BY ANDREW WIG
Some may think the middle of August is a little early to start Christmas shopping, but for those who make a living out of knowing what toys and games will sell come December, ’tis always the season, and their eyes are always open.
For Todd Anderson, co-owner of Hub Hobby in Richfield, this year’s holiday toy cycle began in February, when he attended an annual industry conference dubbed simply “Toy Fair” in New York City. Wasting no time, this is where the large toy manufacturers unveil their products each year.
As far as his holiday toy purchasing cycle goes, “we’re always in it,” Anderson said.
The holiday toy season actually begins in earnest the month before the New York convention, when large international toy conferences in Hong Kong and Nuremberg, Germany are staged. After a break in the toy fair circuit comes another big conference — the one put on by the American Specialty Toy Retail Association, which rotates locales.
Locally, the Upper Midwest Allied Gifts Association hosts a gathering several times per year in Minnetonka, where dozens of wholesalers set up in showrooms to woo retailers looking for the next great novelty.
Venues like the gatherings in Minnetonka and the large fairs across the country allow retailers to sift through the piles of new offerings each year, hoping to stock shelves with a selection that will give them a holiday-time edge, as they dedicate much energy speculating on this year’s hot commodity — figuring out the next Tickle Me Elmo.
“You get these fads out there and sometimes you have to make that call,” Anderson said.
He’s had his hits and misses in the last several years, as Hub Hobby has broadened its target market and diversified its product mix to include more toys.
In 1997, when the Beanie Baby craze hit — “That was great for us,” Anderson recalled. He remembers coaching youth basketball when the revelation hit him. He noticed his players had dozens of the plush toys, and got his store the last spot on the Beanie Baby distribution list for the first wave of the craze, he said.
Hub Hobby got flooded with Beanie Baby hunters. “We had people following our UPS trucks because they had that heart shape on the boxes,” Anderson said, describing the logo of Ty, the plush toy manufacturer.
As a counter-example, the store found less success with a product called the Tech Deck, a miniature skateboard that users maneuver with their fingers. “We did those like eight years ago or something and I have no interest in going back,” Anderson recalled telling the distributor.
Guessing wrong on the next big thing is part of the business. “There’s nothing like when you sit down to this recent year’s catalog. We always like to tease … like ooh, what were we thinking,” said Roberta Bonoff, CEO of local toy store chain Creative Kidstuff.
To help predict what will catch on, Creative Kidstuff brings together children ages 3-12 for the annual Kids Council, in which children test out and review sample products. The top performers get the Kids Council stamp of approval in the store’s catalog.
Searching for the next big seller, “we are constantly on the lookout,” Bonoff said.
Like Hub Hobby, they are on the back end of their annual toy hunt, but, “over the next 60 days,” Bonoff said, “if we can find a couple things that are over the top, we’ll add them.”
Possibly poised for success this year, Anderson speculates, is a traditional Japanese toy called Kendama, a simple game with a ball on a string connected to a sort of cup on a stick that provides a staunch test of hand eye coordination. Anderson was turned onto the toy when he heard about a store in the northern metro that was selling 50-60 units a day.
“That gets your attention,” Anderson said. Keeping in mind the nature of his industry, though, he called the game “a surging fad.”
Another big toy, he predicts, is an electronic etch-a-sketch called the Boogie Board. They got a shipment about a month ago, and “we’re virtually out,” Anderson said.
Nanoblocks, which are basically mini-Legos, are another new product that has been “clipping along” in sales, Anderson added.
On the other hand, Amy Saldanha, owner of a toy store in St. Louis Park called Kiddywampus, says she is not too worried about stocking up on the latest fads.
She hits up the toy fairs, too, and scans catalogs and the Internet and listens to in-store pitches, but “we’re such a small store,” she said, “we don’t do the huge-demand things. When we order something, if it’s a hit, it’s a hit, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Saldanha said that due to the smaller size of her store, she is able to continue stocking for the holiday shopping season into the fourth quarter.
That’s when things get interesting anyway. “October through December is just really fun,” Bonoff said.