Part 2: “Toy Deserts;” Do They Really Exist?


A “toy desert” is a term coined by New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante to describe a situation in which parts of the country do not have access to creative, educational toys due to the lack of independent retail toy stores.  This is the second in a three part series on the subject of “toy deserts.”  I suggest that you read part 1:  “Toy Deserts” before reading this posting).   

Bellafante’s point about toy deserts is a powerful one if you believe, as I do, that toys have an enormous impact on learning cognitive and motor skills.  In fact, I believe that the initial gateway to the professions is not college but the toy aisle.  That construction aisle may well be the launch point for many a career in architecture or construction.  That box of crayons got many an artist started on a fulfilling career path.

The questions that demand to be answered are:

1.     Are there in fact toy deserts?

2.     If there are toy deserts, how did this come to be?

3.     What can be done to correct the problem?   

Are there toy deserts?

Anyone in the toy industry has to be aware of the decline of the small toy retailer over the last quarter century.  These independent toy retailers have found it progressively difficult to find their niche in a toy industry that has become progressively price driven.

Due to the loss of these retailers, consumers in areas without them find their toys at large, mass merchandisers who generally carry products from large manufacturers.   As a result, wares from smaller manufacturers, many of them creative and educational, do not make it to the shelves.  Therefore, consumers in areas without independent toy stores lack the benefits that are derived from playing with a broader assortment of toys.

If there are toy deserts, how did this come to be?

Mass Merchandisers are tasked with generating enough foot traffic to support massive stores and distribution centers.  Accordingly, each item a buyer chooses is in a sense a bet.  Safer bets (none are really safe) include items that are evergreens or are heavily promoted through advertising.  In addition,

 buyers want to make sure that the companies that produce these items can ship them on time and actually provide the promotion they promised.

As a result, large manufacturers with proven track records get a preferred presence in these stores.  Playing it safe has become so important to these retailers that I am told that J.C. Penney has not added a new vendor in two years and Shopko only sees potential new toy vendors once a quarter.

Independent toy stores have a different set of buying criteria.  Yes, they have to drive sufficient revenues and profits to continue to exist but the kinds of toys they seek are those not carried by the big box retailers.  The consumer for these products tends to be more educated and affluent so the stores exist where the consumers live. 

What can be done to correct the problem? 

That in my next posting.


5 thoughts

  1. Thanks Brian, a couple thoughts (though no easy answers) on fighting back.
    First, the specialty market is suffering from an identity crisis. If I tell a consumer that I sell “specialty toys”, they nod politely and say “oh, you sell those really expensive toys”. Or if I tell a consumer that I sell “educational toys”, they say “oh, you sell stuff like LeapPad”. That’s actually wrong on both accounts but without a clear definition of our market, it’s difficult to draw that differentiation from mass.
    Second, specialty manufacturers in many cases are contributing to this lack of differentiation. If there was a clear separation of product selection, that would give specialty retailers the competitive advantage they need. But all too often, a so-called specialty toy ends up on,, flash sale sites, or in the blow-out bin at Costco. If a specialty toy is being sold at a heavy discount by these mammoth retailers, it makes it’s extremely difficult, or downright embarrassing for the specialty retailer.
    Competition is a good thing, but an effort must be put forth to make it a fair fight. Much of the innovation in the entire toy industry bubbles up out of the successes in the specialty market. That’s why it’s so important that specialty toys & games remain “special”.
    As a specialty manufacturer ourselves, we’re guilty of some of these same sins…but not for long.

  2. Advertising our “specialty toys”, or even that our retail stores exist to our Mom and Dad customers is a really difficult task. Twenty one years of retailing our “Toys” that Teach, working to connect with parents of Toddlers thru sixth grade aged students, is falling on deaf ears. Parents are slowing disconnecting from their responsibilities of rearing children, expecting our classroom teachers, our primary customers, to do it all.
    Parents are a child’s first teacher and too many are making poor choices, and we need to help them realize that they should be the catalyst that Launches their Children into Education.
    God Help Us all, from the rut of disconnection!
    Scott/Teacher’s Pet…

  3. Great thoughts, Mark. How does the specialty toy industry fight back? Surely a tendency is to order more mainstream or licensed products, but that absolves the differentiation that is so key.
    Obviously, the real key is making sure there is a truly terrific range of product. And the next step is figuring out a way to get more people to know about it.
    More toys from different sources and different thought processes makes for a better industry overall.

  4. The defining takeaway from the article should be the need for VARIETY. All mass toys are not bad just as not all educational toys are good. But one thing is clear is that mass-oriented retailers are not offering up variety to consumers and not taking chances on new offerings. Sure, you’ll find a few specialty lines in some mass retailers, but only after they’ve been a huge success in specialty for many years (Blokus, Hexbug, Apples to Apples, Qwirkle, etc.).
    The easy sell for mass has always been licensed, character-driven toys and games. Is a Star Wars LEGO set necessarily bad? Certainly not. But if you want to instill creativity and problem-solving in a child, also give them access to open-ended toys that encourage them to build freely and think independently.
    All too often consumers fall into the false impression that the only toys on the market are the ones they see in the aisles of Target and Walmart. The reality is that there is tremendous variety and innovation in the specialty market. Who’s to blame…the big boxes…the consumer…or perhaps the specialty toy industry themselves. The specialty toy industry as a whole needs to do a much better job of fighting to win back the lost consumer mindshare it once had. Competition is the only way to provide that all important variety.

  5. I’m not sure that “independent” necessarily is synonymous with quality learning toy. Often times, sure, these products reflect special care and attention and avoid the “design by committee” processes of bigger manufacturers, but this is a pretty broad generalization.
    In the case of LeapFrog, we’re talking about a company with access to experts in kids education. Other large manufacturers similarly deploy testing, technology, and experience that these smaller manufacturers have trouble combating. Further, I think adding a little more fun into the mix, or perhaps a licensed brand, makes the learning activities more enjoyable for kids. That is not to say that one is better than the other. But certainly our friends at leapfrog have shown measurable results linked to the use of their products.
    Certain brands like PlaySkool aren’t built for purely educational toys. There are educational aspects, but fun and learning combined are the agenda.
    The demise of the seeming neighborhood toy store should be lamented for a variety of reasons, but I’m not totally sure this is one of them. I’m not aware of resources able to provide much in the way of evidence that independently produced learning toys have more impact on kids from a learning perspective.
    On the other hand, I think we need more small manufacturers out there taking chances on amazing products the big guys would never try. These small companies excite me and often force everyone to up their games.

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