At this time of year, it’s more than just the hopeful dreams of young children who are focused on the toys and games market, and with good reason. According to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service, domestic toy sales for 2014 grew to realize a $22 billion market bolstered by strong retail sales across a wide variety of categories. “It’s been a very successful market for us,” admits Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Trade Books, Jack Barney. “We’ve seen tremendous, continued growth and we only see that potential growing.” The academic retailer introduced selected toys and games to just five of its stores in 2012, and now carries an ever-widening selection, with over 20 stores having their own separate departments for the category.
If it’s the kind of product area that seems slightly at odds with the idea of an exclusively academic retailer, then you might be right. “As a brand, I think Barnes & Noble College has always been associated with the learning experience, but our customers also connect us with entertainment and fun,” points out Carl Grath, who manages the two-level, 30,000-square-foot DePaul University Bookstore in downtown Chicago’s loop district.
And that qualification puts some onus on what constitutes a good product fit for the stores. “The products we carry generally fit much more to our market and our store profile than the general toy store,” Barney agrees, “and there’s a considerable store-to-store differential in the range and type of products we’ll carry.” He also acknowledges that one of last season’s top sellers in the general market was merchandise associated with the animated movie Frozen, which was a runaway success at Barnes & Noble College stores as well.
That kind of strategy calls for a keen sense of buying in the kinds of products that constitute a good fit, yet are on trend with the wider market, particularly in the crucial holiday period. Lynne Moran, Barnes & Noble College’s Buyer for Trade and Gifts, illustrates the range. “When you look at some of the bestselling toys of the season, it’s a really wide spectrum — from Peppa Pig to one of my best sellers, Ace playing cards,” she says, adding that franchise properties are always particularity successful. “This season, both Harry Potter figurines and Star Wars products are likely to perform well. We’re carrying a light sabre product as one of over 100 on that category alone,” Moran says, all well in advance of the movie’s holiday release.
She also points to the huge crossover potential to gifts and books with these items. With prices ranging from $19.95 for a Lego Star Wars podracer to items costing over $250, customers aren’t just browsing for stocking stuffers at the college stores. “This isn’t impulse,” Moran explains. “Our customers are really shopping our stores — especially our expansion locations — with a wide customer base of both a campus population and local community.”
Many of the current trends in the toys and games market play well with Barnes & Noble College’s wider academic mission. The Maker Movement applies to toys and activities providing the opportunity to build and create while also developing important cognitive and physical skills, and point-of-sale data from The NPD Group indicates that these kinds of products represent much of the impetuous behind the sector’s growth with building sets and arts & crafts based games, growing 13 percent and 3 percent respectively.
In the Barnes & Noble College stores, the segment is amply represented in everything from coding sets and robots to small drones. “We’ve always established a solid base of products in the category, like the Lego architectural formats, or now with the Makey Makey ranges and coding and circuit board kits,” DePaul’s Grath says.
With many kids today leading very structured lives, nostalgia is alive and well in the bookstore and Grath points the long standing popularity of classics such as Etch-A-Sketch, and an updated version of Mattel’s traditional Viewmaster, complete with a phone app to provide even greater 3-D vistarama experience. Moran includes classics such as Rubik Cubes, Spirograph design sets, Jenga and even Twister, Trivial Pursuit and Clue among her strong performers. “We’re seeing a lot of success with those traditional games because I think it’s a fallback,” Barney maintains. “I think a lot of gaming goes on in dormitories and common rooms, and when you spend the day on a laptop or iPad, those kinds of activities provide an opportunity to do something collaborative and share with friends.”
At the DePaul bookstore, Grath says the toys and games have long since expanded from the back of the store, and is now front and center for the holidays. “We have gondolas of Monopoly, Boggle, educational games, Lego Star Wars figurines and X-Wing Fighters,” he explains, which showcases the bookstore as more than just a traditional academic retailer. “Every one of our stores is different and I’m not sure that we fit to anyone’s expectation of a collegiate store — if they haven’t been to one of our locations recently,” Moran maintains, “and that couldn’t be more the case than in this year’s run up to the holidays.”