Nothing makes a kid feel smarter than knowing something a grown-up doesn’t, and with the likes of Kim Possible, Harry Potter and Spy Kids inspiring young sleuths, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why science and detective toys have been flying off shelves. In fact, in November 2002, the science toy category had seen a year-to-date growth of 11% over the same period in 2001. ‘Scientific toys and spy detective toys have been dormant for a while, but we’re starting to see a real increase in this whole arena of education, science and exploration,’ says Reyne Rice, director of marketing and communications for toy sales tracker NPDFunworld. ‘It’s not nerdy to be smart anymore; in fact, it’s kind of cool.’
Industry players seem to be moving away from the category’s boy-centric roots, embracing a new generation of science and sleuth equipment geared to girls. San Francisco, California-based Wild Planet – which holds all 10 of the top-selling detective SKUs – saw its sales grow by 50% in 2002, helped by the August launch of its Undercover Girl line. The company’s first girl-targeted range clearly struck a chord – its website racked up 1,000 secret agent profile postings within a month. ‘We did a year-long research study, and girls see themselves as neighborhood detectives. It’s almost universal,’ says Wild Planet’s senior brand manager Marybeth Moser. ‘Girls have been spying forever, but they’ve never had products targeted to them.’
While boys lean towards gadgetry and multi-functional gear, girls are into secret communication and covert operations. The girls in the study said they would never wear the Spy Vision Goggles (US$12.99) – Wild Planet’s boy-skewing top-seller that has a green lens and large lights on either side for night vision – because it would be too obvious they were spying. In response, Wild Planet is releasing Secret Agent Glasses (US$14.99) this spring that are much sleeker and could pass for a regular pair of sunglasses. Secret communication items – including Hip Talkies (US$14.99), which look like regular FM radios; and a 3-in-1 Note Kit (US$9.99) that requires a red lens for deciphering and comes with a mini paper shredder – have also been popular.
But boys aren’t being ignored. Wild Planet is launching several new products in the Spy Gear line, including the XP-5 Spy Wallet (US$9.99), which looks like an ordinary wallet but secretly serves as a spy kit. And coming out in the fall is a line of Spy Message Communicators (US$29.99), which allow messages to be sent from a wrist-mounted keypad and read via an LCD screen on the goggles.
Other companies are also starting to jump into the mix. Susan Rives, co-owner of Scientific Explorer, says her Seattle, Washington-based company had its best year ever in 2002, with sales up by 10%. The extra cash is being used to launch more than 100 new SKUs this year, including several new science kits and a line of Master Spy toys geared to the specialty market.
The company is also focusing on girls by making spy toys in pink and creating SKUs that appeal to both sexes – like the 3-in-1 Telesonic Spy Ear (US$26.50), and the pocket-sized Nine Way Optic Center (US$5.50), Spy Telescope (US$8.50) and Spy Power Shot Camera (US$13.50), all shipping in late March.
But spy gear is not the only type of investigative toy that saw growth last year. NPD’s Rice says that at 37%, science and discovery toys now represent the largest segment of the learning and exploration category, which includes educational toys, electronic learning aids and musical instruments. The growing kid market penetration of channels like Discovery Kids and National Geographic, coupled with the increasing popularity of kid-targeted science and nature shows such as Sci-Busters and Zoboomafoo, is helping to grow the category’s momentum.
Toycos like Westlake, California-based category leader Uncle Milton are responding by revamping their product lines to reel in kids who aren’t normally science-oriented. ‘When you’re competing against the greater toy market and all the entertainment choices kids have, you really need to come out with a well-designed, fun product,’ says executive VP Frank Adler.
The company has a whole range of habitats for small critters like fish, frogs and caterpillars, along with the traditional Ant Farm. Its revamped Star Theater (US$29.99), which allows kids to project the night sky on their ceiling and follow along with a guided CD tour, was the top-selling science toy in November 2002. Uncle Milton is planning to expand the line this year with six to 10 innovative new science SKUs, and Adler says the company is looking at other categories as well. Uncle Milton managed to grow in 2002 – despite key retail accounts like Ames, Store of Knowledge and Natural Wonders going under – in part because of increased interest from mass-market retailers.
Rives says Scientific Explorer is planning to expand on the success of its 2002 science products by broadening the line with new preschool products like My First Chemistry Kit, as well as targeting girls with creative kits. New for 2003 are: Plastic Science, which allows kids to create glass-like, translucent sculptures and bowls from plastics and polymers; and Ice Cream Science, where kids can actually use their T-shirt as an ice cream machine and learn how salt creates a chemical reaction. ‘So much chemistry occurs in the kitchen, but the cooking kits out there don’t link it to anything,’ Rives says. ‘This is the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to science.’