For Retailers & Brands, Selling Toys Can Bring as Much Joy as Playing With Them  5/31/2024

Anthony Trani

In his recent book: Hidden Potential, The Science of Achieving Great Things, bestselling author Adam Grant discussed how we learn much more effectively when we make the learning experience fun. “Deliberate play is a structured activity that is designed to make skill development enjoyable,” he wrote. “It blends elements of deliberate practice and free play. Like free play, deliberate play is fun, but it’s structured for learning and mastery along with recreation.”

While Grant used some professional athletes and performers as examples of how this works, he could have very well been describing today’s toy industry and the new toys and games being sold in retail and aimed at helping kids learn while they play. 

Indeed, this trend of STEM toys continues to pick up momentum and has significantly evolved over the past few years, according to Anthony Trani, CEO of Elenco Electronics and a member of the board of trustees for the Toy Foundation, the giving arm of the Toy Association. “With these STEM toys and games, you are digesting the education by osmosis,” he says. “You’re not focusing on the educational part, but the education is happening in the process of playing.”

Toys are a family activity now

What’s more, these toys have evolved into more of a family activity. “When you look at some of the trends that TIA has identified over the last couple of years, a prevalent one is the idea of kid adulting, which is adults playing with the toys themselves,” says Trani. “It’s creating fun for all ages.”

Elenco Electronics is a great example of a supplier developing the kind of products that are not just fun for kids, but for adults as well. Among its products are Flight Deck, a paper airplane launched that you build yourself while learning about how planes work, and Snap to It, a board game that’s part of its Snap Circuits line of products in which “strategy meets science,” where players are in a race to build a complete electrical circuit that lights up a bulb, all the while learning about how electrical currents work. 

Newer 'fun' packaging

One way suppliers have been making these toys and games more attractive is through packaging refreshes that focus more on the fun and less on the science. “We want to make sure that the products come across as fun,” says Trani. “Our packaging used to be very serious. I think there is a huge opportunity for brands and retailers in the STEM space to get across that message of fun because I think we originally locked ourselves a bit into a corner around very serious learning.”

Suppliers like Elenco are also working to design much more user-friendly instruction manuals that include lots of images so that parents, teachers and kids can each easily understand how to use them.

More seasonal offerings

Another way of encouraging families to continue learning and playing together throughout the year – and to give toy suppliers more opportunities to get on the shelves at retail – is by developing more seasonal offerings. Here we are not just referring to the Christmas season, which is always a popular time for selling toys at retail, but rather weaving in other seasons throughout the year.

In this respect, toy suppliers like Elenco are taking a page from the confectionery industry (in which Trani worked previously) by creating products for seasonal occasions like Easter and Halloween. “Suppliers are developing products for different seasons,” he says. “At Elenco, for example, we created a couple of seasonal products. One is our Easter Egg Light, which is a plastic Easter egg that you can decorate, and then you build a circuit and put the egg on the light that the circuit creates, giving you a new and fun Easter decoration. It’s a great basket stuffer for families.”

They will also be launching a Snap Circuit powered pumpkin light for Halloween, which can keep pumpkins lit for a full week. “It’s all about these moments where parents and kids come together,” says Trani.

Retailers have the opportunity to lean into this seasonal aspect and incorporate such toys and games into their seasonal assortments. 

Toy Foundation spreads the joy

To ensure that even families in need can come together around toys and games, the Toy Foundation, which is the focal point of giving for the Toy Association, serves as a funnel for financial donations as well as donations of toys and time to those who are without them. “The Toy Foundation has been working on actively engaging companies in the toy world who may not already be familiar with them,” says Trani. “One way we do this is the Toy of the Year Awards.”

The Toy of the Year Awards, or TOTYs for short, recognize the top toys, games, and properties across 17 categories of play. It’s a critical fundraiser to support the Foundation’s work, including its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Pipeline program fostering the next generation of diverse talent for the industry; the Play Grants program, which improves pediatric care through play; and the Toy Bank, which distributes toys to children in need around the world.

I had the honor of attending last year’s TOTYs, and I can tell you from my experience, it’s an amazing event! Just as you would expect, it was a lot of fun, with great people – some dressed in what I would refer to as “toy chic” (I even had a camouflage shirt under my sports jacket matching my Plus 1’s boots and purse), and it was great to meet so many regular participants from ECRM’s Toy & Learning Sessions who were also there to support the cause. 

My table at the 2023 TOTYs

Trani, a long-time participant in ECRM Sessions from his previous role in the candy industry, is a big believer in how it can also create connections among members of the toy industry. “The tremendous value that ECRM delivers in connecting suppliers with retailers we may not normally get to meet is incredibly important,” says Trani. “It creates a lot of opportunities to meet face to face in scheduled meetings, but also the networking outside of those meetings is incredibly valuable because you get to know people on a personal level and build those relationships.”

Buyers and suppliers looking to connect in person at ECRM’s upcoming Toy & Learning, Consumer Tech and School & Office Sessions this coming August in New Orleans can reach out to Tony Giovanini, ECRM's SVP of General Merchandise.

Hope to see you there!

Watch my full interview with Anthony Trani!


Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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