Get ready to hear a lot about the Eagle Talon Castle, the LeapPad2 from LeapFrog and the reincarnation of Furby – all of which toy industry insiders predict will be hot sellers this year.
These toys have all won coveted spots on multiple "hot" toy lists for the holiday shopping season in 2012.
And that is no accident.
There is heated competition among toy manufacturers to end up on lists like Toys "R" Us Inc.'s "Fabulous 15," the Amazon.com Inc. "Holiday Toy List" and the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "Top 20 Toy List." A lot of lobbying goes on behind the scenes, along with some data and a little bit of wishful thinking. There are also well-regarded independent toys lists created by using parent testing and other analysis from Dr. Toy, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio and The Toy Insider.
As Black Friday approaches, the various toy lists carry great sway with consumers, and there are lots of dollars at stake. Last year, toy sales exceeded $21-billion (U.S.), dominated, of course, by the holiday season. Being on a respected or well-publicized list can make a huge difference in sales, says Myrna Hoffman, managing director of Seattle-based OOZ & OZ toys, which had a big boost in sales when her company's Morph-O-Scopes Circus Kit was chosen for Dr. Toy's list last year.
The Toys "R" Us Fabulous 15 is big business, says Richard Barry, the company's executive vice-president and chief merchandising officer. Work on the next list begins starting the day after Christmas. "We travel to every toy fair there is around the world from Hong Kong to Nuremberg. From that we start with a couple of thousand items and then we filter that down to a couple of hundred items to a handful of items," he says.
Mr. Barry says that effort, which includes looking at prior sales, helps Toys "R" Us prepare for the rush on toys that make the list each year. And he is emphatic that manufacturers do not make the call of what the retailer includes on the list and that toy makers can't buy their way onto it.
He highlights the inclusion last year of The Trash Pack Garbage Truck on the list. The toy, made by the Australian company Moose Toys, became a top seller. "It's not about size, but it's about the quality of the toys," Mr. Barry says. "People look to Toys "R" Us as a toy authority."
But the biggest toy manufacturers, including Mattel Inc., and its Fisher-Price division, do submit a selection of products to be considered for a variety of lists. "Being on best toy lists is a key component of all of our marketing plans every year," says Lisa McKnight, senior vice-president of Mattel's North American division.
This year, she says her company is betting on the introduction of Disney's Princesses to its Little People portfolio as well as the Imaginext Eagle Talon Castle and the Monster High-High School set. Consumers will pay higher prices for toys (the Monster High set lists for $89.99 U.S.) if they think they're getting enough for their money, Ms. McKnight says. "It all comes down to price value. It doesn't matter if a product is $10 or $80."
At The Toy Insider, produced by toy industry publisher Adventure Publishing, examination of toys for the 2013 list has already begun. Co-publisher Laurie Schacht, aka the "Toy Insider Mom," says she believes the lists help consumers. "I think it makes a difference to parents," Ms. Schacht says. "It really helps them navigate the process."
Manufacturers also submit toys for consideration on these lists. But in The Toy Insider evaluation, a major factor is how much a kid will want to play with the toy. "Do we think if this toy is given to a child, and it's the right toy, it will hold them – as opposed to ending up on the bottom of their toy box a day later?" Ms. Schacht says.
It is important to her to have a variety of prices represented. Of the list's 2012 "Hot 20," 11 are under $50. Only two exceed $100 – the Kurio 7 tablet, which sells for about $150, and toddler-oriented tablet LeapPad2, which sells for about $100 (and was also on lists from Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us).
There are also respected and well-established lists put out by Dr. Toy (otherwise known as consultant Stevanne Auerbach) and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, produced by authors Joanne Oppenheim and her daughter Stephanie Oppenheim.
In the end, it doesn't much matter which list the toys are on, says Mattel's Ms. McKnight. The idea is merely to get people talking about your toy, because with thousands of toys being released each year, manufacturers look for buzz. "They all serve a unique purpose. We believe in all of them and don't believe any of them are better than another," Ms. McKnight says.
But when it comes down to a purchasing choice, "It's driven by two sets of people – the kids and the parents," says Randy Allen, associate dean at Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.
Grandparents and others less familiar with what children really want are the most likely to rely on the top toy lists, she says. More powerful than the lists, Ms. Allen says, is that parents are under great pressure from children and children are under great pressure from advertisers. It is very difficult for parents to ignore what the children want and for children to not want what they see in the ads, Ms. Allen says.
In the end, she says, it is the parents who must make the difficult choice – go with the lists, go with what their kids want or just get what they think the child should have.
Consumers echo this sentiment. Dana Tutten, 32, started scanning the toy lists earlier this fall to get some idea of what she would buy her 27-month-old daughter Taylor for Christmas. She is partial to the list produced by Toys "R" Us, but says it is just the beginning of a process that involves checking prices and reading reviews. "If the reviews are good I know there will be a good chance my daughter will enjoy them as well," the Georgia resident says.