Whereas many categories in the toy business soared as locked down families spent big to share quality social time and to ensure children had meaningful and beneficial activity away from remote learning, the indications are that the Plush toys category had a tough year in 2020.
Why have Plush toys been a perennial pillar of the toy business?
Before we look specifically at which factors caused negative performance in 2020, we should first consider the fundamental drivers for soft toys:
As adult humans, we tend to utilise our eyesight above all other senses as a primary input, followed by hearing. Children though are not fully developed, and at different stages of development they interact with the world on a different sensory basis versus adults. The younger the child, the more touch is a primary sensory input. This difference tends to gradually fade as the child gets older, but in the early years, certainly covering the Infant/Preschool phase, children tend to be very influenced by and reactive to interesting tactile experiences and sensations. Plush toys with their soft and yielding fabric and stuffing tend to be interesting for children to touch, and this is a primary driver of Plush Toy sales. Especially when children can walk through stores and pick up a soft toy and feel it or hug it. They can then form an immediate attachment to the toy which can become quite difficult for parents who don’t want to buy the item to resist!
Comfort is also very important. The world can sometimes appear to be very big and scary to younger children, and so having something nice to hug can offer reassurance and familiarity. The notion of a comfort blanket is well known, and everything that can be appealing about a comfort blanket can apply to a favourite soft toy. From time to time, our company receives enquiries from frantic parents who want to know if we can help them find a replacement for their child’s favourite soft toy which has been lost. One particular enquiry caused the people in our office some distress as a child had lost their best friend – which was a baby tiger soft toy. The father of this child was frantic, because the child was so reliant on the toy for comfort. That is how important Plush toys can become in the life of a child, in the same way as a family pet animal can become part of the family, the same status can be granted by the child to their favourite Plush toy sometimes.
One further fundamental driver for the Plush toy category is the ability to bring into the home and bring to life favourite characters from movies, TV, VOD (Video On Demand), YouTube and other forms of media. So, if a child loves Spongebob or Mickey Mouse, they can actually bring them into their home. As we know, imaginary play is a core play pattern for children, and they will often role play with their toys creating scenarios and placing the toy in the scenarios as a way to develop their feelings and express themselves. Character based Plush toys are a major element of the category, and have been for a long time.
Challenging times for Plush toys
Despite these underpinning fundamental drivers, several factors appear to have restrained the Plush category in 2020, and look likely to restrain the category for at least the first half of 2021.
As outlined above, the ability to touch and feel plush toys at retail is a key long-term driver for the category overall. With many retail chains closed for in-store visits in many markets and with stay-at-home orders in some places across 2020, opportunities for children to touch and feel, and then fall in love with Plush toys were lesser than in previous years. Moreover, parents have tended to actively discourage children from touching everything in the way they may normally have done for fear of spreading COVID-19. This has undoubtedly been a challenge for the market.
Another factor acting as a brake on the soft toys business in 2020 was the hugely impacted Hollywood movie release slate, as film after film was pushed back into 2021, 2022 or further into the future. Cinema chains closed across the world with not enough movies to show and due to local restrictions, and so the scale of viewing movies en masse in cinemas reduced, and the marketing budgets associated with major movie releases were not spent. And while VOD picked up some of the slack, it did not deliver enough oomph to fill the gaps. So, without the usual mass scale demand driver of major global movie releases, licensed plush sales were impacted accordingly. Some classic brands picked up the slack according to some plush toy companies we spoke to, but overall, it appears to have been a tough market for Plush toys even while some categories experienced significant sales increases.
The sun will come out tomorrow
The situation for Plush toys though is not all doom and gloom. There were some bright spots in 2020, and the outlook going forward looks better.
The launch and rapid growth of Disney+ offers short term benefits as an alternative to cinematic releases, but also long-term benefits as an alternative platform to driver demand for Plush sales. The clamouring for Plush (and other toys) based on Baby Yoda, from Disney+‘s flagship The Mandalorian series shows that VOD can drive sales to high levels, especially where the character suits the Plush format.
Looking forward past the pandemic, fundamental drivers for the Plush toy category should facilitate return growth, and when we consider that the movie slate for first two years after the pandemic will be jammed full and that Disney+ and other VOD platforms are ramping up their offering, the future should once again be bright. We can hope with strong justification that the pandemic will be a storm which will pass, and that the sun will indeed come out tomorrow.