It's play time as Barbie and Hot Wheels enjoy big sales spike

Hot Wheels, which just celebrated its 50th birthday, had a 21 per cent surge in revenue.
Hot Wheels, which just celebrated its 50th birthday, had a 21 per cent surge in revenue. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (WP) - Hidden within Mattel's announcement of plunging sales and massive layoffs were two bright spots that may be the key to the toymaker's turnaround.

Barbie, the 59-year-old doll that is Mattel's biggest brand, had a 12 per cent jump in sales in the second quarter, its third straight gain.

Hot Wheels, which just celebrated its 50th birthday, had a 21 per cent surge in revenue.

What is behind the revival in old-school brands? A strategy that is summed up in company Power Point presentations as "giving them a new view of what they've been watching all along".

The "them" refers to today's young parents, who may have grown up with Barbies and Hot Wheels only to snub them in favour of educational apps and fancy gadgets for their own kids.

Mattel is trying to lure those customers back by recasting the toys' image to play up not only the nostalgia but also a newer notion: They are beneficial to child development.

The sales gains indicate this new view may be taking hold.

It may seem far-fetched that a doll could engender creativity and ambition, while a miniature car is a hot bed for critical thinking - and that parents would believe such a concept.

But there is a growing movement of academics and educators pushing mounds of research that shows such open-ended play is paramount to developing these essential skills.

Something as seemingly mundane as playing house is really role-playing that builds empathy, teamwork and communication.

"Play was absolutely crucial to human evolution," said Mr Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. And the decline of play time from all the structured activities that have been hoisted on kids is "clearly having harmful effects" like less resiliency and not being able to solve their own problems, he noted.