With established toys such as Barbie and Legos prospering year after year, it’s often tough for new ones to command kids’ attention—and retailers’ shelf space. But when Jennifer Chandler-Saunders shopped for a holiday gift for her 3-year-old daughter, she bypassed such staples in favor of Doc McStuffins, a Walt Disney (DIS) character that in two years has gained stardom on cable TV and in the toy aisle. “My daughter fell in love with Doc right away,” says Chandler-Saunders, who nabbed a $35 Doc McStuffins medical kit from Toys “R” Us.
Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, a 6-year-old aspiring doctor who treats her toys with help from her dragon and snowman friends and a magic stethoscope, is a fixture of the industry’s rankings of the most popular this holiday season, including hot toy lists at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), Sears Holdings’ (SHLD) Kmart, and Toys “R” Us. Having a coveted product isn’t child’s play for retailers, which will sell $10 billion in toys in the fourth quarter, about half the annual total, according to researcher NPD.
Based on Doc McStuffins, the Disney Junior channel’s animated hit, the dolls are vying with toys inspired by Viacom’s (VIA) Dora the Explorer, long the undisputed queen of the toddler set. For Chandler-Saunders, Doc’s skin color enhances the appeal. “I’m Caucasian, and the doll is black, so it’s kind of cool kids can look up to someone” of another race, says the 35-year-old mother of two, who runs her own insurance agency in Jetersville, Va. The show’s viewers are almost evenly split between boys and girls.
Doc McStuffins’s rapid ascent is something of a departure for an industry that tends to reboot old brands. Exhibit A: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which first appeared in the 1980s and were revived last year as a line of toys and a Nickelodeon series, are a top pick for boys this year, according to hot toy lists. Another familiar friend is Hasbro’s (HAS) Big Hugs Elmo, the latest incarnation of the fuzzy Sesame Street character, which industry analysts predict also will be a top seller this holiday season.
Last year, McStuffins’s popularity took some retailers by surprise, leaving them with insufficient inventory, says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy review website Time to Play. The shortage spurred moms to hit websites such as EBay (EBAY), where they spent double the toy’s $10 retail price, he says. This year, Disney’s top four U.S. retail accounts—Wal-Mart, Target (TGT), Toys “R” Us, and Kmart—have on average quadrupled the shelf space given to McStuffins from last holiday, says J.D. Edwards, senior vice president of licensing for Disney Consumer Products. Doc McStuffins appeals to a wide range of demographics, says Jennifer Dominiquini, Sears’s chief marketing officer for fitness, sporting goods, and toys. “It addresses that human need for nurturing,” she says. “It’s a perfect recipe for success.”
When Disney executives were pitched Doc McStuffins in 2008 by creator Chris Nee, they green-lighted the show quickly because it introduced the concept of nurturing—one of the strongest play patterns—to children’s TV. “It was almost like one of those ‘duh, why didn’t we think of this before’ moments,” says Nancy Kanter, executive vice president for original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide. The company made one key switch: changing the family’s race from white to black. “It’s important to us that the brand and the content represents the world as kids live it and see it, and that is a world that’s very diverse,” she says. “For some kids this will look exactly like their families, and for others it will look like what they see in their neighborhoods.”
This year, Disney added licensed accessories, including clothes, bedding, and even Doc McStuffins Band-Aids from Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). It’s also releasing toys aimed at boys, including a blue (rather than the usual pink) checkup kit.
The brand’s growth helped more than double retail sales of Disney Junior products, to $1.8 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 28, says Edwards, who declined to give specific data for Doc McStuffins goods. Success in the toy division allows Disney to generate high-margin sales on characters already created by its other businesses. Consumer products accounted for 10 percent of profit in the most recent fiscal year, while making up 7.9 percent of total sales.
Rivals to the young doctor aren’t sitting quietly in their toy boxes. In September, Viacom released the Dora Sizzling Surprises Kitchen, and Skate & Spin Dora & Boots. “Ten years running, Dora remains a beloved property and is doing very well for us this holiday,” says Dan Martinsen, a spokesman for Viacom’s Nickelodeon networks. “Dora continues to be a trailblazer and has a long, bright future ahead of her.”
For now, Doc McStuffins’s race and her TV family’s reversal of gender roles—mom is a doctor, dad stays home—has strong appeal for some parents, says Laurie Schacht, chief executive officer of The Toy Book, a trade publication. “It makes it more real and more interesting,” she says. “Whether we’re talking about color or women, everyone has come a long way, and it’s nice to see that in our kids’ toys.”