Bored Games: How the Toy Category Became Essential During COVID  2/18/2021

Mom and Dad (Vivian and Peter Tarnowski) with one of their quarantine puzzles

Don’t think toys and games are “essential items?” Ask any parent who has been working at home as their kids jump in an out of their remote meetings. Or ask my parents, who completed more than 20 puzzles since last March to stave off the boredom of quarantine. 

Indeed, once consumers finished buying up all of the masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper they could get their hands on, they turned to toys, games, puzzles and the like, driving 16.1 percent growth from 2019 to 2020 in a category that experienced a 4.5 percent decline the previous year, according to NPD.

During ECRM’s Toy Program held earlier this month, I participated in virtual meetings with a dozen buyers from a variety of retailers ranging from large national chains to online and specialty retailers, both n the U.S. and Canada, and picked their brains on what category trends contributed to this growth during the pandemic. Based on these discussions, here are the types of products and underlying consumer needs that are driving demand from shoppers today.

Games, puzzles and other products that help the pass the time
In what would be no surprise to my parents, the Games/Puzzles segment saw 32 percent growth from 2019 to 2020, according to NPD data, the largest growth of any segment in the toy category, and just about every buyer I spoke with is experiencing this boom. “We can’t keep board games and puzzles on the shelves,” says Howie Cohen, General Merchandise Category Manager for Bartell Drugs. “And as we’re all on allocation with suppliers, they can be hard to get for the stores.”

Similarly, various arts and crafts have also grown in popularity during the pandemic. Here again, my parents are a great example of this, with Mom turning to needlepoint and Dad to model airplanes, or playng UNO or Yahtzee when puzzle-fatigue sets in

Products for keeping kids distracted 
Parents working from home learned that they need a constant stream of distractions for their kids to prevent them from interrupting their virtual calls and otherwise wreaking havoc around the house. While the products may vary from action figures and dolls to building sets and role-playing games, they all share one key trait: they are able to capture kids’ attention and keep them absorbed in an activity for long periods of time, and out of parents’ hair.

“Parents are seeking products that help consume time away from TV or other screens,” says Jody Hendricks, New Accounts Executive at online retailer Zulily. “When they check out an item, they ask themselves, ‘How many minutes can I get out of this one?’”

Interactive products for group activities
On the flip side, products that bring the family or friends together are also popular. Some of these are similar to the products mentioned above, but rather just used in the context of a group, and others, such as STEM toys and games throw some education into the mix.

According to a recent survey from Zulily and OnePoll, 86 percent of moms surveyed said it's important to them that families play together. With puzzles, easy crafts for kids, rock painting kits, books and STEAM playsets, the whole family can bond, build empathy and learn.

Outdoor activities
After games and puzzles, outdoor and sports toys saw the most growth in sales, according to NPD, and these were in much demand from consumers, according to buyers I interviewed. Following the initial months of quarantine, these products provided a release for the pent-up energy of kids as the warmer weather approached. Plus, people looking to socialize in a safer manner have taken to gathering outdoors or in backyards. These products include everything from cornhole and trampolines, outdoor playsets, “ride on” toys and even app-based telescopes.

Toys that complement learning-at-home 
With most kids attending virtual classrooms or being homeschooled during the pandemic, parents are seeking products to help complement their kids’ in-home education. STEM toys, which were growing in popularity before the pandemic, have taken on greater importance now that so much education is taking place at home.

Collectibles see a resurgence  
Increased time at home has reinvigorated consumers’ passion for collectables ranging from trading cards, to Hot Wheels, Funko Pop figures and the like. Bartell Drugs actually transformed this demand for trading cards into an opportunity to support the local community.

The drug chain teamed up with Topps and Seattle Children’s Hospital (along with local celebrities) during the recent holiday season to sell packs of Seattle Heroes Topps Trading Cards. Each pack contains one autographed card from a Seattle athlete, musician or famous ambassador (like the autographed Ken Griffey Jr. card Bartell’s Cohen is holding in the photo).

Bartell Drug's Howie Cohen shows off his Seattle Heroes Topps Trading Cards, during my meeting with him and Cascade Wholesale's Bryan Nelson at ECRM's Toy Program

Participating celebrities included Russell Wilson, Macklemore, Alysha Clark, Cliff Avril, Dan Wilson, Edgar Martinez, Detlef Schrempf, and Spencer Hawes among others. Proceeds from the sales of these trading cards go right to support Seattle Children’s Hospital, and more than $259,000 was raised through the program.

These collectables can even be a source of connection and entertainment, as I’ve witnessed in my own neighborhood. One of my friends, Jose Collado, is an avid Hot Wheels collector, and during the pandemic he has taken up posting Instagram stories of races between his cars. Each of the regulars from my local bar/restaurant was assigned a car, and he raced them against each other the the Hot Wheels Super 6-Lane Raceway in his garage, posting videos of each race as well as each car’s standings, enabling us all to get in on the fun (my car never won, though).

One of my friend Jose Collado's many collectible cars.
One of the races in action!

Final point: keeping your assortment fresh
One key thing buyers and suppliers of toys need to realize is that, as consumers likely will be stuck in their homes at least for the next several months, they will be seeking to continually refresh their toy and game selection to keep their kids occupied and fight boredom. Most people will likely tire after 20 puzzles (not my parents, though) and will seek out new innovations for keeping them and their families engaged. 

Many of the buyers I spoke with were participating in our Toy Program for just this reason. Not only were they seeking more of the tried and true, but they were also looking to find new innovations and impulse items that would grab the attention of any harried parent or bored quarantiner. Many of these games and hobbies taken up during the pandemic have the potential to continue long after the pandemic is over. It's up to the retailers and brands to help keep the category essential once things get back to normal. At ECRM, we're happy to help you do this!

Each year, toy buyers and suppliers connect in curated face-to-face meetings on ECRM Connect. If you'd like to register for the ECRM 2021 Toy & Learning Program contact:


Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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