Like so many categories during the pandemic, the toy business has been a two-sided coin. On one side are the manufacturers and retailers that are waiting for the licensed products that drive the big sales. These are the Disneys and other big budget movie producers that make the action figures and games that reflect the pop culture that has moved from the movie theater to the home or even to the slush pile of 2021 release dates. Then there are the educational and “authentic play” companies that are the godsend of every parent who has had to tell their child to “go play with your toys” since March.
“The pandemic has had a strange, though mostly positive effect on the toy industry,” Mark Carson, CEO of Nebraska-based Fat Brain Toys tells PYMNTS. “With many families spending extra time cooped up together at home, it didn’t take parents long to go clamoring for activities to keep their kids busy, and in many cases, activities for the entire family to enjoy together. That’s a prime reason why jigsaw puzzle demand increased by two to five times nearly overnight. Similar trends were seen in other categories like arts and crafts and even board games.”
Fat Brain is an independent toy retailer that has navigated the pandemic with an agile business model and an emphasis on learning. It has two stores near its home turf, a thriving eCommerce business and its own proprietary line of learning toys. It has also done a solid job of staying in touch with its audience during the pandemic with contests and other community outreach programs as it capitalizes on retail partnerships including marketplaces like Amazon, Target, and Walmart.
Carson says he sees a broader shift is also underway with educational-oriented toys. With more and more kids homeschooling, digital learning, or engaged in some type of hybrid learning, parents have recognized the importance of toys that reinforce developmental goals. They are also desperately seeking alternatives to excessive screen time. Toys and games are the proven, old-school solution for meeting that necessary play quotient.
“We’re different from other toy companies,” he said. “Toys isn’t a category for us, it’s all we do. We are toy specialists through and through and there simply isn’t another large retailer that can say that today. With that specialization in toys also comes deep expertise. We staff our own customer care team, made up of moms, dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Each knows the ins and outs of our products first-hand, but also has a true appreciation for the importance of play for children.”
Another factor that differentiates Fat Brain from its retail peers is marketing. Traditional paid search is still the lion’s share of its marketing, but it also invests heavily in direct mail, social media and email. Carson said Fat Brain leans into the media that are more quantifiable, but always strive for balance in our marketing mix. Content marketing is also very important to its overall market positioning.
“From day one of our business (back in 2002), we knew we couldn’t survive long-term by selling the same products with the same product descriptions and photography being used by everyone else,” Carson said. “So we made a commitment to write informative, original product copy, shoot our own unique product photography, and whenever possible, create entertaining video content. It’s a never-ending process, but that content is a key ingredient in differentiating our products from all the others.”
Its agile business model, or what Carson calls a “vertically-integrated toy company,” gives Fat Brain the unique ability to see customer demand first-hand, and then pick and choose the best way to deliver on that demand. It designs and manufactures its own proprietary products. And it also works with over 300 other specialty toy manufacturers, and can cherry pick the best products on the market for our growing customer base.
Carson has seen a jump in digital orders during the pandemic, which he expects to be the key factor during the holiday selling season.
“I believe that digital commerce has already accelerated two to three years into the future. And sadly, COVID is going to be a big issue for many months to come, which will only put more emphasis on digital solutions,” he said. “I can’t throw out any numbers, but this holiday season will certainly be a curve-jumping year for us. We’re grateful to be in a good position, but our primary goals are to maintain our service standards for our customers while keeping all our employees safe through these crazy times.”