Look out, candy man: Toymakers are moving in on your plastic-grass turf.
Retailers and toy companies are working together this year to create items for children's Easter baskets that go well beyond chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks.
Target Corp. is pitching Easter baskets with pint-sized Barbie dolls and Nerf guns. CVS Health Corp. is hawking Play-Doh, "Finding Dory" bubble makers and even Penn tennis balls to stuff amidst the fake grass. And Walgreens is offering tiny Trolls and Hello Kitty dolls holding a colored egg or basket.
The efforts are paying huge dividends. Easter-season consumer spending is expected to hit a record $18.4 billion this year, a figure that would vault the holiday past Valentine's Day for the first time, according to the National Retail Federation. Easter would trail only Christmas, back-to-school and Mother's Day among the year's main events for retail revenue.
"There's about a billion dollars of toys sold the three weeks leading into Easter," said Jim Silver, editor of Time to Play Magazine, an industry publication. "Manufacturers have been making toys that are Easter-basket friendly and come in egg-shaped packages."
The trend presents another challenge for candy companies like Hershey. Changing consumer tastes, including a shift away from sugar and processed ingredients, have eroded sales and put pressure on food companies to control expenses. Traditional candy-consuming holidays like Easter are more critical than ever as the industry struggles to ignite sales growth.
The timing of the holiday is also crucial. Easter Sunday landed on March 27 last year, which gave people less time to shop for candy and gifts. Hershey, the largest seller of chocolate in the U.S., blamed the early holiday for weighing down 2016 sales.
This year, however, companies are benefiting from an Easter holiday that falls on April 16, almost three weeks later. Warmer weather this weekend could prompt more people to get out to stores and host family gatherings, said Ana Serafin Smith, a spokeswoman for the retail federation.
The extra time bodes well for retailers like Toys "R" Us Inc. The largest independent toy store chain is asking shoppers to "think outside the basket," with basket-stuffers like $13 Lego dinosaurs, Mattel Inc.'s $15 Monster High fashion dolls and Nintendo Co.'s $40 Pokemon Moon video game.
Toy companies also got shrewder in their product design and packaging this year. Manufacturer Jakks Pacific Inc. is offering $3 Disney Tsum Tsum collectible figures in pastel colors for the holiday.
"Moms like the idea of adding other things," said Sara Rosales Montalvo, a spokeswoman for Jakks, "so that the Easter basket isn't completely filled with candies and chocolates."