Our readership is global so I was not surprised when I received an email from a UK reader. I was delighted however when the writer, Michael Hawkins, told me about his “great toy list.” Micheal is the founder of Toy Shop UK, a web-based directory that connects online shoppers with independent toy retailers. The site generates over 10,000 unique visitors per day at busy times of the year.
With a background in graphic design and web optimization, Michael also works with toy companies to increase the amount of traffic their website receives and the number of these visitors they convert into customers.
People may wonder why the world needs another top toy list when so many already exist – and in a way I'd have to agree. The only justification we can give for cluttering the ether with more "award-winning products" is a continued frustration with the predictability of the "top toy" lists that get bandied around at this time of year.
If you disregard some of the more farcical ‘top toy’ suggestions this year from the likes of Selfridges (which doesn't sell many toys anyway) some pretty clear patterns emerge when you see all the major retailers’ Christmas Toy Lists on the same page. I'm often amazed that so many of these lists grab as much press attention as they do. Journalists clearly love a Christmas, ahem, toy story.
There are plenty of insightful lists out there if you dig deep enough, but it's the Toy Retailers Association's (TRA) annual Dream Toys list that grabs the most headlines; and quite rightly so. They consistently manage to get plenty of column inches, and even manage to get all the newspapers - from the Daily Mail to The Guardian – pretty much united in their assessments of the toy zeitgeist.
Reading these papers, you would learn that this is the year of "high tech toys”. Last year, kids all wanted something under £50. The year before that no child would get out of bed on Christmas morning for anything less than a sack full of licensed toys. These sound bites are all very well but you have to wonder how many people feel rather patronized by these generalizations, especially when most of them are just vaguely disguised reboots of press releases from years gone by.
It was this overzealous compartmentalizing of children's tastes that we aimed to confront in our own little way with the Toy Shop UK awards. We decided to ask all the independent retailers that list their businesses with us – some 600 of them – what they thought were the best toys of the year in ten categories. They were given no incentive for taking part other than because they wanted to. There was no product shortlist, no suppliers knew that voting was taking place and no money changed hands.
We settled on this format because we wanted to see what would happen when advertising spend, focus group feedback, TV ratings, profit margins, in-house pressure and stock availability had absolutely nothing to do with anything. A list that was given the freedom to just be a list; even if that meant it ended up being imperfect and a bit tricky to summarize in a snappy sound bite.
We chose to ask retailers rather than shoppers for their opinions because we figured they see more toys being played with in a year than most people do in a lifetime. Plus we felt that having access to this group was pretty unique and deserved to be explored. From this point of view at least, we think the results give a fresh slant and stand up to scrutiny.
The resulting list is clearly not faultless though. For a start we begrudgingly succumbed to the tried-and-tested "Top 10" format to the detriment of some important categories, the "Outdoor" category in particular. Because the list had to be timely, we had to filter out some of the timeless but too generic classics like "dolls houses"; and towards the end of the process it became clear that some retailers were only voting for products they sold, even though there was no direct gain from doing so.
So I'm not sure we're quite there yet, but maybe this time next year we'll have honed the method more and be able to generate a list that’s more salient, and hopefully more meaningful. In the meantime we'll still be paying close attention to Dream Toys and the TRA… But would a slightly more daring, unpredictable and altogether less cynical list really do the industry any harm?