Tsum Tsum
Consumer Products

Piecing together a modern collectibles craze

What's driving this generation of digital natives to rabidly collect and trade tiny toys, when all signs had been pointing to a technological takeover?
April 5, 2016

There’s nothing new about the trend of kids collecting tiny toys. Whether you’re talking about marbles or little green army men from years past, or circa 2010 crazes for Squinkies and Zoobles, collecting as a play pattern transcends generations and cultures the world over. In fact, it often appears in some new shape or form every handful of years and tends to fade away just as quickly as it surfaced.

However, “coveted collectibles,” as it’s been dubbed by the Toy Industry Association’s annual trend report released at New York Toy Fair in February, has many experts in agreement on the category’s potential. Content-backed brands like Shopkins (which has now sold more than 240 million units and was the top-selling toy in the US last year) and the emerging Disney Tsum Tsum figures, they contend, have more substance to them and just might be longer-lived than previous iterations.

So, what is driving the modern generation of digital natives to rabidly collect and trade tiny toys, when all signs had been pointing to a technological takeover?

Paul Solomon, co-CEO of Moose Toys, says collectibles like Shopkins provide kids with “a surprise and delight” element when they open the blind bags. They are eager to see which new characters they get, always hoping to land one of the rarer ones.

“While kids have been collecting since the days of baseball cards, YouTube has served as a significant driving force behind today’s rapidly growing collectibles craze,” he says. “Unboxing has taken it to a new level on YouTube as kids watch their favorite YouTube personalities open their favorite collectibles or make up stories with the character. An increasing number of kids are also starting their own YouTube channels, showing off the new characters they unbox.”

To be sure, the last time we saw the collectibles category on fire was in the years immediately following the 2008 economic crash with products like Cepia’s Zhu Zhu Pets in 2009 and Blip Toys’ Squinkies in 2010. It made perfect sense. Consumer confidence was at its lowest level in years, and families simply didn’t have the disposable income available for big-ticket items.

But now, with a middling economy, a relatively stable greenback and US stock markets recovered to pre-recession levels, it’s not as easy to explain the renewed popularity of relatively inexpensive collectibles and blind bags, most of which retail for a little more than the price of a candy bar.

“I thought going into New York Toy Fair that there were 28 or 29 collectibles. But coming out of it, I think I saw at least another 10.”

- Chris Byrne, TTPM

In fact, Juli Lennett, toy industry analyst at The NPD Group, says despite the popularity of products like Shopkins, she is actually seeing the most growth in toys with higher price points. “People are more confident and were willing to fork over more money for that big-ticket item for the holidays,” she says.

Interestingly, Chris Byrne, content director at TTPM and a 30-year toy industry veteran, notes that looks can be deceiving when it comes to smaller purchases of bling bags and two-packs. “We describe it as the US$200 purchase made US$2.99 at a time,” he says.

To his point, Stephanie Wissink, managing director and senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, adds that ironically the bestselling package of Shopkins in 2015 was the 12-pack, which, priced at US$21.99, cost more than double the US$10.38 average price of a toy, according to figures from The NPD Group.

With a shaky economy crossed off the list, digging a little deeper, we find that the kids collectibles trend is likely the sum of two converging factors, according to Wissink.

She contends that today’s millennial parents are busy and always on the go, so it makes sense to have products for their kids that are small, portable and playable anytime, anywhere. Wissink first noticed this trend in the preschool category over the past four or five years, and now it’s moving up into the kids and youth range. “It’s easy to have 50 Shopkins in a Ziploc bag and take them with you wherever you’re going,” she notes.

The second piece of the puzzle rests in the notion of tradability and collectibility. Wissink says both have been strong themes in the toy industry for years, but they have never been entirely steady. Hits like Pokémon and Tamagotchi have simply not been consistent. “It’s usually one hit that kind of comes and goes,” she says.

On the subject of tradability and collectibility, Lennett recalls one of her colleagues who attended a Shopkins Swapkins event last summer at Toys”R”Us with her son and daughter, where they sat at long tables with complete strangers and traded their Shopkins. “I think what’s different about Shopkins is that they have so many different ones and they really encourage trading,” she says.

For Byrne, kids’ consumer behavior ultimately boils down to one thing—they want cool toys. “We live in a world today where a 10-year-old has never lived without a smartphone, so they’re not that impressive to them,” he says. “I’d love to say it’s this great move towards classic play, but classic play has never really gone away. Tech has made the toy box bigger, but classic play still has a lot of appeal for kids. What is surprising, though, are the adults who have been so focused on technology—they are finally waking up to the fact technology doesn’t dominate everything in a child’s world.”

Shopkins S4 Sweet Spot Playset OOP

Heading into its fifth season, Shopkins is lining up new characters and a TV series.

On the other hand, Lennett contends that the main reason the kids tech boom has slowed down in the past few years is that parents have made those larger purchases on electronics and tablets, and now that they have them, they won’t need to replace them for a few years.

She also sees a growing chorus of parents who are concerned that their children are now spending too much time with their heads buried in screens and want them to be more engaged in physical play and participating in social interaction with their peers.

Enter collectibles. At first glance, they may not seem like much more than cute, small plastic toys, but analysts agree on the value of their intrinsic play pattern.

Byrne says collectibles, with varying degrees of rarity, are the building blocks of learning, thinking and discovery. There’s also the social component. “It gives kids a certain identity,” he says.

Similarly, Lennett says collectibles offer kids a way to engage and interact with one another, as well as begin to understand early commerce, which is a very valuable lesson for them to learn. “They want to feel part of their friend group, and if you’re the only one who doesn’t have it, you don’t feel connected to the group,” Lennett says.

For its part, Moose Toys’ Solomon says the Australian company recognized kids’ love of miniature items and set out to create a toy that blended popular play patterns, like playing house and shopkeeper, with collectibility. “Collectibles also encourage imaginative play in children, who find joy in creating their own worlds and stories with characters,” he says.

Clearly, Moose Toys has struck the right chord with its young audience, and now the goal is to stay one step ahead of the competition, which is coming on fast and furious. “I thought going into New York Toy Fair that there were 28 or 29 collectibles. But coming out of it, I think I saw at least another 10,” Byrne says. “Everybody’s trying to get into collectibles with this blind bag type of thing. And inevitably, being the toy industry, there’s going to be some fallout. A handful will make it and a handful will die.”

According to Byrne, one of the more notable challengers could be Jakks Pacific with its Disney Tsum Tsum figures. Meaning “stack stack” in Japanese, the adorable collection of tiny Disney Tsum Tsum characters debuted in Japan in June 2013, and the plush range quickly became one of the most successful in Disney Store history, leading to expansion into figures, softlines, accessories, home décor and more.

New for this year, Jakks Pacific has introduced three different sizes to the plush collection, and following a limited launch stateside in late 2015, the toyco is moving Tsum Tsum figures into mass-market channels this year.

“That they’re collectible is incidental to the fact they are Disney characters with beautiful packaging and a cool form,” Byrne adds. “You’ve got the track record of Tsum Tsums coming from Japan and there’s already some equity in the Disney and Tsum Tsum brand.”

When asked how his company plans to keep on rolling and fend off competition from the likes of Tsum Tsums, Solomon says the key to success in the collectible space is keeping the line fresh and kids engaged. Each new season brings additions to the Shopkins line, he says. For example, Petkins were introduced in season four, as were new categories like party time, garden and homewares for a total of 140 new characters.

“Each season needs to have a purpose and be different from the past collections,” he says. “Ensuring there is freshness more than twice a year and maintaining price-points that make the range affordable to kids is critical.” And without revealing too many of Moose’s secrets, Solomon says with season five of Shopkins hitting stores this summer, fans can expect more of the same kinds of unexpected twists and surprises, as well as more new characters, categories and engaging fan experiences that have helped move the brand beyond the collectibles aisle.

“If you look at some of the examples before them, like Squinkies, they went out pretty quickly. I think after a year and a half they were pretty much gone, and it still looks like Shopkins has legs,” says Lennett. “They’re really making people want it.”

Byrne adds that he believes Shopkins has more staying power than some of its predecessors, particularly because of its push into licensing, now with more than 50 licensees worldwide. Echoing Solomon, he says the property will need to continually expand the storyline. One way Moose Toys is doing that is through a partnership with Nelvana Enterprises for an animated TV series, which is slated for delivery in 2017.

“Moose is a smart company. They know that built into anything like this is the eventual plateau and decline. That’s just the way toys work. So knowing what comes afterword is really important,” says Byrne.

While visiting Moose’s booth at New York Toy Fair, Wissink noticed the company is already making minor adjustments. In an effort to expand its customer base, Moose has removed some of the bubblegum pink from its packaging and introduced more gender-neutral characters and figures that are appealing to boys as well.

“It’s a great whimsical property for girls, but little boys are playing it, too,” she emphasizes. “Although it’s not as dual-gender as some previous successes in terms of collectability, like Pokémon.” Regardless of gender, when considering the larger collectibles trend currently taking shape, Wissink says it’s probably more durable this time around, as long as there is continual innovation—particularly behind content. “That was really the catalyst for Pokémon years ago,” she says. “Not only was it a collectible and playable business, but it also had good content to keep kids engaged for more than just a year.”

Furthermore, she notes that beyond those already well-established in the mini-collectibles business, more and more companies are simply making smaller versions of their products in response. She points to Hasbro’s new line of mini Disney Princess dolls and Mattel’s Monster High mini dolls as prime examples. “It feels like we’re moving more towards this collectible mini-figure business,” she says.

About The Author
Patrick Callan is a senior writer at Kidscreen. He reports on the licensing and consumer products side of the global children's entertainment industry via daily news coverage and in-depth features. Contact Patrick at pcallan@brunico.com.

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