Peak toy season is upon us. Over the next six weeks, 40 to 60 percent of American consumers will purchase at least one toy during the holiday season. As a rule, toys are a bit like potato chips – it’s hard to stop once you’ve started.
Some of those toys will be for children and some will be for the adults themselves (admit it, you’re thinking about getting a new lightsaber), but on average Americans buy between $25 and $30 billion in toys per year, according to The Toy Association. Over 75 percent of those dollars are spent during the holiday season, not counting video games or video game consoles.
And while everyone has heard some version of the grandparent’s lament – that kids these days have too many fancy toys – maybe there’s something to it. One can buy his or her child a smartwatch (outside of Germany, anyway), a kit that will help them build their own computer, dozens of toys centered on teaching the elemental aspects of computer coding, stuffed animals that need to be hatched out of eggs and dolls with a surprising number of biological functions. Kids’ toys have, in fact, become very high-tech these days, a far cry from the Cabbage Patch dolls that nearly provoked toy store riots 30 years ago.
And yet, for all the newness and newfangledness of toy innovation, it is remarkable how many of the classics are still not only available, but thriving. They may have gotten a modern update or two – some have undergone several – but their central appeal is the same, and their markets remain avid.
Some favorites …
The Erector Set
The original STEM toy, and part of the first class of toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame (yes, that exists), has actually been around for over 100 years. The first sets were originally patented by Alfred Carlton Gilbert and first sold by his company, the Mysto Manufacturing Company of New Haven, Connecticut in 1913. It is also believed to have been the first toy ever advertised in a national campaign with a nationally recognized slogan.
The Erector sets of today are built and manufactured by Spin Master Ltd., a Canadian based toy corporation and have come a long way from the simple model-building kits first introduced to the world 103 years ago.
These days, one can build a functioning crane, car or rollercoaster with an Erector set.
Fun Fact: The inventor of the Erector set, A.C. Gilbert, was briefly known as the man who saved Christmas, after his successful lobby of the Council of National Defense to reject a proposal to ban toy production in favor of wartime-related materials during World War I.
Barbie is turning 58 this year, but she’s looking amazingly good for her age. By Mattel’s estimates, there are three Barbie dolls sold per minute in the world every day. From that single blonde doll released at the dawn of the 1960s, there are now 800 different dolls that bear Barbie branding.
Barbie has changed a lot over time. Her historical measurements (11.5 inches) would translate to a woman who is 5 feet 9 inches tall with a 36-inch chest, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips – measurements that various doctors ruled verging on impossible for a healthy human female. So, Barbie got a slight upgrade in 2001, which tweaked her waist, and then a diversification in 2016, which saw Barbies of various heights and shapes hit the market.
And when not being the world’s most recognized doll, Barbie is also behind a content empire, has been painted by Andy Warhol and has been banned in Saudi Arabia.
She was also in the National Toy Hall of Fame first class – because Barbie gets around.
Fun Fact: The original Barbie sold for $3.00. The most expensive Barbie was created in partnership with Australian jewelry designer Stefano Canturi to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The doll sold for $302,500 at auction in 2010.
Despite the fact that Legos have been around since 1932, they still make the Washington Post‘s annual hot Christmas toy list for children.
And despite the number of ways Legos have expanded past their early days, the brand is remarkably consistent. Every Lego ever built remains compatible in some way with every other Lego ever created.
Because, despite their simplicity – apart from specialty pieces, all Lego sets break down to a six-variation set of 2 x 4 bricks – that simple shape array can be combined 915,103,765 ways.
And counting: The math is actually still out on that one, according to a documentary on the subject.
But while the exact number of possible Lego combinations is up in the air, the near limitless public enthusiasm for them is not. Lego actually had a rough year – it ousted its CEO executive in August and posted its first sales decline in more than a decade.
But one can never count Lego out: Those people are, quite literally, very crafty. And it seems its Women of NASA line is a bonafide hit, as the $24.99 set sold on Amazon within 24 hours. It will likely be impossible to get by the holiday.
Fun Fact: A 12-year-old child prodigy from California used his LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 set to make a functional Braille printer when he saw fliers asking for donations to help the blind. The Lego set retails for about $350. Braille printers retail for around $2,000 online.
Toy concepts don’t get much simpler or more straightforward than Play-Doh, which nonetheless has managed to remain one of childhood’s more hugely popular toys for the last 60 years.
Since hitting the market in 1956, Play-Doh has sold more than 3 billion cans of the compound. The brand has reported double-digit revenue growth for the last three consecutive years, including a 32 percent increase in 2015.
“It becomes a rite of passage for every kid to play with Play-Doh,” Greg Lombardo, vice president of marketing for the brand, told Fortune in an interview.
To maintain its seemingly magical staying power, Play-Doh’s owner continually tries to innovate to keep it relevant. They rolled out a new version called Play-Doh Plus, and an arts-and-crafts line called DohVinci, which is intended for older kids.
But, Lombardo noted, the real magic of Play-Doh – for all users – is that it is a totally free-form toy, and that its only limits are the user’s imagination.
Fun Fact: Play-Doh was not invented to be a toy; it was first sold to consumers as a wallpaper cleaner.
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your holiday shopping list and not sure if your kids need one more toy that connects to the internet, it turns out that not all toys have to be high-tech. In fact, high tech has the problem of being highly breakable, whereas one would need some pretty heavy-duty firepower to destroy an Erector set or even dent a Lego.
Which is perhaps why these toys continue to stand the test of time so well: For all the ways they’ve changed, they remain the same in their ability to both delight children and survive to a second playtime.
Something to keep in mind, perhaps, before making the next pickup of toys.