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Terrific Toys for Trips

March/April 2003
by Kari Anderson
Whether the demand for travel toys stems from consumers being increasingly on-the-go or is simply the toy industry’s way of reinventing itself, one thing is clear: sales of travel toys are shifting into high gear. Here, retailers talk about what’s selling for them and what makes a toy worth taking along.

The sky’s the limit

Carol Knight sees travelers in her store all the time. Located in the resort area of Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho, she estimates that 50 percent of her customers in The Toy Store are “just passing through.” In the summer, they come for the sun, and in the winter, they’re headed for the slopes. Fortunately, while they’re in town, they’re also spending money in her store.

“People will spend anywhere from $5 to $20 on a travel toy, but usually they’re buying more than one thing, so it adds up. Most customers will buy at least two or three items. The sky’s the limit!” she says optimistically.

Engage the senses

Carol encourages her customers to buy a variety of travel toys to stimulate a variety of senses. “It’s good to have something to write with, then switch to a listening activity such as a CD or tape, and then switch to a craft item or something else that the child can put together,” she explains. “Customers want something that will keep their kids busy instead of having them constantly ask, ‘When are we going to get there?’ Anything that can be done while sitting down works well.”

Because so many of her customers are travelers, Carol always keeps an eye out for anything that will qualify as a travel toy. She tells people not to be turned off by toys with small pieces. “You can always put them in a Ziploc bag,” she advises. Her most popular toys for trips are listed here.
• crayon- or marker-activity books
• wind-up toys
• all kinds of card games
• CDs
• books on tape
• skill puzzles
• brain teasers
• magnetic Geomags by PlastWood Corporation
• small Playmobil sets
• Lauri’s Toddler Tote and Primer Pak
• Klutz books
• finger puppets by Manhattan Toy and Folkmanis
• Learning Curve International’s FeltBooks and Story Pieces
• Dover Publications’ activity books (mazes, dot-to-dot, stickers, etc.)
• Rush Hour and other games by Binary Arts
• small boxes of LEGOs

The tiniest travelers present Carol with her biggest challenge. “The hard part is finding travel stuff for babies ages 6 to 9 months,” she admits. “I usually recommend touch-and-feel books by DK Publishing and telephones by BRIO, TOMY and Chicco.”

Personalized playthings

At Learning Express stores, customers who are shopping for travel toys are willing to pay more for items that can be personalized. Marketing Assistant Jessica Hopp explains that although this service is free at all Learning Express stores, customers are willing to splurge on items that will bear their children’s names. “For personalized products, people will spend $25 to $40. Otherwise, it’s usually $20 or less for travel toys.

“Clip cases, lap boards, and totes are some of our best-selling travel toys,” says Jessica. “We decorate and personalize the items, and parents pick out things like art supplies, markers, card games, and coloring books to put in them.”

Jessica called on Lisa Vasco, vice president of merchandising, and Shelley Hobson, owner of Learning Express’ Wilmington, North Carolina, store, for their input on what travel toys are hot for them. Here is what they came up with.
• Lap Doodle board by ALEX
• Rubber Neckers by Chronicle Books
• magnetic games and activity boards by Smethport Specialty
• Brain Quest cards by Workman publishing
• Auto Bingo by Regal Games
• magnetic checkers and chess
• Klutz books
• FeltKids by Learning Curve

It won’t get lost, will it?

Like most customers, those at Learning Express are looking for travel toys that are easy to pack, won’t spill and will keep the kids occupied without a lot of hands-on involvement from Mom or Dad. “Customers want things that their kids can do while the parents drive,” notes Jessica. “Products that are contained all in one case or that have very few small pieces are a plus. Magnetic games, puzzles, and activity boards are hot because the pieces won’t get lost as easily. Hand-held games like Yahtzee, and even Game Boys make good travel toys, although we don’t sell those in our stores.”

In May and June, travel toys can be found on nesting tables near the front entrances of Learning Express stores, as well as on endcaps near the CD and cassette displays. “Audio cassettes and CDs are also a travel must, so it makes sense to put other travel toys near them,” adds Jessica.

“Vendors continue to grow the travel-toy category every year,” she notes. “There’s cool, new stuff coming out all the time.”

Made to last

Nancy Stanek of Toys Et Cetera, Inc. in Chicago, Illinois, agrees that travel toys are growing. “I’m selling more of them every year,” she says. “People used to just get coloring books and crayons. Now they want toys that engage people and are more detailed. In the past, travel toys were seen as consumables – a notepad that got thrown away after the trip. Today, travel toys aren’t just something for the trip, they’re also for entertainment once a family reaches their destination.”

Along with these increased expectations, people are also willing to pay more for travel toys than they used to. “Instead of paying $1.50 for a coloring book, it’s $10, $15 or even $20 for a good travel toy,” says Nancy.

Another trend she’s seen is an increased demand for travel games. “People want games rather than toys,” she notes. “If they’re traveling as a family, they want solitary games, plus those with two or more players. However, I believe that a toy that promotes imaginative play will keep a child busy for a good period of time, and action figures such as Bendos can keep a child occupied longer.”

Nancy says that travel toys are for every age group. “In summer, it’s more concentrated on the grammar school-age kids or the camp-age kids. They may be traveling by themselves or visiting grandparents, so their moms want to keep them occupied. During the rest of the year, travel toys are purchased for all ages and for anybody in the family,” she comments.

Smaller is better

Size is the number-one factor in travel toys, according to Nancy. “The biggest thing people look for is how small the format is. Customers are not necessarily turned off by lots of parts – for example a deck of cards has lots of parts – but it has to be easy to pack.”

What is small enough to take on a trip and substantial enough to keep kids occupied after they get home? Nancy shares this list of her top-selling travel toys.
• Lauri’s Primer Paks and Toddler Totes
• Colorforms’ vinyl stickers
• Pressman’s travel-format games such as 6 in 1 Magnetic Games and Travel Mastermind
• Binary Arts’ Lunar Lockout, Rodent Roundup, Galactic Takeover, Rush Hour, Brick by Brick and Tangram

Travel toys don’t have to be an investment

Not all customers are willing to invest a lot of money in travel toys, says Jane Christopherson, owner of Once Upon a Toy in Stowe, Vermont. “People generally want to pay under $10,” she says. “They kind of see it as a throw-away because by the time they get home, the child will be bored with it, or it could easily get lost during the trip.”

Because Vermont is a travel destination, Jane gets lots of people in her store shopping for travel toys. Over the years, she’s gotten to know what makes a terrific toy for a trip. “A good travel toy doesn’t have lots of parts. You wouldn’t want to take a construction toy set on a car trip, for example. It also has to be small,” she adds.

The toys that have become the most popular among her traveling customers are these.
• Binary Arts’ Fifteen Puzzle
• Slug Bug Bingo
• Endless Games’ Tickle Bee
• Mad Libs
• Sterling Publishing’s brainteaser books and knock-knock jokes
• Lee Publications’ magic pen and paper
• make-it-yourself Rubber Band Ball Buddies by Band Buddies
• candy
• PVC animals from Schleich
• Klutz books
• a variety of impulse items
• lots of games

A win-win situation

While the list of requirements for a good travel toy may seem lengthy, there’s plenty to choose from as manufacturers continue to offer new products for this niche market. By helping your customers choose a variety of travel toys aimed at all the senses, you’re creating a win-win relationship: they get an occupied child and you get increased sales.

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Travel Toys AKA: “Sanity Savers”

Parenting author Vicki Lansky shares tips that you can pass on to your customers.

The smaller the toys, the more variety you’ll have room for when traveling with kids. Yet “small” can be a choking hazard for your very young child. Also, small toys are more easily lost, dropped, and caught in tight places.

Consider preparing three bags of toys: one for the trip, one for your destination, and one for the trip home.

• Include soft toys to hug, cuddle and sleep with. If you attach an elastic loop to a soft toy, a child can carry it on the wrist. (If necessary, you can wear it on YOUR wrist.)

• Make surprise packages by wrapping several toys and books with lots of string and tape. Let your child select one when things get tense.

• Fill a bag for each child with surprises and special favorites. An old attache case makes a good carrying case as does an old purse filled with jewelry, a small brush, an old wallet, etc.

• Bring hand puppets to entertain a child when restlessness sets in. A puppet “eating” a small, deflated balloon looks as if it is blowing bubbles.

• Carry WASHABLE markers with you. Be cautious with crayons. They can – and do – melt in the heat of summer.

• Blowing up balloons can provide good entertainment if there’s an extra adult in the car. Keep them small, or let the air whistle out, draw faces on the balloons, tie one to a car seat. (Never let a child chew on broken pieces of balloons because there are chemicals on the inside of the pieces, and the pieces can also cause choking or asphyxiation.)

• Keep a supply of colored-dot-stickers-with-pictures on hand. They are fairly neat and really keep kids occupied.

• Consider buying travel-size versions of board games, especially those that come with magnetized boards or pieces. Or, use waterproof markers to trace your kids’ favorite board game on a piece of clear, heavy plastic that can be rolled up and taken with you.

• For kids hooked on video games, hand-held versions may well be worth the investment.

• Don’t forget a Magic Slate! It can provide hours of fun with no mess and eliminates the need for excess paper. It probably will get ripped along the way, but then it will be one less thing to carry home. Also MagnaDoodle!

• Above all, carry books, books and more books to read to your child while you're traveling, while you’re waiting in restaurants, and before bedtime.

Vicki Lansky has authored dozens of books, including Trouble-Free Travel With Children: Helpful Hints for Parents on the Go (Book Peddlers). For ordering information, visit her website at www.practicalparenting.com or call 800-255-3379.

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