From Lego to Barbie, how classic toy brands stay relevant each holiday season

December 6, 2019

Michelle Zadikian | BNN Bloomberg

Parents struggling to find the perfect gifts for their young ones can rest assured classic toy brands like Lego are still a safe bet.

Some toy industry experts say the brands those very parents played with as children continue to prove resilient and top annual toy lists holiday after holiday. Market research firm The NPD Group puts Lego, Barbie, Hot Wheels and Little Tikes in the top 10 selling properties with sales up across the board.

Joan Ramsay, entertainment industry analyst with NPD Canada, believes Lego and Barbie have a unique advantage, though, as those brands have the ability to maintain their traditional forms – building blocks and dolls, respectively – while creating fresh looks and adapting to movie or character trends.

“Lego is always one of the biggest sellers for the year,” Ramsay told BNN Bloomberg in an email. “In addition to the classic Lego and Duplo block sets, Lego is great at keeping the line current with licensed product from Frozen, Toy Story, Harry Potter, etc.”

“It’s taking the classic brand, but updating [it]. Barbie had lots of activity around her 60th birthday, plus we saw the first Barbie that uses a wheelchair, and other variations.”

The Walt Disney Co. is also expected to shine this holiday season, helped by its dominance at the box office this year with wildly successful film releases such as Avengers: End Game, Frozen II, The Lion King and Toy Story 4 – all of which lend themselves to related toy merchandise.

“Disney-licensed products are doing extremely well,” Ramsay said. “In my opinion, this is related less to the buzz around Disney+, but rather due to the strong properties that they have. For example, the top three properties for Disney are Frozen, Toy Story and Disney Princess, which are all really strong toy lines.”

Disney also has Marvel with the Marvel Universe of toys, and Lucas with all of the Star Wars toys, Ramsay added, noting the company is “by far” the largest licensor for the toy industry.

At Toys ‘R’ Us Canada, Toy Story has been one of the top three growing properties this season, and action figures tied to the brand have seen sales increases over the last nine months, the company told BNN Bloomberg in an email.

The fact that many of the traditional toys don’t involve computer screens also benefits them, according to Burt Flickinger, managing director of U.S. retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.

Flickinger, who covers both the Canadian and U.S. toy markets, says it’s all about toys that are constructive or involve construction, noting parents and other gift-givers are desperately trying to get their children away from mobile devices and violent video games.

He predicts Frozen-related merchandise, Baby Shark toys, and Lego, in that order, will be the holiday’s biggest sellers.

For many classic toy brands, an increase in online shopping also doesn’t seem to having a major impact in terms of what is selling, Ramsay said.

“Online sales of toys are growing at a faster rate than many other consumer products,” she said. “But there is no indication that it is changing what is being purchased, just how it is being purchased.”