In hard times, nostalgic toys strike a chord
Posted November 24, 2008 4:01 p.m. EST
Updated November 24, 2008 5:45 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Counting dollars this holiday season, Tom De Santes wants to avoid buying high-priced techno gadgets as gifts for his two sons.
Instead, he is going to buy the boys, ages 6 and 7, a classic from his own childhood: Lincoln Logs.
"I loved them as a kid and used to build huge log cabins," remembers De Santes, 38, who lives outside Boston in Scituate, Mass., and is a marketing director for an education software company. With Lincoln Logs, "I like that my boys and I can create something together."
Without a "must-have" toy fad this holiday season, and with parents facing a deteriorating economy, tried-and-true toys are being embraced by parents and toy makers alike - what one analyst calls a "back to the toy box" approach.
"'Retro' or 'nostalgia' toys can be viewed as the 'comfort food' of the toy industry and I do think folks naturally gravitate to what made them happy when they were young, or what is familiar to them," said Anita Frazier, a toy analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm.
Ken Moe, general manager of Backtobasics.com, a Web site owned by Scholastic Corp. that offers classic toys like "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots," Slinky and Colorforms, said sales so far this season indicate a rising interest in old favorites.
Though most sales will occur over the next few weeks, Moe said Junior TinkerToys, Lincoln Logs and toy instruments have been among the big sellers in the past few months.
"It's instinctive in tough times to reach back to a happier, simpler time," he said. "Parents remember how much they loved those toys, and want that same happiness for their children."
Lauren Horsley, who has 5- and 1-year old boys and a 3-year-old girl, plans to buy TinkerToys, a Cabbage Patch Kid doll and classic board games Sorry! and Hungry Hungry Hippos this holiday season. The 29-year-old from Salt Lake City said she finds value in the toys' quality and universal appeal.
"We just bought our first house this fall, and with the economy so unstable we need to be as conservative as possible to ensure that we pay our bills," she said. "A lot of pricey, faddish toys aren't going to do our children much good if we don't keep a roof over their heads."
Parents aren't the only ones looking again at classic toys. Toy makers are also turning to the old standbys as they face not only weakening toy sales, but also steep prices for commodities like resin used to make many toys and tough competition from electronic gadgets.
Holiday toy sales are often spurred by hit toys, with popularity driving shortages, creating more demand - as with the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze of 1996 and the Nintendo Wii, which has run into shortages since it was introduced in 2006.
This year, however, "not much is selling at all," says BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson. While he believes shopping will pick up as the holidays get closer, he expects total sales to be down about 2 percent this year. Frazier expects toy sales this year - about half of which come in the fourth quarter - to be about flat this year at $22 billion.
Classic toys could fill the gap left by a lack of a "must have" toy, as toy makers stick to past hits and avoid taking risks, what Needham & Co. analyst Sean McGowan calls going "back to the toy box."
"Partly, its because they know 'this thing works,'" he says.
Hasbro Inc., for example, has found success revitalizing names such as the 40-year-old Nerf brand and Transformers, which first hit the U.S. in the early '80s and are selling well again after last year's "Transformers" movie.
The company also debuted revamped versions of classic board games like Clue, Operation and Monopoly this year.
"One of our core tenets is to reinvent and reimagine a lot of our core brands," says John Frascotti, Hasbro's global chief of marketing, who is 47. "There's an emotional resonance that comes from the quality of the experience people in my or our generation had with the toys, and recognition that the same experience can now shared with entire family and children."
Hasbro plans to continue to update old brands and has a G.I. Joe revival - including toys related to a new live-action movie - set for 2009.
Jakks Pacific Inc. has brought back several classic brands this year, including a 25th-anniversary Cabbage Patch Kid doll that is the replica of the original version and a new Smurfs plush toy and DVD.
"During these times parents want to remember something positive to share with their family now more than ever," says Tom Delaney, senior vice president of marketing for Jakks' Play Along division. Classic toys "bring parents and grandparents back to their childhood memories of a simpler time," he said.
That's why Elizabeth Peterson, 39, from Redondo Beach, Calif., bought an Easy-Bake Oven - first introduced in the 1960s - for the holidays. The mother of a 2 1/2-year-old boy and a 10-month old boy admits she might be jumping the gun a bit, but couldn't resist.
"I never got one when I was little and all my friends had one," she said. "I'm probably going to be the one playing with it."
She also bought two Nerf footballs, which she remembers playing with as a child.
"I think they'll grow with them. People are maybe focusing on a smaller Christmas and buying one or two things that they known are a sure bet."
With the football, she says, "It won't just make it through the week of Christmas, they'll play with it for years to come."