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Big streaming hits translate into big demand for toys

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Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Pluto plush toys are displayed on a rack at a Disney store in 2012.

Stuffed Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Pluto plush toys are displayed on a rack at a Disney store in New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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It’s the holiday shopping season — as if you needed me to remind you of that little stress bomb.

If you need ideas for what to get the kids in your life, you can probably figure it out based on what they like to watch. Maybe they’re into “The Mandalorian” or the “He-Man” reboot. Maybe they just want to watch the same episode of “PAW Patrol” over and over and over again.

Madeleine Buckley covers the industry for The Toy Book. She said it’s true that TV has always been fodder for selling toys to kids, but with streaming platforms shifting how we watch, the toy business model keeps evolving.

Madeleine Buckley (courtesy Francisco Rivera)

Madeleine Buckley: It was like, these are the kid shows that are being put out. This is what every kid is watching, and each one of those toys has a toy company they’ve partnered with, and those toy companies are going to make the toys. If they sell, great, they’ll make more. And that’s how it worked. Now they have YouTubers that they’re watching, they can go on Netflix and watch any TV show for kids that was made in the past 50 years. They have new shows coming out on a wide variety of streaming services. So all of a sudden, we’re no longer in this, “Oh, every kid is watching the same five shows.” And that so complicates the toy landscape.

Jed Kim: So are companies just going nuts right now? Or do you get the sense that they’re figuring it out?

Buckley: I think they are figuring it out. I know the pandemic definitely expedited things. But I think it’s been a slow enough, progressive change that companies are just kind of figuring out how they can streamline their process to best take advantage of the streaming era. I mean, on top of all new things launching on streaming, sure, but old things launching on streaming, and then meeting that product demand. Because “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the Nickelodeon kids’ show, launched on Netflix last year. And then all of a sudden that demand was there. That consumer product demand came because of streaming. It’s not a new show. It’s been out for a long time. It had fans for a long time. But it wasn’t in the mainstream the way it is at the moment until it landed on Netflix.

Kim: There’s so much content out there now with streaming, how good are companies at keeping up delivering product tie-ins?

Buckley: We now live in this new era of toy and product manufacturing. When they launch a new kids’ show on Netflix, there’s no longer that guaranteed, “Oh, all the kids are going to be watching this.” So with “The Mandalorian,” for example, they were so excited about Baby Yoda, keeping him a secret, that they couldn’t start the product development process before they released the show. And then I think they knew that people were going to love that character, but I don’t think they were aware of quite how much until the show dropped. And then everyone’s like, “Well, where’s my Baby Yoda plush?” And so it was just kind of this mad dash to get those products to shelf. Because when you have, you know, blockbuster or really long-lasting brands that you know is already successful, you can make the product in advance, and then that’s why it’s ready right when the show comes out. But with streaming, when you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit, then it becomes a little more complicated.

Kim: I mean, that’s wild, though, because if I remember correctly, back when the first “Star Wars” movie came out in the ’70s, they also didn’t have their toys ready to go.

Buckley: You are very correct. They had no idea how popular “Star Wars” was going to be. They didn’t have that toy deal lined up, ready to go. And actually that Christmas, they were selling empty boxes with IOUs for “Star Wars” action figures because they couldn’t get the toys ready fast enough. And so now we’re seeing that happen a little bit more frequently with overnight streaming hits like “The Mandalorian.”

Kim: This is the third holiday season for Disney+, a major powerhouse. At this point, how much is Disney+ driving toy sales?

Buckley: A lot, actually. We’re seeing just an overall impact of Disney+ on kids purchasing power. I spoke with the Insights Family, which is a company that collects data around consumer trends and behaviors, and for the month of August, they had some really cool data. For example, kids who watch Disney+ in the 10- to 12-year range were 21% more likely to make movie-inspired toy purchases and 27% more likely to make TV purchases. And I think that has a lot to do with “Star Wars” and Marvel content, right? Because that older age bracket, 10 to 12 [years old], is really when they’re getting into that content, and there’s so much of it on Disney+.

Related Links: More insight from Jed Kim

If you want to read more on how streaming is impacting toy sales, we’ve got a link to Madeleine’s article. A lot of interesting stuff in there, including that kids watching Disney+ were more likely than average to buy things tied to Disney TV shows and movies. It’s the “Star Wars” and Marvel effect.

I asked Madeleine what the hot toys of the season are this year, and one she told me about is Squishmallows, which are supersoft, cute, plush toy/pillows. It turns out squashable items are also great for toymakers during a supply chain crisis. CNN’s got a story about how the premium for space on shipping containers made some manufacturers opt for making small, squishable items this holiday season. It’s all about maximizing the available cargo space.

And finally, I’m including a link to “Tales from Moominvalley,” the classic kids’ book from Finland. It contains, quite possibly, the funniest Christmas story of all time. If you’re unfamiliar with the Moomins, well, this is my gift to you. You’re welcome.

And I guess you could download an e-book version, since after all, this is a tech show.

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