It’s only just September, but toy retailers are already gearing up for their busiest time of year.
This week brought the top toy lists from Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us — some of the biggest names in the business. With chatter building around the holidays, Amazon quietly posted in late August on its website a list of 100 toys for the season.
Wal-Mart was the first to make an official announcement on Wednesday, also bringing news of the start of its layaway program. The big-box retailer has promised more than 1,000 new toys, which includes more than 300 exclusives. Wal-Mart said that about 25 percent of its toys will be exclusive to its stores.
This year, smaller rival Target said it will sell more than 1,400 new and exclusive toys across its stores and online. Target rolled out 1,800 new and exclusive toys in 2016 — up 15 percent from 2015, and the most it had ever sold.
Target’s top items for 2017 include 11 toys that are exclusive to the retailer, the company said, such as a Shopkins mall, an exclusive Hatchimals egg and a Jetson-branded electric scooter.
Instead of its typical “Fab 15″ list, Toys R Us upped the ante with what it’s calling “Geoffrey’s Top 20″ for toys. Like Wal-Mart, the retailer is offering a layaway service with no fee required, and Toys R Us is promising to match prices for all in-store purchases. If a customer is able to find a better deal elsewhere, Toys R Us said it will match prices from places like Wal-Mart, Target, Amazon and Best Buy.
The “hot” lists, which arrived a touch earlier than usual this year, are a way for the retailers to get shoppers excited for the all-important holiday season. This year, retailers are under even more pressure as sales shift increasingly online.
Toys are critical for luring in shoppers and winning business heading into the holidays. And for Toys R Us, a toy retailer, the holiday season is a make it or break time. This year all the more so, as it has recently hired Kirkland & Ellis to help it address roughly $400 million in debt due in 2018.
Across the many hot toy lists, interactive toys, collectibles, puzzles, entertainment properties and tech-infused toys have been the most prominent. And that’s no surprise.
Strong sales from these categories helped the toy industry grow 5 percent, reaching $20.4 billion, last year, according to The NPD Group.
Collectibles remain one of the strongest drivers of growth in the toy industry. In 2016, sales of collectibles grew 33 percent, or $432 million, to reach $1.8 billion, according to NPD data. Sales of blind packs — collectible items where buyers don’t know what they are getting — alone grew 60 percent.
These toys tend to be popular with parents because they are inexpensive, while kids enjoy the hunt as they try to “collect them all.”
Hot toys in this category include Spin Master’s “Colleggtibles,” miniature versions of its fast-selling Hatchimal toys; Disney’s Tsum Tsums, sold through retailers like Jakks Pacific; Funko’s line of Pop! figures and Lego’s traditional figures and buildable BrickHeadz characters.
Interactive robots with personality have also flooded the market. Although a higher price point for consumers, with the majority selling for north of $100, these toys have been a hot commodity.
Hasbro is selling Roarin’ Tyler and Ivory, fluffy, plush tigers that respond to touch and have more than 100 motions and sounds, and a My Little Pony Magic Twilight Sparkle, an animatronic pink horse that has more than 90 unique phrases and also responds to touch.
Spin Master’s Zoomer line is also releasing a robotic horse toy, as is Hasbro’s rival, Mattel, which is slated to debut a battery-operated Barbie’s DreamHorse.
While sales of entertainment properties have been sluggish in the first half of 2017, with Hasbro’s lines of “Despicable Me 3″ and “Cars 3″ disappointing investors, the second half of the year could be saved by toys from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “My Little Pony: The Movie” and “Justice League.”
In the same vein as collectibles, these movie- and TV-inspired toys, gadgets and costumes conjure up imaginative, open-ended play and feature characters that are familiar to kids.
After the release of “The Force Awakens” in 2015, “Star Wars” toy sales for Hasbro reached nearly $500 million. While sales from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” were slightly lower than expected, the company has high hopes for toys from “The Last Jedi.”
These sales could be buoyed further after “Force Friday,” a massive Star Wars merchandising event, that has boosted buzz for the film due out in December.
Another category that has been steadily growing is tech toys. Many of the hot toy lists include items that encourage kids to learn how to code or use technology.
Hasbro has launched a Dance Code Belle doll that can be coded to perform different maneuvers and dances using an app. The company also has the FurReal Proto Max, an animatronic dog that users can code to move and make various facial expressions and sounds.
Crayola’s Fashion Superstar allows users to create their own masterpieces on paper and then transfer those designs into an app that places them on digital models. Users can then share their creations in-app like they would on Instagram.
Similarly, Lego’s Life app lets users construct digitally and take photos of their builds to share on a safe, digital platform.
Of course, some shoppers are still pining after last years’ biggest hits.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed so far this year if the Hatchimals Surprise,” Phillip Dengler, co-owner of the website BestBlackFriday.com, which monitors retailers’ annual sales, told CNBC in an interview after surveying the toy lists. “Last year they were sold out everywhere. It was a big disaster.”
2017 offers retailers a chance to sell to those shoppers what they “missed” last year, BestBlackFriday.com co-founder Eric Jones added. “Kids that were excited about it last year are looking to get a different version this year.”
Dengler and Jones both agree that toy shopping is shifting online, as evidenced by the latest news of Toys R Us exploring strategic alternatives.
“Amazon is a category killer no matter what category they go into,” Jones said. “They have the power to get exclusives, too.”