Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.
In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.
Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.
Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.
Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.
We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.
The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.
According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”
According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”
Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.
Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.
Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.
As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.
Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.
Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.
While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.
I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).
How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.
I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune