Small toys, Big sales

Holiday must-haves Zoobles and Squinkies prepare for expansion.
February 8, 2011

It’s anyone’s guess as to which plaything will take the coveted Girls Toy of the Year TIA title being awarded on February 12 at the org’s annual gala in New York. One thing’s for sure—it won’t be Cepia’s ZhuZhu Pets. Last year’s overall winner wasn’t nominated this time around and has been eclipsed somewhat by smaller and even more prolific collectibles. Considered the trend toys of Christmas 2010, Spin Master’s Zoobles and Squinkies, created by tiny 16-person toyco Blip Toys, have been tearing up the small doll aisle at retail since their August 2010 launches, putting new twists on a tried-and-true play pattern.
Arguably the timing is right for these toys priced under US$10. In a shaky economic climate, shelling out US$6 for a Zooble or US$10 for a pack of 16 Squinkies seems like a relative bargain and very attainable for most kids and parents. In fact, NPD industry analyst Anita Frazier says the two toy brands were responsible for the bulk of the 15% growth experienced in 2010 by the playset themed figurines & accessories category in the US, which is now worth US$458 million. (Hasbro’s Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Pony, and Mattel’s Polly Pocket also fall into this category.) And like Pokémon and Beanie Babies before them, the makers of these small collectibles are driving their popularity by continually refreshing the brands’ vast casts of characters, quickly retiring “old” series, limiting distribution of rare and exclusive figures, and offering more elaborate playsets in which to house and display them.
What is new, however, is that both are quite innovative in terms of design and the play proposition they offer to their primary audience of girls ages four to nine. Zoobles,  with its unique pop-up mechanism, was admittedly modeled on the Toronto, Canada-based toyco’s monster boys toy line Bakugan. But Spin Master marketing director Christy Collins says it wasn’t necessarily intentional. “The idea was born from an early sculpt of a more feminine creature proposed for Bakugan,” she says. “It wasn’t right for the brand, but we all looked at it and immediately saw its potential for girls.” The resulting cute creatures seem to ooze personality and comfortably sit outside the standard small doll or pet-based brand, such as Littlest Pet Shop or Polly Pocket.
As for Squinkies, Blip president Bill Nichols says the idea developed internally and was inspired by the multi-billion- dollar vending machine business where “you can buy anything from stickers to an iPod.” The next thought, he says, was to investigate how to replicate vending play in a miniature playset for girls. The resulting Squinkies micro-figures that each come packaged in a gumball machine-like plastic bubble were developed over the course of six months. Along with the vending twist, Blip set out to add a feature that would further differentiate Squinkies from the hard plastic toys currently on the market and settled on making them tactile. Squinkies’ squishy texture, however, proved a bit of a problem when it came to rendering detail. So Blip created a special sculpting tool fit for mass production to prove the toy could be made at a factory. As there will be more than 1,000 individual Squinkies models produced by the end of 2011, it’s clear Blip has jumped right over that hurdle.
Now, not surprisingly, most industry watchers want to know what the lucky toycos behind these hot toys will do for their second acts. And while items like Squinkies and Zoobles aren’t necessarily expected to be long-term brands, their creators have different ideas. Timing might just be on their sides in this respect, too.
According to BMO Capital Markets research analyst Gerrick Johnson, the company taking the biggest hit from the incursion of ZhuZhu Pets last year and 2010′s new arrivals into the small doll and/or figurine category is Hasbro. It’s had tremendous success with small collectibles brands like My Little Pony, Furreal Friends and Littlest Pet Shop, in particular. However, Johnson notes the relaunched Pet Shop is headed into its sixth year at retail, and sales are softening. “Hasbro’s done a great job in keeping it fresh and interesting, but it’s just the way cycles work.” Similarly, Sean McGowan, senior analyst at Needham & Company, notes that with Pet Shop’s age comes some inherent vulnerability. “There’s a natural arc,” he explains, adding “but it’s still holding and has a lot more shelf space than any of those other things.”
In an effort to conquer larger chunks of mass-market planograms, both Spin Master and Blip are expanding the core lines and related accessories this spring and next fall. On deck for Zoobles are more versions of Happitat playsets, new figure functionality and the addition of Mama Zoobles and Baby Zooblings. And as of yet, there are no plans to create licensed versions of Zoobles.
The same can’t be said for Squinkies. Blip’s got an ambitious expansion plan that involves producing wee spongy versions of popular girls characters like the Disney Princesses, Hello Kitty and Barbie, and also  moving into the boys toy aisle.
In Q2, Blip is introducing a boy-targeted Squinkies line led by key boys licenses—Marvel, Cars and Hot Wheels. “We knew boys were secretly going into the girls aisle to buy Squinkies,” says Nichols. “Moms were also asking why they couldn’t get them for boys.” And to make them more appealing to boys, Blip’s imposed a competitive play pattern on the product. Male-targeted Squinkies will come with two die that encourage boys to compete for each other’s collections.
Moreover, both companies are aiming to move out of the toy aisle and into other parts of the store with planned licensing programs. Cartoon Network Enterprises is handling L&M for Zoobles and plans are in the works to create a two-pronged program for younger and tween girls that will roll out this fall. SpinMaster was tight-lipped regarding partners, but said the usual categories for those demos—apparel, publishing, interactive—will be covered.
Blip, on the other hand, is keeping its focus on girls four to seven. New York-based upstart Pinstripe Licensing, helmed by ex-4Kids exec Carlin West, is leading the program that already counts Activision (Nintendo DS games) and Cardinal Games (board games) as licensees. While Squinkies has tween fans, Nichols says courting them in the consumer products arena is not a priority. “They’re still not our core demo,” he says. “Any time you want to target tween girls, you’ll probably miss—they move on and off things so fast, it’s hard to get anything to stick.”

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