A lot can change in a year. This time 12 months ago, major events were moving online, and toymakers were adapting after global manufacturing and shipping procedures screeched to a halt. But perhaps no change was as drastic as the shift in consumer habits caused by COVID-19, and companies are pouncing on the opportunity to reach the new buyers that have emerged as a result.
Puzzles were a massive trend during lockdown. According to The NPD Group’s retail tracking service, US sales for the category between April 2020 and March 2021 totaled US$405 million—a 31% increase compared to the year before.
And the market research firm found that more than 24 million consumers who didn’t buy a game or puzzle in 2019 did purchase one in 2020. As a result, the average age of Ravensburger North America’s puzzle customer dropped drastically from 50 to 30-35 over the course of several weeks early on in the pandemic.
“It has since normalized, but there are so many more kids and young people into puzzling now,” says Filip Francke, CEO of the Seattle-based company.
To take advantage of these new consumers, Ravensburger needed to adjust. When the puzzle-maker caters to older customers, it increases the level of difficulty with higher piece counts or prints that are all one color. But Ravensburger’s research showed that younger customers are more likely to view puzzling as a social activity, so for them it focused on launching puzzles with smaller piece counts that could be completed during a visit with friends (virtual or otherwise).
And to reach that younger demo, the marketing team expanded Ravensburger’s presence on social media and other digital platforms. In late 2020, for example, the company started hosting puzzle hangouts on live-streaming service Twitch to help build a community around the activity.
A significant part of this new targeting strategy, Francke says, is putting more of an emphasis on pop culture and current trends when it comes to puzzle themes and images. The team is researching brands with strong fan bases in an effort to develop puzzles that will appeal to their obsessions, he says. Ravensburger is also working to launch new puzzles more frequently and time those launches to content rollouts whenever possible.
Ravensburger has strong relationships with a number of major brand owners already through board game collaborations like Villainous (Disney and Marvel), Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons (Warner Bros.) and Treasure X: Quest for Gold (Moose Toys). The team is now leveraging those connections to increase the number of licensed puzzles in its product lines, says Francke. He adds that the team feels confident rolling out new marketing strategies because while the pandemic brought about huge sales increases and demographic shifts, it also followed several years of steady growth.
“If this had just been the 2020 effect, we would be worried. But because that foundation exists, we feel confident in planning for the business into 2021 and beyond [with this new audience in mind],” he says. “We believe that the people who discovered puzzles and board games during the pandemic are now fans and will continue to make purchases.”
It makes sense for toycos to shift their strategies to keep capitalizing on the demographic shifts caused by the pandemic, says Juli Lennett, VP and industry advisor for toys at NPD. “In a normal year, sales bumps really depend on the types of products that launch. From time to time, the right product can lead to a big shift, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. These huge swings are absolutely unique to the pandemic,” she says. “And while we are going to see some pullback, I think we’re also going to see real staying power. For many of the families that have started to do puzzles recently, they’ve established new traditions around that.”
When it comes to board games, meanwhile, Francke says the biggest demographic shift was the introduction of much younger children than in years past. “Something else that we saw happen during the pandemic is that even games that are considered more complicated or ‘grown- up’ are being played with younger kids,” he explains. “These are games parents really enjoy, and it makes the children feel like they’re part of something.”
According to NPD, US sales for the games category (which includes strategic card games) between April 2020 and March 2021 grew by 27% to US$2.66 billion.
Funko Games certainly experienced an influx of young board game players during the pandemic. And to cater to this emerging demographic, the Washington-based company started developing several preschool games in early 2020, and is now rolling out a number of family-friendly games that feature what it calls “play parity.” The goal of play parity is to introduce rules or gameplay elements that level the playing field between older and younger participants.
“We know anecdotally that younger kids are now playing [these games], and older siblings who used to be off at, say, baseball practice are now at home [playing as well],” says Deirdre Cross, VP of sales, marketing and business development at Funko. “We’ve found that it’s more important than ever to make sure parents don’t have to lose on purpose when playing with their younger kids, and also [to create games] that older children can’t run away with it.”
In the Disney-themed game You Can Fly!, for example, players throw gliders to various locations. The game includes advantages that the lead player gives out to those who don’t have as many points to help them in the next round. Games featuring play parity still have winners, but they are designed to help bridge age gaps (and ability levels) that might have previously prevented younger kids from participating in older-skewing games.
Funko is also introducing the “Babysitter Seal of Approval,” which is included on games that are simple enough for babysitters (or older siblings) to teach to younger kids and then play without adult supervision. These offerings will open up board games to even the youngest players, Cross says. Moving forward, Funko is also focusing on various levels of gameplay in their instruction manuals.
“When we’re developing games for younger children, we’ll build something in beyond the basic rules to create a more complicated game [that will age up with the kids],” Cross explains. “For older-skewing games, we can also include instructions for softer, simpler gameplay.”
And while NPD’s Lennett believes many of these new young players will stick around, she cautions toymakers to build room in their strategies for sales declines moving forward.
“Even when we reach herd immunity, there will still be some people who are home- bodies and continue that behavior,” Lennett says. Those categories that support being home, like games and puzzles, will benefit as a result. But she doesn’t believe the industry will maintain the level of growth it has seen in recent months.
“Either your sales were huge in 2020 or your declines were in the double digits, depending on the needs of the consumer,” she says. “And everyone will have to be extra-cautious about building out their inventories moving forward because you don’t want to plan for the same thing to happen this year as happened in 2020. You almost have to go back to prior years and look at those trends, and then plan to make adjustments along the way.”