Home improvement: Licensors get into domestic-inspired toys

From 24/7 home improvement, food and gardening cable programming, to retailers specializing in home lifestyle products, there's been an eruption in home-centric activities and goodies for adults over the past five years. And given how much time small kids spend at home with their parents-and that today's parents want to share the activities they enjoy with their offspring - preschool property owners are betting that some of this demand for more home-based products will trickle down to the preschool demo.
November 1, 2004

From 24/7 home improvement, food and gardening cable programming, to retailers specializing in home lifestyle products, there’s been an eruption in home-centric activities and goodies for adults over the past five years. And given how much time small kids spend at home with their parents-and that today’s parents want to share the activities they enjoy with their offspring – preschool property owners are betting that some of this demand for more home-based products will trickle down to the preschool demo.

So far, the theory seems to be bearing out at market. According to sales data compiled by industry researcher The NPD Group, the preschool roleplay category – which includes home cooking centers, garden tools, play vacuums, etc. – was up 5% in June 2004 compared to the same period last year. And the combined powered appliances and food mixes category grew a healthy 20% during the same period. In 2003, these subsects rang up retail sales of US$300 million and US$80 million, respectively.

Manufacturers are building up these categories with toys that let kids ‘help’ their parents with household and garden chores. And just as the quest for style is inescapable in grownup lifestyle products – think of the popularity of restaurant-style designer stoves for a population that barely cooks – this new generation of home toys appeals directly to parents used to signifying their good taste through things like gardening gloves. In fact, property owners don’t see any reason why many of these stylish toys can’t share retail shelf space with their adult counterparts. And some are beginning to offer miniature, fully functioning versions of the appliances and tools parents use.

Take Bill and Ben’s garden range, for example. Based on the long-running BBC preschool show about two flowerpot men, garden product licensee Slotz Limited has developed a 15-SKU line including aprons, gloves, tool sets, flowerpots and watering cans. Ranging in price from US$3.50 to US$54, the gear has been available in U.K. gardening chains, independent garden centers and mass retailers such as Woolworths for a little over a year.

‘Most of the tools we’re developing look like smaller versions of adult tools, made from wood and metal, rather than plastic,’ says David Fannin, operations director at Slotz, a garden tool and accessories manufacturer in the U.K. Employing a realistic design and using durable materials appeals to parents’ desire for good value.

Although he wouldn’t talk specific numbers, Fannin says the line has done well at retail – distribution has increased from five retailers to more than eight major accounts (including Woolworths, Argos and Wyevale), as well as expanding into a number of independent garden centers. This has encouraged Slotz to broaden its kids range with new licenses. The company recently signed on to make preschool garden implements for Disney’s Princesses and Winnie the Pooh brands for spring ’05.

The cultural shift towards spending more time together as a family on traditional pursuits like cooking and gardening has not been lost on Montreal, Canada’s The Cookie Jar Entertainment Company. The studio’s VP of licensing, Kelly Elwood, caught a first glimpse of the trend when she found out that parents and kids were co-viewing flagship preschool show Caillou 40% of the time on PBS. To find out more, Cookie Jar conducted focus group research to determine what elements both kids and moms enjoyed seeing in the series. The two most engaging Caillou settings with both groups were the kitchen and outdoors (backyard, garden and garage) because these environments tended to showcase story lines with strong social and family-oriented messages.

This discovery, coupled with secondary research culled from magazines, newspapers and periodicals indicating that parents crave more family time at home, convinced Cookie Jar to take Caillou’s home-based activity branding to another level. The result is a strategic program built around the property’s kitchen and household hooks that not only includes most licensing categories – from publishing (cookbooks, garden journals), to toys (cooking utensils, garden sets) – but will, if all goes as planned, also influence the direction of story lines starting in fall ’05. ‘The creative is just getting started, but indoor and outdoor family fun time will be part of the mix,’ says Elwood. The themes will be reflected in all Caillou media, from TV and videos, to story books and the property’s website.

Set to launch at retail in spring 2006, the consumer products program is being presented to both licensees and mass and department store retailers as a proposition that could be merchandised in housewares as well as toys. Cookie Jar is convinced that, just as the seasonal and home fashion sections at mass chains have evolved to include kids products, so too will housewares. Take Target, for example. Elwood says the chain’s seasonal garden and outdoor sections have been growing significantly in size year over year (which suggests solid sales), and it’s been adding more kids products to its stock list over the last few years. She adds that Target’s apparent achievements with these out-of-the-toy-aisle programs will make it easier to convince other retailers that parents are up for buying toys in the store sections they frequent.

While the line will still include products that are more appropriate for the toy aisle, such as a lemonade stand and a butterfly garden kit, items like colorful cooking utensils might make more sense in the domestics section, says Elwood. ‘It’s a very logical next step for those products.’

And it seems that mass retailers are starting to agree. Target was one of the first U.S. outlets to adopt a preschool lifestyle strategy in 2001, blending branded Sunny Patch products for kids in with regular household items. The Sunny Patch line debuted in the chain’s seasonal section with gardening tools and accessories designed and manufactured by Callaway & Kirk, which is the Miss Spider/Sunny Patch division of New York-based family entertainment company Callaway Arts & Entertainment. Callaway chair and CEO Nicholas Callaway says the Target program reflects the books’ stories, which are all about families working together and encouraging each other.

So far, the program is doing well. Callaway says 2003 sales exceeded expectations by 40%, and Target has tripled the amount of shelf space devoted to Sunny Patch products for 2005. New gardening equipment will be added to the line in February, and the retailer is planning to expand the brand into its sporting goods department with camping gear, luggage and bike accessories (also courtesy of Callaway), effectively doubling the program’s in-store presence to roughly 200 SKUs. Callaway also expects retail activity to pick up in response to Nelvana’s Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends, a new preschool TV series that started airing on Nick Jr. in September.

Nelvana and Nick are working with Fisher-Price to launch a Miss Spider toy line in fall 2005. According to Sid Kaufman, Nelvana’s outgoing executive VP of worldwide merchandising, the broader, mass-market Miss Spider TV line will not be related to the Sunny Patch/Target range, and gardening supplies will remain exclusive to Target in the U.S.

Another TV property tapping into the gardening and cooking trend is Fifi and the Flowertots, created by Bob the Builder mastermind Keith Chapman and produced by London, England’s Chapman Entertainment. Revolving around a free-spirited flower protagonist who loves to cook, the girl-skewing preschool series is a natural fit for home-activity play, says Emma Sherski, marketing director for U.K. master toy licensee Vivid Imaginations.

The plan is to focus on roleplay-oriented cooking toys and accessories in fall/winter 2005, and then shift the program’s emphasis to the outdoor category in spring 2006. Helen Howells, director of international licensing for Target Entertainment, which represents Fifi’s licensing rights outside North America, suggests that a partnership with an organic food producer or supermarket would also make perfect sense down the line.

But it’s not just preschool brands that are being spun out into home and garden toys. Knowing full well that it’s moms who make the bulk of purchase decisions, several grownup brands are also moving into the kids arena.

Earlier this year, L.A. toyco NKOK launched HomePlay, a line of smaller household appliances for children that feature the same brand names as their full-size counterparts. So far, 125,000 Singer-branded kids sewing machines have hit the market in a cross-section of retail channels including JCPenney, mail order catalogue Back to Basic Toys and Cracker Barrel restaurant gift shops. NKOK VP Kohsche Koh says the company plans to add a boys line of power tools (including a circular saw and drill) in 2005, and the team is shoring up a well-known do-it-yourself brand to sponsor the range.

French toy manufacturer Groupe Berchet, meanwhile, has created kid-sized replicas of kitchen appliances based on full-sized models by up-market companies such as Krupps.

And lastly, Food Network is stepping into licensed retail for the first time ever with a kids cooking line. Boca Raton, Florida-based Planet Toys International is the net’s first licensee, with roleplay items (chef’s hats, aprons, cookware and utensils) and activity sets (i.e. dough play and ‘design your own apron’ kits) rolling out in spring 2005 in specialty outlets and mass chains including Toys ‘R’ Us and Wal-Mart.

‘These products aren’t going to look like things mom and dad use, but they will have a certain sophistication to them,’ says Joshua Kislevitz, senior VP of domestic licensing for United Media, Food Network’s New York-based agency. Phase one will cover the basics of food play for the younger demo – banking on mom-targeted marketing to drive sales – but Kislevitz adds that there will be some opportunity for older-skewing branded products like small appliances once the program gets off the ground.

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