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“In many ways, retro is being fueled by the virtualization of toys,” said M. Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, who has studied the toy industry.
“I think there’s a mind-set in a lot of young moms that a physical toy is a good thing, it’s almost a backlash to the popularity of the app,” he said. “So they head down the toy aisle, and they find something they remember.”
Indeed, nostalgia can be a powerful tool for retailers. Part of that is brand recognition, because just like finding a familiar box of Cheerios in the grocery store, Barbie and G.I. Joe need no introduction. But there is also something more emotional at play.
“When you look at things like Cabbage Patch, to Hot Wheels, to Elmo, parents see these things they had and they loved,” said Jim Silver, editor in chief of TimetoPlayMag.com. “If it was one of their favorites, they want to share that experience with their child.”
A parent’s experience as an adult is also relevant. Plenty of people love a good game of Angry Birds, but less pleasant associations also attach to tablets and phones, like late night e-mails from the boss.
“I think for parents, these kind of adult toys symbolize work and other things that don’t necessarily symbolize childhood,” Johnson said of apps and tablets. “But Mr. Potato Head is childhood and carefree.”
Some newer toys popular this year are decidedly low tech, like Rainbow Looms. “You use looming sticks to create bracelets,” said Gerrick Johnson, a toy industry analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “It is the most basic, the most low-tech item in the world, and it’s the hottest toy out there.”
But even the nostalgic toy is going digital: The Easy Bake Oven has an app.