The children come day after day, lining up in the cold and snow on Main Street in Midland, Mich., to wait their turn to enter Santa’s house and whisper their Christmas longings to the jolly man in the red suit.
And when they say such things, Tom Valent, now in his 38th year as Santa Claus, unleashes his best “Ho-ho-ho” and replies: “Well, I’m good at toys. Electronics — that’s a bit of a challenge.”
Sure, children still want and receive trains and dolls and Legos and other playthings of the type that Santa might make in his North Pole workshop.
But their passion for playing with toys seems to be diminishing at earlier and earlier ages. After all, this is a generation that learned to amuse itself practically from babyhood with the smartphone and tablet swiped from their parents’ hands.
For Hanukkah this year, Maddon Segall asked for iTunes gift cards and the new iPad mini. He is 3.
“I hate to tell you, but we got it for him,” said his mother, Elyse Bender-Segall, of Livingston, N.J. She added: “He doesn’t like the toys. … He’s just not interested in them they way he is with the tech.”
A recent survey of 1,000 parents with children between 2 and 10 found that more than half planned to buy a tech item for their children this holiday season. About two-thirds of those planned to give a tablet or smartphone, according to the survey, which was taken for PBS Kids, the brand of the public broadcasting network aimed at young children.
“Smarter Giving With Apps!” shouted the December cover of Manhattan Family, a monthly publication geared to families with young children. The article, written by a kindergarten teacher, noted that “traditional gifts, like clothes and toys” can be costly “and not always what children are wishing for.” Apps, on the other hand, she wrote, are cost-effective, educational and fun — the perfect gift.
It is a confounding situation for toymakers, which, according to the Toy Industry Association and statistics compiled by NPD Group, have barely managed to eke out any gains in the past few years. Contributing to the doldrums is that there is no superhot, must-have toy this holiday season — no 2013 equivalent of the Cabbage Patch doll or the Tickle Me Elmo or even the Zhu Zhu Pet.
Instead, some in the industry are trying to get a piece of the tech action. While electronic games have long been a staple of toy stores, this year, for the first time, Toys ‘R’ Us introduced hands-on tablet displays in many of its stores, including iPads and Samsung tablets. The company has also designed and developed its own tablet for young children, the Tabeo e2, which, a spokeswoman said, “comes right out the box with 30 premium apps.”
“Increasingly tablets are a key growth category for the company,” said Adrienne O’Hara, the company’s director of consumer public relations.
Nostalgia sells well, too
But as the holiday shopping season is wrapping up, some parents have resisted.
The Easy Bake Oven, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, has been a strong seller at Wal-Mart in recent weeks. Hot Wheels are having a good season, industry experts say, as are the Barbie Dream House and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even Mr. Potato Head is still around.
“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.