Tuesday repost: Fashionable toys

In the run up to Christmas I always get asked about what ‘the big toy’ this year will be. Generally people are just making conversation but it does raise some interesting questions: 1) Given that children can have vastly different tastes how does it come about that one particular toy is desired by them all? AND 2) How much does this have to do with advertising, and how much is to do with the quality of the toy itself? Fortunately this post from back in February covers these questions nicely.

furbyToys become popular for a variety of reasons. Back in February we had just received a delivery of mini ‘Furbies’ into the shop (they don’t do all the things that their big cousins do but they do sing) and it got me thinking about the way that some toys get popular. Here are some recent examples of this:

  • Now everyone knows them but ‘Trash packs‘ started life as freebies from an in-school colouring competition which threw their popularity into overdrive from the start.
  • Then there’s ‘Moshi Monsters‘ which have lasted longer than any collectible I’ve seen in years (I think they’ve been on the go for about 3 years now and they’ve even expanded to include the new ‘Micro Moshis’ which we now stock), their popularity seems to come from the online experience you get from using the ‘secret code’ you get in a pack of moshis.
  • Then there are ‘Monchichis‘ (or as they were called when I was wee ‘Chicaboos’) the appeal of these hyper-cute wee characters is pretty clear but now there’s an added ‘retro’ element which allows parents to relive their childhoods by getting one for their kids (for more on this new trend of reselling childhoods click on this link), we sell these on our web site, here’s the link.

The main thing that seems to do it though is a peculiar mix of familiarity and unattainability, this typically comes from various forms of advertising combined either with ‘rare’ or ‘super rare’ items in a collectible series, or just good old-fashioned restricted supply.

buzz lightyearYears ago there was a ‘buzz’ about Buzz Lightyear toys; parents scoured the country trying to track the beloved ‘Toy Story’ toy down. The official story was that suppliers had underestimated demand. This didn’t stop many people from getting their conspiracy theory caps on, pointing out that the short supply was allowing Disney to maintain that big price tag across the board and no one was complaining. in fact people were so thankful to have Buzz that their criticism of price was dialled down significantly (or even absent). Fashionable toys don’t have to be overpriced, but in the case of restricted supply there’s always the option for people to drive up price to a level they know people will still pay happily.

When I was a kid I rarely, if ever, got hold of a fashionable toy. An Optimus prime transformer (you know the big one with the removable freight unit) sat on my Santa list for years as did game boys, calculator watches, and a huge pile of movie-tie-in merchandise. When Friday pocket money came along  I would even beg for football stickers despite the fact that I don’t even like football and the names on the cards could have been Martians for all i cared. My parents got me some stuff, if they could see its merits, and it didn’t help that they both worked in retail and were acutely  aware of what was being done to them as consumers.

We all know that fashionable toys can be expensive what I’m wondering is whether they really are better. You could advertise the life out of a lump of plastic and make it as rare as you like but is that enough? Does the toy need some ‘special spark’ to kick off a craze?

Furby_pictureLet’s go back to Furbies, the originals were one of the most advanced technological soft toys anyone had seen (bar perhaps ‘Teddy Ruxpin’). Furbies were responsive to what you said and did, what’s more they had their own language, making them seem instantly more exotic. Their similarity to fuzzy state ‘gremlins’ probably didn’t hurt either. The new ones have this going for them (though I doubt kids know what gremlins are now) plus there’s a now a smart phone app to go with them; it lets you ‘feed’ them, communicate, and interact with them in a way that you could never have dreamed of doing with their Furby ancestors.

To be honest if I was a kid today I would want a new Furby, the thing just looks awesome. The funny thing is there have been forays into smart phone compatibility for toys before (too many to list here). The thing that really seems to have re-ignited the Furbies craze is kids’ awareness that they are joining in with a pre-existing culture around Furbies: they’re ‘retro’, they’re unique. As I said earlier the particularly interesting thing about Furbies this time round is that their parents may have had one when they were younger, and so literally can’t say no without looking like a hypocrite.

I genuinely don’t have a problem with fashionable toys, for starters many provide a fantastically unique play experience. What’s more small swappable collectibles provide life experiences that you just can’t get in a classroom (how to make a deal, understanding the potential finality of actions etc.). I do however find it odd to see which toys kick it into high-gear to become the ‘big toy’ of that year and which fall by the wayside or find themselves pegged as stable and ‘dependable’ (that is, those toys for which demand doesn’t shift from one year to the next, though that demand could of course be pretty high e.g. Lego).

treasure glowThe ‘dependable’ toys, no matter how popular they might get, never quite seem to reach the dizzy heights of their ‘fashionable’ brethren. Such toys are seen as constant, unending; a steady background feature of childhood. The fashionable toys on the other hand are special, fleeting and slightly unattainable (or at least rare). Perhaps that is at the heart of the appeal, people are attracted to the exotic, the fleeting and the rare. These kinds of item allow us to somehow brake away from the every-day by encountering something truly unique. This in turn can make us feel more like individuals; more special and unique ourselves in light of this experience.

On a side note, there’s industry chatter that Meccano may be in trouble. Meccano was never a ‘fashionable’ toy when I was a kid so naturally I had a bucket of the stuff. It was genuinely one of my favourite toys (possibly even above Lego) and I can’t even imagine a toy shop without it. I can’t do much as an individual either, my eldest son is still 2 years too young for standard Meccano. They do produce a plastic version for Logan’s age which he’s tried and enjoyed but I’ll have to wait a while before i can start popping the big sets in front of him. I really hope Meccano survives so that I can get him some of the basic metal sets when he’s old enough, I really do. It would be so sad to see such a staple of my childhood just disappear.

Anyway back to fashionable toys. I’d welcome any comments about favourites of the past or ideas about what drives these toys to become ‘toy celebrities’. Again thanks for reading, look forward to seeing your comments.

moshi dressFor your enjoyment, teaming fashion and toys together as one, here is a picture of this ‘Moshi Monster’ dress, which was apparently doing the rounds at London Fashion Week. Kind of a different take on the notion of ‘fashionable toys’. (image found at MindCandy)

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