feature electronic components.

‘We’re laying the foundation for a whole new generation of Tinkertoy users,’ says Flaherty. ‘A lot of kids don’t know Tinkertoy. We want them to experience the quality of the original toy, and then introduce them to the next level of play.’

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