Next time you see a lone 40-year-old man hanging around the toy aisle, don’t be too quick to alert security. He could be part of a valuable and relatively untapped market - adult collectors.

Many action figures, dolls, toy cars and trading cards are not actually bought for children, but for adults - as more toy producers are realising. A growing number of brands are targeting products and marketing activity at older consumers as well as at kids. Some of the top 10 bestselling toys such as Lego, Star Wars and Barbie have benefited from their attractiveness to adult shoppers.

Barbie’s marketing revamp a couple of years ago included activity aimed as much at mums as at their daughters, and helped turn around the brand’s fortunes. Adults were also a key market for the relaunch of the ThunderCats brand last year and Jakks Pacific is set to adopt a similar strategy in August, when it brings Cabbage Patch Kids back to market with marketing designed to tap into parents’ nostalgia for the dolls.

  • The UK toy market has seen a 1% growth in value sales in the 12 months to the end of April 2012, while unit sales dropped 7%.
  • Retail toy prices have risen with increasing material and transport costs, but this is not the only reason for the value/volume disparity.
  • For the past 18 months, items under £10 have underperformed, while items above £10 fared better as consumers maintained spend on purchases for special occasions.
  • However, items under £2.50 are still a gold mine for grocers, representing about 43% of value sales in spring/summer. The top brands offer a mix of price points and have been successful in the collectible blind-bag format.
  • Sales of building sets (up 23%) were driven mainly by Lego. Dolls have also been dynamic (up 9%) thanks to the fashion dolls segment, with Barbie, Disney Princess and Mattel’s Monster High dolls performing well.

But while the toy brands are alert to the opportunity, the supermarkets seem to be focused on pester power rather than parent power. With toys priced over £10 doing reasonably well [The NPD Group] - particularly compared with those under £10 - supermarkets could be doing a lot more to appeal to the people who have more to spend, believe experts.

And they could start with merchandising and ranging. “To cater for the adult market, supermarkets should particularly select products that are character-based and evoke childhood passions,” said Seth Bishop, director of marketing at toy supplier Re:Creation. “Toys are not only for children, and supermarkets should strive to provide a range of stock that caters for young and old.”

“Moshi Monsters goes from strength to strength down to its huge online fanbase” Tom Folliot, Sainsbury’s

That building sets have so spectacularly bucked the trend sale-wise is partly down to the fact they appeal both to adults and kids. And many traditional toy brands, including Lego and Playmobil, have found an audience in adults who played with the toys years ago and now buy them for their own children - or themselves. “As we launched 35 years ago, the brand is at the stage where many parents buying Playmobil played with the toys as children,” said Playmobil marketing manager Jamie Dickinson.

Crucially, the brand engages with adult fans through social media. Many toy-related internet forums have threads devoted to ‘sightings’ of products in stores. For example, recent posts in a dedicated UK Sightings thread on Transformers website revealed no Tesco stores near Bristol had second-wave Transformers: Prime figures, but an Asda did.

While there is little evidence of mainstream retailers engaging with such communities - possibly a missed opportunity - most toy and collectible brands do in some form or another. Re:Creation, which makes items including licensed Lego lamps and torches, spreads its news via relevant bloggers and runs activities around occasions such as Father’s Day.

Trading card supplier Topps publishes news of upcoming releases through Facebook and Twitter, and feeds information though online collectors’ forums. The company has found a big market for its trading card properties - which include Match Attax and Star Wars Force Attax - among adults. “For some it is a long-standing hobby and for others it may just be that a product takes them back to the collecting days of their youth,” said Topps marketing director Rod Pearson.

“Supermarkets should select character-based products that evoke childhood passions” Seth Bishop, Re:Creation

Licences are a big draw for adult collectors, with games and collectibles distributor Esdevium flagging up properties including Lord of the Rings, Marvel and DC comics and video game Halo as strong brands.

Halo is flagged up as a strong performer by Sainsbury’s senior toy buyer Tom Folliot, as are Lego Minifigures, the top-selling toy in supermarkets in the past 12 months [NPD 12 m/e April 2012]. “The appetite for new Lego characters never seems to wane,” he says.

The launch of Minifigures in 2010 led to the rapid rise of the blind-bagged format - a small opaque pack containing a mystery toy. The format is now used for Playmobil figures, Dr Who and Deadly 60 toys by Character Options, various Mega Bloks ranges, Star Wars Fighter Pods figures, and Ben 10 and Power Rangers from Bandai.

While value sales of toys priced between £5 and £10 have fallen 9% year-on-year, toys priced below £2.50 are soaring in the supermarkets, primarily thanks to the blind-bag format. However, some observers say the market could become over-saturated.

Match Attax 2012/13
: September 2012
Supplier: Topps

Football trading card game Match Attax kicks off its sixth season in September with the launch of its 2012/13 edition. The game - available in 17 countries and collected by an estimated 1.2 million fans in the UK alone - allows players to select their best team and play a card game version of football using the defence and attack statistics on the cards. Earlier this year Topps teamed up with Typhoo to give away packs of Euro 2012 Match Attax cards with boxes of tea.

Pokemon: Dragons Exalted
: August 2012
Supplier: Esdevium

At 14 years old, Pokemon is one of the world’s longest-running collectible card games, and it still has a strong fanbase that will be keen to get their hands on upcoming expansion Black & White: Dragons Exalted. The 120-card set, with 15 dragon-type Pokemon, is available in theme decks (rsp: £9.99) and 10-card booster packs (rsp: £3.49)

Finger Whips Pro
: July 2012
Supplier: Re:Creation

These mini finger scooters have been one of the smash hits of the Re:Creation portfolio. Wave one sold out last year, and next month brings wave two: four distinctive stunt scooter models (rsp: £4.99) - Blast, Pro, Dirt and Insane - that all come with interchangeable parts allowing kids to customise their dream scooter.

“We have seen such an increase that most retailers have designated areas in store for blind-bag products,” said Bandai product manager Andrew Welch. “This area of the market is becoming saturated, but I feel retailers will eventually cut this back to key performing products in this area.”

There are also concerns that the popularity of pocket-money-priced collectibles could take value out of the toy market. Although price hikes and modest growth in toys over £10 is currently helping the overall market stay in value growth, blind bags won’t help supermarkets increase their average price point - currently £3.78, compared with a market average of £6.36 [NPD].

Not that manufacturers are unduly worried. “These toys reduce average retail values, but we don’t see this as an issue,” said Playmobil’s Dickinson. “Our core business is the £15 to £30 market, and birthdays and Christmas mean demand for larger gifts will always be there.”

One brand helping to add value to the market is Moshi Monsters, which is nipping at the heels of Lego Minifigures in the list of top-selling toys. Launched as an online gaming community, the brand has expanded through a range of licensing deals into confectionery, iced lollies and even Heinz pasta. In the toy market - where its presence includes collectible figures and charm bracelets, play sets and cuddly toys - it is tipped by many as 2012’s big property. “Moshi Monsters goes from strength to strength each month down to its huge online fanbase and collectible range,” says Sainsbury’s Folliot.

Of course, given the fickle nature of children and the toy market, what is huge one day could be an also-ran the next. “Moshi Monsters is, and will remain, a strong brand this year,” says NPD analyst Frederique Tutt. “But, with any property, if there is too much merchandise it can kill a concept - it can go from very cool to not cool in a short time.”

All the more reason for the industry to appeal to big kids too - and who knows, maybe in 20 years time, the children of today will be buying Moshi Monsters in the same way as adults today buy Star Wars figures.