This time last year, The NPD Group reported a year-on-year growth in demand for toys in the run-up to Christmas. However, the latest research from the market research company to the end of November shows a different picture for 2021.

Compared with 2020 – when lockdowns powered a bumper year for the toy sector – sales value to date has been more muted: down 4.7%, with sales volume down 0.8%. However, for context, if those sales are compared with 2019 (a ‘normal’ year) then value sales are up 3.9%, with many consumers yet to buy toys for the big day.

The NPD Group executive director, UK Toys Melissa Symonds said: “The pandemic accelerated the changes to the types of toys we buy, and how we buy them. Sales of building sets, games and puzzles continue to be strong, and the online channel has experienced a boost in sales, particularly for higher-priced items. However, despite warnings from the trade of supply chain shortages and early sell-outs, many shoppers have clearly left their toy buying to the last minute and we saw a boost during Black Friday. Brits still expect price cuts and deals on toys, and we believe many are waiting until the last few weeks to buy just before Christmas.”

“The pandemic accelerated the changes to the types of toys we buy, and how we buy them. Sales of building sets, games and puzzles continue to be strong, and the online channel has experienced a boost in sales, particularly for higher-priced items”

The NPD Group executive director, UK Toys Melissa Symonds

Black Friday kick-started seasonal shopping, posting a 4% hike in sales year-on-year, with demand for the highest priced toys particularly strong. Six items in the top 10 best sellers cost over £50, and some considerably more. Overall, the average sales price this year has risen 7.7% since 2019 from £9.01 to £9.70 per toy.

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The NPD Group has reported over the years how UK consumers have been slowly shifting to the online channel as their preferred method for purchasing toys. The pandemic accelerated that trend: with store closures early in 2020 and in the run-up to Christmas, toy buyers went online and in the last quarter of 2020, the online channel accounted for 58% of all sales versus 42% in 2019. Analysis of toys purchased online shows that these are focused buyers on a mission to find specific higher-priced items, who then head straight to the virtual checkout. With declining footfall in physical stores and little browsing online, impulse buys of toys priced £20 or less have suffered, explaining a decline in sales at these price points observed this year.

In contrast to the significant growth in sales of some toy categories last year, looking at 2021 in isolation would suggest that some have experienced a dip this year. However, the NPD Group notes that when compared with 2019, sales of building sets are up 25%, puzzles have increased 24% and board games have jumped 15%.

The company also highlights the rise of a new phenomenon – strategic trading card games – where sales have doubled since 2020. This is primarily driven by Pokémon, but others are growing in popularity.

Traditionally a strong seller, sales of plush toys suffered in 2020 amidst store closures. This year, with shops open, sales have bounced back and are up 9%. Another category on the rise is vehicles (+7% year-on-year), with Hot Wheels driving the category followed by Monster Jam.

Melissa concluded: “It’s no exaggeration to say we went mad for toys in 2020 and as a result, comparing sales in 2021 with last year can skew the picture of what’s really going on. The toy sector is changing as consumers choose new favourite categories, buy more online and opt for higher-priced toys. The good news is that comparing sector performance for this year to date with 2019, we can see that almost half of the gains made in 2020 have been retained – and a last-minute surge to Christmas offers hope of a good year overall.”

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