Never underestimate the market-moving potential of a nagging child. “Mom, Dad, I want THIS for Christmas!” is a phrase that each year leads to billions of dollars of toy sales. And it’s a phrase parents can appreciate, because knowing what your kid actually wants to find under the tree helps minimize Christmas morning tears. Toy manufacturers and retailers spend millions of dollars each year to make sure their products are the ones on everyone’s wishlist, with TV and online ads, special retail displays, and old-fashioned toy catalogs.
The stakes are particularly high this holiday season, since one-time retail juggernaut Toys R Us closed all its US locations earlier this year. Even while its sales were declining, Toys R Us still accounted for around 12 percent of the estimated $27 billion total toy sales in 2017, according to Juli Lennett of NPD Group, the leading toy industry analysts in the US.
With Toys R Us gone, those sales are up for grabs, and Amazon wants them. The digital-first company was already beating Toys R Us in market share. And while it alone was not responsible for the demise of Toys R Us—poor business decisions and its sizable debt were also to blame—Amazon did put intense pressure on the toy store chain with extremely low prices, especially during the past few holidays seasons, using its familiar tactic of sacrificing profit for market share. Toys R Us couldn’t compete. Now Amazon hopes to feed from the carcass.
And so the ecommerce giant went retro this holiday season, mailing out its first-ever print toy catalog, like the one Toys R Us used to be known for. The “Holiday of Play” lookbook from Amazon is 68 pages long and features toys like the über-popular LOL! Surprise dolls, LEGO’s Star Wars Solo, and the Osmos Genius Kit for iPad. An Amazon representative told WIRED the catalog was sent it to millions of customers in November, but wouldn’t give exact numbers. It’s also available at Whole Foods and some physical Amazon store locations, or online in PDF and Kindle form.
The catalog may be made of paper, but it’s designed as a gateway to a digital transaction. What it lacks in pricing information it makes up in QR codes and stickers that kids can use to make note of presents they want their parents to buy. It also works with the Amazon app: Take a photo of the catalog item you (or your kids) want, and the app will pull up the listing and let you buy it from your phone.
“The great thing about a catalog is that it sits on the coffee table, where kids can find it,” says Steve Pasierb, CEO of The Toy Association, a trade group representing American toy manufacturers. “The catalog is a market share play. Amazon has a huge chance to win a lot of those holiday sales.”
Amazon’s top competitors for Toys R Us’ sales are Target and Walmart, according to experts—traditional retailers that have mailed out holiday catalogs for years. And in the wake of Toys R Us closing, both companies decided to devote more shelf space in their retail locations to toys, says Pasierb. With only a handful of physical stores in a few major cities, Amazon’s toy push comes in the form of a dedicated landing page for kids on its website, and its catalog.
“They’re emulating a proven method of doing business, which is the catalog, but using their muscle to engage at a particular time when there are just fewer retailers now that sell toys,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of research firm Global Toy Experts. Gottlieb was impressed with Amazon’s catalog, though he far preferred eBay’s catalog, full of weird and wild and expensive one-of-a-kind toys, which launched this season as well.
Amazon and eBay are joining the many other ecommerce companies still finding that print catalogs have value in the digital era. Catalogs are harder to ignore than the clutter of online ads, one footwear startup founder told Digiday earlier this year, explaining that his company gets a slightly higher return on direct mail versus digital-only marketing. Companies can also use data to target catalogs to customers they know are likely to spend more money. And they are a traditional way for families to compile gift wishlists.
“I’m old enough to remember the Sears catalog,” says Gottlieb. “I remember laying on the floor just going through it. I didn’t get much anything out of it. But you know, marking things, studying it in detail. It was wonderful and a wonderful way to communicate with your parents what you want.”
People really want and love catalogs. Take a glance at the reviews for the Kindle version on Amazon’s website. Plenty of customers posted bad reviews, not because they didn’t like the catalog but because they were annoyed that they didn’t get one.
“Why can’t we get a book and why didn’t we get one? We have been prime members for years, have 4 kids, buy lots of toys, and no book. And we can’t order one,” reads the top-rated review right now. “Would love to have the toy catalog delivered through the mail. The children love looking at it and circling what they like. I dont use Kindle. I’ve been a prime member for many years and did not get one,” reads another. A review from November 15 is even more direct: “Disappointed that I didn’t and can not now get a hard copy in the mail even though I have two small children and spend a ton on toys through Amazon Prime. I AM YOUR TARGET MARKET. Speaking of Target – I’ll be doing my toy shopping there because I am THAT petty.”
The disappointment those Amazon reviewers felt speaks to the reason catalogs have worked so well. They’re convenient, above all. Enjoyable, even. And this time of year, when millions of Americans are going to buy toys, it’s easier for children to thumb through a physical catalog that feels like a big book of wonders than a notoriously hard-to-navigate website.
Kids, especially, don’t have a great way to discover toys on the actual Amazon website. Even its dedicated toy section divided by age group is confusing to navigate. And while the site does have a wishlist feature, parents might not trust their kid to trawl through Amazon’s website on their account, since they could accidentally push one button and buy something. A print catalog is a way for Amazon to directly get its offering in front of children, while also giving parents a little bit more control over the process.
The toy catalog is a familiar marketing throwback in an otherwise rapidly evolving industry. Pasierb notes that with the growth in streaming entertainment for kids, the kinds of ads children see have changed. “Unboxing videos, the online kind of stuff is for a lot of our toy companies as important or now more important than traditional television advertising. A lot of our companies that no longer do traditional TV advertising do almost all exclusively digital,” says Pasierb. The highest-paid YouTube celebrity this year, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy making unboxing videos of toys, earning an estimated $22 million in 12 months.
“[These kinds of ads] are entertainment in their own right,” says Lennett. “A lot of these kids, I don’t think they know the difference between watching a show—a real show—versus watching another kid playing with a toy on YouTube.”
“In my household, the word ‘TV’ is gone. Now it’s just ‘shows.’ Children have already fully internalized the idea of on demand, and that disrupts the ad model completely,” says David Carroll, professor of media design at the New School.
But Carroll doesn’t let his two kids watch YouTube, where they might see those ads. I don’t let my three-year-old son watch it, either. We are the exception; a recent Pew survey found that 81 percent of parents do allow their young kids to watch YouTube. Our reasons are less to do with fear of seeing ads than fear that we can’t control the algorithm and our children might get exposed to inappropriate, creepy, or ideological videos. Instead, our kids mostly watch on-demand shows on Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, or Google Play—and those are largely free of ads.
“The only way [Amazon’s toy offerings] are getting in front of my children is through a catalog,” says Carroll. Only Carroll never got an Amazon catalog, despite his prolific Prime usage. Neither did I. Neither did Lennett, who says, “I’m mad I didn’t get one.” Though her kids are teenagers, she buys lots of stuff on Amazon and thought they’d receive one in the mail, as some of her friends did. An Amazon representative declined to comment on how the company decided who to send the catalog to, though the person offered to send me one. (I declined.)
For Amazon, a catalog also fits well with its bigger push into the physical world, with everything from actual store locations to Dash buttons you physically push to order goods. “[Amazon owner Jeff] Bezos has total world domination as the goal. So from that perspective it makes sense that they would not take a digital-only approach. They would take a whatever works approach,” says Carroll.
For world domination, Amazon has to be everything. And everywhere. Even in the living room, where your kid can find it and come up to you whining, “Mom! I want this!” That is, if Amazon sent you one.
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