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Trends and Toys

Trends and Toys

The challenge of catering to customers of all ages

Stocking your shop's shelves with entertaining products designed to appeal to children of all ages is no small feat, and finding a balance that keeps kids and their parents happy can be tricky for most specialty shops. Luckily, a wealth of innovative products that hit different age ranges and price points can take some of the guesswork out of the exercise.

Bill Lucey, director of RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo in Sevierville, Tenn., said that it's a challenge to attain a something-for-everyone balance.

"Most stores are limited by both square footage and budgeted inventory dollars. To address this, we actually use a vertical merchandising approach in the area we have dedicated to toys," he explained. "Starting with items targeting 4-to-6 year-olds at the lowest levels, since small children are literally closest to the floor, and working our way up through the age groups we've been able to use product placement at virtually all eye levels for each age group in a relatively limited space."

Product intended for toddlers is marketed at eye level for parents, who are doing the purchasing.

Animal magnetism
Lucey noted that this technique also works well with all kinds of items, including puzzles, plush toys and products made with PVC or resin. It also helps to have some pretty cool stuff to sell. Not surprisingly, Lucey is excited about the new animals arriving at the zoo, along with the merchandise that goes along with them.

"We're designing several new displays to feature product specifically related to the new monkeys that have arrived," he said. "The easy sale of new plush toys (and other items) is being augmented with several adult items, including clothing and jewelry to appeal to all buyers."

Lucey has recently seen an increase in the realism of the products and a significant improvement in the packaging to address both the marketability of the product and the educational message that accompanies the toys. Given a choice, he's found it does seem an ever-increasing percentage of the zoo-going demographic will purchase a toy with an educational or environmental message.

Getting crafty
Thanks to the explosion in popularity of activities like scrapbooking and hands-on art projects, products that promote and stimulate creativity and self-expression are selling extremely well, reports Debbie Kurlansky-Winer, a former art teacher and current vice-president of marketing and product development at Scratch-Art in Avon, Mass.

"We're not dictating to them what the finished product will look like, so it's truly a creative product," explained Kurlansky-Winer. "Last year, we developed a series of stickers that children scratch out and customize: Arctic, sea life, outer space and rain forest stickers have done really well. Sea life always seems to be the leader of the pack."

Given how many people are concerned about environmental issues, showcasing green products is a great way to attract customers. Kurlansky-Winer added that it's in the consciousness of the public; kids are learning about it at school and stocking green products brings a certain awareness among the parents who are buying these kits.

"I think they look upon it as being a quality experience for their kids," she said. "Plus, it's something they create and learn about."

Niche needs
Kurlansky-Winer noted that because shop owners need to focus on customizing their merchandise to their retail environment, manufacturers are offering varied themes in a range of price points.

"Stores like to focus on a theme that suits their location, so we have different themes that fit different kinds of retail outlets," Kurlansky-Winer said. "Outer space can be at a science museum along with the rain forest, sea life and arctic stuff. We have a series of beautiful, translucent light catchers, which look like stained glass. People from the botanical gardens shops love the butterfly and the flower, for example."

Tina Waldmier, marketing manager at Aurora in Pico Rivera, Calif., added that bright colors remain incredibly popular. Neons and anything with pink is hot.

"We have a lot of new fabrics that we're using called bling fabrics: they have sparkles and kind of a holographic look to them," Waldmier said. "Even taking the realistic animals and putting those in teal, purple and pink have been doing very well, anything with a sound component is very big and the graffiti look and typeface is still huge."

Travelers and Fashionistas, Unite
Travel and fashion-oriented products are another trend that retailers and manufacturers are cashing in on. Scratch-Art Scratchin' Fashion Activity Kits features a different country and two fashion models standing in front of a famous monument, along with fun facts about each attraction.

"They get to imagine that they're in another country, and they get to learn about places they've seen," Kurlansky-Winer added. "The Italy kit has the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the (Roman) Colosseum; the USA kit has the Capital and the White House; in England, we have Parliament and Windsor Castle, and in France we have Versailles and the Eiffel Tower."

Aurora is also capitalizing on the travel trend with an expanded line of plush characters. Waldmier said they're trying to differentiate themselves, as there's so much out there and it's the storyline behind some of their lines that's going to help push it.

"We have a really cute dog coming out at toy fairs called Roxie the Doxie, which has a really cool concept behind it," Waldmier explained. "She's going to be traveling to different places, so one season she's in Paris, then in New York and her accessories will reflect that. We have a boy's plush line coming out this season called Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestlers). Plush is so hard for boys, because they grow out of it so soon, and there's not a lot out there for them."

Perfect Presentation
Waldmier said that manufacturers are getting input about what customers want from their followers on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms.

"We have about 2,000 followers on our Yoohoo & Friends page, and we get a lot of our ideas from there," she said. "For example, people said, ‘I wish there was a dress-up Yoohoo', so we're adding one."

Waldmier also added that today, more and more products appeal to ages above and below what manufacturers originally intended.

"Plush runs the gamut. For Yoohoo & Friends, we had initially targeted it from aged 5 to 11, but it's aged up from there," she explained. "There are also a lot of adults on our Facebook page."

Special promotions and displays play an integral role in enticing customers to shell out for souvenirs. Waldmier noted that retailers can maximize all these trends by taking some design cues from the products themselves.

"We have displays with a lot of our plush," Waldmier said. "And our focus in 2010 was to give merchandising ideas in the way we shoot our catalog, such as pairing Aurora brights, which isn't necessarily a line, just a bunch of brightly colored items that we've paired together to really make a statement. We want to give a better idea of how best to display the items."

By Wendy Helfenbaum, Special to Museums & More

Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and television producer. For more information, visit http://www.taketwoproductions.ca

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Originally posted Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010

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