How these tiny toys became a big seller

A 12-pack of Shopkins was the best-selling toy last year, according to market research firm NPD Group.
A 12-pack of Shopkins was the best-selling toy last year, according to market research firm NPD Group.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST.

WASHINGTON • Vicki Vanilla. Susie Sausage. Buncho Bananas.

If these names sound like gibberish to you, consider yourself warned: There is a good chance you will soon be on a frantic hunt to get them under your Christmas tree.

These tiny plastic characters are part of an explosively growing line of toys called Shopkins, which can perhaps be best described as personified versions of items you would find at the grocery store or the mall - miniature pastries or high heels with cute faces.

After just more than two years on store shelves, Shopkins has become a huge business. Market research firm NPD Group reports that a 12-pack of assorted Shopkins was the best-selling toy last year, edging out items from popular properties such as Star Wars and Barbie.

The line's United States market share rivals that of established brands such as My Little Pony and American Girl, according to Euro- monitor. And so far this year, Shopkins has seen a 98 per cent increase in sales.

Shopkins are designed to be collectibles. Like baseball cards or Pokemon, you trade them with your friends. There are rare characters that keep you constantly scouring the toy store, hoping to add to your trove.

Prior to Shopkins' arrival, "there really hadn't been a strong collectible for girls", said Ms Laurie Schacht, co-publisher at toy review site The Toy Insider.

Moose Toys noticed the opportunity when it decided to develop Shopkins, whose primary audience is six- to 10-year-old girls.

The relatively small Australian toy company had seen healthy sales for a boy-centric line called Trash Pack, a collectible set of what chief executive Paul Solomon describes as "gross little characters who live in garbage cans".

"We saw the opportunity to come out with more of a girl-skewed or girl-themed line," he said.

Shopkins is relying on YouTube to connect with kids. It has posted one- or two-minute cartoons on the video site - short bits that can easily be watched on a smartphone or tablet. Collectively, the videos have been viewed about 100 million times. Mr Solomon said: "We call it snackable content."

Shopkins have also become popular subjects for so-called unboxing videos, where people film themselves opening a new item. The company has recently pushed to expand its media tie-ins, releasing a full- length movie on DVD this autumn.

In this era of fast fashion and same-day delivery, Shopkins rolls out an army of new characters about every six months, betting that a focus on freshness is important at a moment when kids (and parents) have so many programming and toy choices.

Mr Jim Silver, chief executive of toy review site TTPM, said this strategy may be another reason the brand has gained traction. The price point does not hurt either, he added. Some items in the line are priced at US$2.99 (S$4.20), and Mr Solomon says 80 per cent of sales are on items that cost US$19.99 or less.

To be sure, the tiny toys will be up against stiff competition. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is set to hit theatres on Dec 16, providing a jolt of momentum to that property.

Old-school toys such as games and puzzles have seen monster sales growth so far this year, so items such as Pie Face and Pie Face Showdown are likely to draw big dollars, too.

And then there is Hatchimals, a new toy from a company called Spinmaster in which a fuzzy, dancing-and-singing creature hatches from an egg. Stores recently started to run out of Hatchimals and the US$59.99 toy is already popping up on eBay with three- and four-figure price tags. Mr Silver said he predicts Hatchimals will sell three times as many units as Tickle Me Elmo did in its 1996 holiday heyday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'How these tiny toys became a big seller'. Subscribe