Holiday Central

'Star Wars,' Snoopy and 'Jurassic World' hot for holidays

Toymakers bet on older franchises
Toymakers bet on older franchises

A quick scan of the shelves at your local toy store may leave you wondering if you've traveled back in time.

In a nod to the '50s, "Peanuts'" Snoopy character is making a comeback on the industry's Hot Toy lists, this time with a dancing plush doll that flaps his ears as he moves.

There's a flashback to when "Star Wars" first arrived on the scene in the '70s as you'd be hard pressed to find a toy retailer or discount store without a significant chunk of real estate — even more so than usual — dedicated to the flood of the film's merchandise.

Traveling 20 years back, there's also a selection of toys that take you back to the world of Universal's "Jurassic Park."

Source: Just Play

Both toymakers and retailers alike are betting big on these franchises from decades past — all of which are getting a boost from new films. But while the properties themselves may be giving shoppers a feeling of nostalgia, the toys have gotten some serious makeovers.

Take the "Star Wars" franchise. Its offerings include the smartphone-controlled BB-8 Droid — a far cry from the plastic light sabers of yesteryear (though those are still available). Other old-school brands that never went away — think Barbie — are getting a major upgrade, including new versions of the doll that talk or ride a horse.

"[Kids today] are far more used to, and they have a much greater appetite for, motion and interaction," said Toys R Us CEO Dave Brandon. "The toy industry is responding to that."

Indeed, whether it's a throwback product or a new addition to a child's toy chest, the shift toward more tech-enabled products often comes with higher price tags.

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Some of the items predicted to be bestsellers this year are the $400 MeccaNoid personal robot for kids, the $150 BB-8 and the $110 Millenium Falcon flying spaceship. Pricier items including hoverboards and drones are also expected to be on many kids' wish lists.

Even Barbie, whose traditional dolls retail for closer to $10, is commanding $75 at presale for its talking Hello Barbie doll, which ships later this month.

Juli Lennett, senior vice president of the U.S. toys division at NPD Group, said parents are typically willing to shell out extra money on toys during the holidays, with Barbie's Dreamhouse a perennial player on the top 10 sellers list. This year's edition, which resembles a townhouse, has a $200 price tag.

"Around Christmas there's always that big toy that parents and grandparents want to buy for their kids," Lennett said.

No matter how in demand a certain toy may be, analysts said retailers will nonetheless be forced to find the right balance between competitive pricing and demand. Because many discounters use cheap toys as a way to get shoppers in the door, at which point they upcharge them on other products, "retailers have a really tough job of weighing that against getting the best price," Lennett said.

"[The toy industry] just doesn't follow the economics that any of us studied," said Chris Byrne, content director of toy review website TTPM. "It gets competitive but at a certain point the stores will sell out of their allocation. It's not like an endlessly flowing river."

This is something that Toys R Us' Brandon said gives his company an edge. As a specialty retailer that focuses solely on toys year-round, he said the company is "rewarded" in terms of the allotment it gets from vendors.

From there, Byrne said, it's about effectively managing the business so that it can be the last retailer with an item in stock, at which point it can lift the price to its suggested value — something he said Toys R Us does very well.

Disney launches 'Force Friday'
Disney launches 'Force Friday'

As for predicting which toys will be the must-haves of the season, it's a much safer bet for toymakers to bet on properties that have been successful in the past, Byrne said. That, in part, is what's behind this year's resurgence in the "Peanuts," "Star Wars" and "Jurassic World" properties.

"From a business standpoint, very often these companies are a little bit nervous about taking a chance on a new property," he said. "Getting something that has done well in the past and they think will do well again is a way of hedging their bets."

That's particularly true with the "Star Wars" franchise, which has appealed to a new generation of kids, all the while sparking a pang of nostalgia with parents and grandparents. A Toys R Us commercial plays into this thesis perfectly, showing a father who is desperate to make his daughter love "Star Wars."

After years of her crying and resisting, the ad ends with daughter swinging a light saber in one of the store's aisles, to which he responds, "I am your father."

But that doesn't always mean it will be a slam dunk. Byrne pointed to disappointing comebacks by Holly Hobbie and Strawberry Shortcake, saying kids did not connect with the brands in the same way as their predecessors.

While she's remained a constant on shelves, Barbie has also struggled to gain traction with today's kids, leading to a 15 percent sales decline during the first nine months of the year.

For his part, Byrne does not foresee Snoopy having trouble connecting with consumers, saying the doll should be able to ride momentum from the just-released "Peanuts" movie.

What's more, "Star Wars" is universally expected to be the biggest franchise of the year, with experts predicting the toys could ring up more than $1 billion in sales. Byrne predicts that the BB-8, the Millenium Falcon and high-end light sabers will sell out.

But with everyone trying to get in on the trend, there will also be "Star Wars" toys left on the shelves once all the gifts are opened, he said.

All in, NPD Group is predicting sales in the toy industry will rise 6.2 percent — or more than $1 billion — for the full year. If achieved, that would represent its best performance in more than a decade.

Through the third week of October, Lennett said the category's sales were up 7 percent. Roughly two-thirds of toy sales typically occur in the second half of the year.

"What's really interesting to me this year is that there isn't one or two really nice-selling properties," Lennett said. "[That's] probably why the industry's up 7 percent."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.