Ashley Browning has the inside track on all things entertaining, silly and downright fun for the kid (and kid at heart) set. As a representative with Specialty Marketing Group, Browning is a sales representative for toys, providing product lines for independently owned toy and gift stores, hospital gift shops, bookstores and catalogue accounts in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“I’ve never seen better gift stores than in Minnesota,” Browning says. “There are some real savvy buyers with excellent taste here.” Some of her local clients include ABC and Toy Zone and LifeTime Fitness in Chanhassen; the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska; Kowalski’s, Patina and Scheels in Eden Prairie; and area Caribou Coffee shops.
Browning arranges in-store events and “play days” to highlight new products and annually travels to New York City’s Toy Fair and the America’s Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) Marketplace and Academy to preview new merchandise and “find out what is going to be hot,” she says.
“It’s actually a very crazy, fun and exhausting show,” she says of Toy Fair. “You see huge Pikachu floats, life-sized Lego Star Wars characters, real (Volkswagen Beetle cars) decorated with pom-poms, life-sized Lincoln Log cabins, Power Rangers and other popular characters walking around all day.” Thousands of vendors display toys, books, puzzles, games, furniture, ride-on and plush toys, electronics, room décor and more. “The pressure is high at Toy Fair, as vendors are hoping that their new line for the season translates well to the buyers,” Browning says. “The vendors make a huge investment to exhibit at Toy Fair from booth space rental, staffing, travel, new product, printed material and entertainment.”
Browning attends Toy Fair with clients and takes them through her vendors’ booths to highlight new items that make sense for their stores. “In a day, I probably walk over 10 miles to cover the two- floor trade show,” she says. Browning notes that ASTRA Marketplace, while more low key, is a very important show for specialty and independent retailers. “This show offers educational classes for retailers, vendors and reps, as well as the trade show,” she says.
Browning also scouts closer to home. “I also hit the road and go to places like Rapid City (‘Who’s Toy House is amazing.’), Sioux Falls (‘Kidtopia and Child’s Play are both darling.’), all over Minnesota (‘Lark Toys in Kellogg is a must see.’) and North Dakota.”
Browning uses those jaunts to spot “winners” that will satiate kids’ penchants for play and satisfy parents’ desires for learning toys. “I think items that can stand the test of time are winners—a game that people continue to play, a multipurpose toy or something that can be passed down to a younger sibling,” she says. “Of course, there are some trendy items that are temporary winners (Rainbow Loom and Fidget Spinner), but to me the ones that still get reorders and are staples in every store are the biggest winners.”
Throughout the years, Browning has developed a keen sense of what will and won’t strike a chord with kids, and she also vets some items through her own test market—her two children, Maren, 12, and Will, 15. “They have gotten older, which is actually good for me because the stores always say that they struggle with items for older kids,” she says. “When an item is something that they think is ‘cool,’ I feel pretty confident in that item.”
“My latest toy that I’ve tested on my kids is the Hypno Gizmo, which will only be in specialty stores this winter. Everyone that has played with it—kid or adult—has loved it.” Hypno Gizmo is a craft/string art item, which transforms into a fidget/sensory toy.
“I’ve noticed a lot of my accounts are trying some new tween gift items to keep the kids in the stores longer—think bath bombs, jewelry, purses and locker items,” Browning says. “Sensory items have been a big focus, and items for special needs individuals are important,” she says. “Kendamas were very big a few years ago. When Spirograph was reintroduced a few years ago, I was receiving huge reorders daily. It’s still a great staple in stores.”
Slime remained popular in 2017, driving up the glue market for homemade versions. “One of the slime lines I sell is actually one of my biggest sellers in units so far this year,” Browning says. Other toys staples include Laser Maze, Gravity Maze, Bugs in the Kitchen, Fashion Plates and tin retro items and games.
While a toy’s success may be driven by what kids think, the internet wields weighty power in directing trends. “I think that social media is a huge contributor to trends,” Browning says.
The internet may be a positive force in some ways, but it can be detrimental in other areas.
Independent retailers are forced to compete with online sales and kids turning away from traditional games and toys and toward electronic entertainment. “You even see babies and toddlers in strollers playing with tablets and phones,” Browning says.
“The online sales are hard for my accounts when customers use their stores as showrooms and employees as a resource/users guide. Some customers will go into a store, work with an employee for half an hour, have the employee make all sorts of suggestions, educate them on a product and then go home to order it online to save a dollar or two. Many stores are asked to price match online prices, but let’s remember that the online retailer isn’t typically paying rent, employees, insurance, losses from theft, training, et cetera.”
“Typically, the hot items are the ones that the large big box stores purchased in January,” Ashley Browning explains. “The buyers for big chains go to Hong Kong in January to meet with manufacturers and buy containers of product that usually arrive late summer. They have the big budgets to market these items and make them buzzworthy.”
This year’s must-have toys include magic sequins items, all things mermaids and unicorns, Fingerlings, Fashion Press, Nee Doh and Kawaii squeezes. “Legos will always be huge at the holiday time,” Browning says. “Puzzles and games always perform well during the fourth quarter, as families are looking for ways to spend more time together.”
Browning points to Roller Coaster Challenge (ThinkFun). “It is a logic thinking game for the 8 and older crowd,” she says. “It won Best Toys for Kids Logic Thinking at ASTRA this past summer.” ThinkFun offers several games that appeal to the hard-to-buy-for crowd (typically the 8 and older boys). “Ravensburger puzzles are the best in the market,” she says. “There are diehard puzzle fans that only buy this brand. The independent toy, game and book stores in the metro always have a nice selection of Ravensburger and ThinkFun.”
“Retro games like Simon, handheld retro arcade games (Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders and Electronic Football) are big because the big kids (aka adults) love the nostalgia,” Browning says. “Retro items are always huge at the holidays.”