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Feature - Dress Up & Role Play

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With films and audiences alike returning to cinemas, parties and annual celebrations to look forward to, and a summer of shopping on the cards, the dress-up and role play category is set to enjoy a good year. Rachael Simpson-Jones looks at what’s driving trends in the marketplaces and speaks to a number of suppliers about their latest product offerings.

Role play remains an essential element of childhood growth and development. It helps kids engage their imaginations, assists in the understanding of social constructs, and introduces day-to-day tasks necessary for adult life in a fun and enjoyable way. Over the past year, kids have spent an awful lot of time at home, and more time than perhaps they’d otherwise have had in the presence of their parents or caregivers. It’s therefore fair to assume that there might be a renewed demand for role-play toys that let kids emulate household chores, for example, or gardening tasks.

“The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have meant that families have been forced to spend a lot of time indoors together and in doing so, have rediscovered the joys of spending time and playing together,” notes Phil Cassidy, managing director of role play specialist Casdon, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. “Families are looking for toys that promote togetherness as well as having educational benefits. We know that children love to imitate the grown-ups and help out in the home, and so even day-to-day chores have been inspiring play. Products such as our Henry and Hetty Vacuum Cleaners and Cleaning Set turn cleaning the house or doing the laundry into a fun activity. Our products are childsized versions of items adults may use in the home and so it makes them feel like they are using the real thing. Imaginative and creative play has always been an essential part of childrens’ development; however, over the past year this has become even more important. Role play allows children to come up with their own rules, games and stories, and, most importantly, to have fun. At Casdon, we want to continue to create products that help children do exactly that.”

Casdon isn’t the only company to offer role play toys that allow kids to replicate what they see going on in their own homes. Little Tikes’ First range includes a fridge and a washer-dryer, while Toynamics offers one of the youngest age-range play kitchens on the market, the Hape Toddler Kitchen, suitable for kids as young as 18 months. David Allan, managing director, Toynamics UK & Ireland, says: “Role-play is a brilliant way for children to utilise all those little things they pick up and learn in everyday life. Recreating real-life scenarios is a valuable way for children to develop their imagination and social skills. We are pleased with our strong offering in the role play category, which has developed a multitude of best-sellers for the Hape brand.”

8th Wonder recently announced its wooden Little Tikes role play range. This charming range combines all the iconic features of Little Tikes role play toys with the sustainability and aesthetics of wood, and the resulting line-up of products is not one to be missed. The Little Tikes My First Wooden Kitchen and Deluxe Kitchen, both of which feature lights and sounds and an array of accessories to enhance the fun, are complemented by the Little Tikes 20-Piece Pots and Pans set. The 8th Wonder team is clearly looking forward to the autumn launch of its new range, as Andrea Gornall, senior business and product development manager, explains: “We are really excited to be working with the Little Tikes team at MGA. It’s always been a favourite brand of mine; Little Tikes is a brand synonymous with heritage and quality, so when the opportunity came up to add it to our licensed portfolio we jumped at the chance. The launch range offers the customers an amazing branded wooden role play range which also offers a sustainability message as everything is FSC certified.”

Of course, while kids have been on lockdown at home, many will have missed out on routine activities that have returned in recent weeks – shopping, for example. In the same way lockdowns have increased appetite for home-based role play toys, the reopening of shops and excitement to return to them is likely to result in demand for product that let kids recreate the shopping experience. Casdon’s portfolio is sweetened by its Pick & Mix Sweet Shop (complete with delicious treats to display and ‘sell’ to lucky siblings and family members). 8th Wonder’s Little Tikes Interactive Wooden Cash Register, meanwhile, features a scanner with lights and sounds, and a wooden Shopping Trolley is also available, complete with a shopping list kids can scribble on in chalk and a re-usable bag. The line-up will be expanded further this September.

The easing of lockdown restrictions has also presented kids with other opportunities to enjoy events that have been on hold for some months. Disguise says it expects the opening of cinemas and the release of major upcoming movies (naming My Little Pony as an example), as well as the return of parties, to have a positive impact on the dress-up space in the months ahead. Tony Lewis, sales director, also tells me the company is seeing a tangible move towards more sustainable and eco-friendly designs from consumers, and that gaming properties are on an upward curve too, evidenced by the success of Nintendo and Minecraft. Disguise offers a variety of licences and an ability to work with both toy and apparel retailers promoting cross-category sales, combining superior quality and innovation with the Jakks toy range – Jakks being Disguise’s parent company - enabling a complete role play and dress-up offering. The company’s new costumes for 2021 include two Minecraft outfits, a Minecraft sword, a Super Mario and Yoshi ‘ride-on’, and a rather impressive Halo armour assortment, tapping into the demand for gaming properties that Tony believes will drive sales.

Rubies manages the design and development of its ranges in-house, giving the company complete creative control over its portfolio. Mike O’Connell, Rubies UK managing director, says two themes present themselves when looking at Rubies’ most in-demand items - the classics, and the new releases. He says: “Our classics are much loved favourites consumers turn to time and time again. These might be characters parents loved during their own childhood, and now they want to share their passion for them with their children. Or perhaps they are based on properties from a previous generation that are nonetheless still warmly regarded in the hearts and minds of today’s kids. These types of licences and characters are always in-demand - Superman, Supergirl, classic Star Wars characters and anything Harry Potter related.”

Mike adds: “Consumers also enjoy staying up to date with pop culture trends, dressing up either themselves or their children as the characters they love from modern series or movies. Frozen-mania is still strong even years after the release of the sequel, while costumes for Moana, Marvel heroes like Captain America, and the Miraculous Ladybug are in our best-sellers for year to date.” Rubies continues to sign new licences to its portfolio. When doing so, Mike explains, it looks at current trends in consumer markets to identify how audiences are responding to the characters on social media. In turn, this indicates whether they are going to transition into a successful costume design that will drive demand. Rubies wants its catalogue of costumes to inspire those who wear them, whether that’s children playing dress-up or adults choosing to express their love for a character by donning a costume. Interestingly, Rubies also look at whether they reflect the wider company values. In the case of children’s properties, this often means asking if they are educational in some way. This is reflected in latest signing Amelia Fang. Based on the popular kids’ book series, Rubies hopes its new costume range will inspire a love of books and reading, as Tracey DevineTyley, head of Licensing & Portfolio EMEA, explains: “We understand how important reading is to children; it helps develop their minds and imaginations and we strive to support this through the licences we hold that celebrate reading. Amelia Fang is a fantastic licence for us to acquire. It’s a beloved book series with a strong and growing group of fans consisting of children and parents alike.”

This year, Rubies is going all-out to support its ranges in terms of marketing. The company is about to kick off its Hello Summer campaign, which aims to celebrate togetherness and encourage kids and families to make up for lost time with loved ones. The campaign includes an innovative online virtual summer camp, Camp Kindness; consumers can submit their own or others’ acts of kindness, big and small, and the public can vote for the best. The winner will win a party kit supplied by Rubies. A big-budget Halloween photoshoot is also on the horizon as Rubies gears up for what it says could be a ‘huge’ Halloween – in 2021, the celebration falls on a Sunday. “These are only the first instalments of our Halloween plans and campaign ideas,” enthuses Mike. “We will also be continuing social media marketing, supported by the introduction of a brand-new, state of the art in-house photography studio with green screen capabilities in our Bristol office. A combination of projects requires high-end content and at Rubies we will continue to deliver the same quality to match our costumes. We are all set to bring people content that’s more dynamic and eye-catching than ever before.”

Disguise also has an eye on Halloween, arguably the biggest upcoming event for the space this year, closely followed by Christmas. Promotional activity will highlight the play opportunities offered by dressing-up, while end caps based on the biggest movies, in-store POS solutions, TV advertising and competitions will be used to drive consumers to stores. The company also plans to push the message of sustainability, which it says gives retailers a USP that will catch the attention of eco-conscious shoppers.

One thing’s for sure, consumers of all ages are looking for more new ways than ever before to get dressed-up and embrace imaginative play this year. Over the following pages, Toy World brings you the latest information on how suppliers in this space are helping them do just that in the months ahead.