Product of the pandemic: How has Covid-19 influenced change over the pre-school sector?

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has changed the dynamic of toy selling this year. With families up and down the country now locked in for lockdown a second time around, and in that all important run-up to Christmas, the consumer’s taste in toys has certainly become a product of circumstance.

Most notable in this year’s DreamToys listing, the ‘quick play’ pick-up purchases that fueled toy sales in more recent years – we’re looking at the influx of pocket money toys that seemed to define the industry through 2018/2019 – have been swapped out for ‘more considered, larger purchases;’ the big ticket items that tick boxes across educational, STEM learning, tech-focused, and longer, independent play.

We’ve seen this in play with the popularity of LEGO’s Super Mario Adventure Starter Kit (which has appeared on practically every retailer’s top ten toys for Christmas listing this year), or the VTech KidiZoom Studio (another favourite of the Top Ten lists for 2020) which actually demands considered input and engagement from its pre-school audience, indicating that out of a global pandemic, the toy buying – and toy playing – population has reacquainted itself with the concept of ‘long-play.’

The popularity of VTech’s KidiZoom Studio also highlights that the leading trend of this year has also found itself filtering down into the pre-school sector. But then again, a sector that sits at the heart of the industry, comprising an audience at its earliest stages of social and physical development, this is surely a sector that has been most susceptible to change at the hands of the shifting landscape around Covid-19?

“Given the lack of social contact that people are able to have with one another at present, toys that encourage independent play are serving an important purpose,” Schleich UK’s trade marketing manager, Paul Dearlove, tells ToyNews.

“As we move into 2021, we expect children will continue to enjoy more independent play, and that parents will stick with trusted brands like Schleich. We plan to meet that continued demand with plenty of great launches across our portfolio.”

The pandemic has changed the manner of social interaction across the age groups, with families and friends relying on group chat platforms to stay connected throughout the UK’s period of total shutdown. Those platforms remain as popular today, and over the past eight months have certainly played a hand in forming new social dynamics.

“Toys with limited play value have not sold so well. Meanwhile, larger ticket items and toys that keep children entertained for greater lengths of time, like the playhouses and outdoor lines from Smoby, have been hugely popular.”

“There’s been a move to virtual play dates, and I love the fact that children are connecting remotely with their grandparents and wider families,” said Dr Amanda Gummer, CEO of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide, the toy expert outfit that itself initiated its own online play dates through the summer months of 2020.

“We have seen that games that can be played online are actually benefitting from this. Single use craft items that are individual also make sense in the current climate, they allow everyone to make their own creations while keeping socially distanced.

“On top of this,” Gummer adds, “there’s been an increase in the demand for educational toys and toys and games that can be played between siblings of different ages, while tech-based play is increasing rapidly in the pre-school sector, too.”

For proof of this, you need only return to some of those Top Ten Toys for Christmas lists that have been emerging over the course of the last two months. Fisher-Price’s Rollin’ Rovee has become just as much a familiar name among them, while the indie start-up Osmo made the Hamleys Top Toys for Christmas pickings with its Osmo Genius Starter Kit this year.

“The types of toys families are purchasing has changed somewhat during lockdown,” confirms Mayur Pattni, head of marketing and UK marketing manager, Simba Smoby Toys UK, to ToyNews.

“Toys with limited play value have not sold so well. Meanwhile, larger ticket items and toys that keep children entertained for greater lengths of time, like the playhouses and outdoor lines from Smoby, have been hugely popular.

“Parents have also been turning to toys that serve educational purposes amid school closures, so we did well with toys that could help supplement education.”

In the educational toy sector, too, changes have begun to appear. The concept of Outdoor Learning is one that has really taken root over the course of 2020. The imposition of a national lockdown from spring this year coincided almost perfectly with soaring temperatures, making the outdoor space an ideal playground for new ideas around child developmental play.

Speaking with ToyNews earlier this year, Pumpkin Projects’ Valeria Miglioli revealed her own predictions for the Outdoor Learning sector,its potential for huge growth within the toy space, and the vast potential for the toy company that manages to unlock the right kind of product range within that field.

It’s a sentiment that the Good Play Guide’s Dr Gummer is quick to echo.

“I really hope that movements like Outdoor Learning have a lasting influence over the toy industry,” she tells ToyNews. “Getting children outdoors, developing their risk assessment skills and promoting active learning is so good for them. I think it could be one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

“Toy brands that can adapt to this are likely to see sales grow.”

While it’s true that the pandemic has caused a lot of noise over the course of the past nine months, it’s arguable that the after effects of this period of unrest could play to the advantage of an industry such as toys. There’s no doubt now that consumer mind-sets have shifted and value could be returning to a sector that has, for a long time, walked precariously on the line between price and value.

“Parents are shopping less with their children, so pester power has had less of an impact on the purchasing process. Instead, parents and grandparents are turning to familiar evergreen brands like Schleich.”

Gummer continues: “People are also spending less on impulse purchases and making more considered buying decisions, which has not only been great news for The Good Toy Guide [the group recently launched its first ecommerce site in GoodToyGuide.com] but the industry overall. The spending amount hasn’t seemed to reduce but people are investing more in toys that last, so a lot of the classic brands are doing well.”

Both Schleich and Simba Smoby have been among those brands to fare well out of the public inclination to classic names that they can trust.

Schleich’s Dearlove, says: “Amid the pandemic, parents are shopping less with their children, so pester power has had less of an impact on the purchasing process. Instead, what we’re seeing is that parents and grandparents are turning to familiar evergreen brands like Schleich.”

Simba Smoby’s Pattni, adds: “In the absence of social contact, pre-school toys have provided entertainment, education, and they’ve supported mental and physical wellbeing. While this is what they have always been able to do, their ability to offer all of this when there are few other ways to achieve any one of these things is hugely significant.

“We don’t think families will be quick to forget this.”

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