Consumer

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

It's been a tough week for some of the titans of the toy aisle.

Mattel Inc. reported on Thursday that, even as its net revenue rose 2 percent in the latest quarter over a year earlier, sales declined at flagship properties Barbie, Fisher-Price and American Girl. That came just days after Hasbro Inc.'s stock fell more than 9 percent in a single day as it reported weakness in its U.K. and Brazil markets and a steep decline in revenue in the division that includes Playskool and Easy-Bake Oven.

Meanwhile, NPD Group, a market research firm, said this week that the toy industry sales were up 2.8 percent in the first six months of the year compared to the same period last year. That's weaker than the 8.4 percent growth seen on this measure in 2016, and the 5.5 percent increase recorded in 2015.

Cashing in on Playtime
Year-over-year sales growth in the toy industry in the first six months of 2017 was slower than in the same period last year and the year before
Source: NPD Group

So is it time to worry about the toy business, which has been riding high for the past couple of years despite wider retail malaise? I don't think so -- because these data points don't tell the full story.

Let's start with the big picture. Toymakers are lapping what can be fairly described as two monster years for the industry. In 2015, properties such as Shopkins, Paw Patrol, and Minions were already racking up strong sales -- and then came the Star Wars cash cow. Walt Disney Co. had the hype machine revving in overdrive for the franchise's first film in a decade. And shoppers opened their wallets accordingly. (Remember Force Friday, when mega-fans waited in Black Friday-style lines to get first dibs on new action figures?)

NPD estimates Star Wars alone accounted for $700 million in toy sales in 2015. The next year was even bigger, with $760 million in sales as another movie arrived in theaters and kept interest piqued.

In other words, the toy industry was sizzling in 2015 and 2016. Even if it's not running quite as hot right now, that doesn't mean it's not perfectly healthy.

Also, a quick spin through the box-office calendar for the rest of the year shows toymakers have plenty of hooks to get parents to shell out for new gear.

Playtime is Over
Hasbro's shares have been climbing while Mattel's have sunk
Source: Bloomberg

"Thor: Ragnarok," a new story in the Marvel universe, will land in theaters in November. The "Lego Ninjago Movie" is scheduled for September. "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" drops shortly before Christmas.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" only debuted a few weeks ago, so the sales bounce from that has probably only just begun.

These movie releases are prime opportunities for toy companies to put points on the board. Michael Ng, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, estimates licensed toys accounted for 21 percent of toy sales between 2008 and 2015, but accounted for some 41 percent of the industry's growth during that period.

Hasbro, which has key licenses for Marvel and Star Wars gear, looks well-positioned against that backdrop. And it helps that kids can see some of Hasbro's own brands on the silver screen, with "Transformers: The Last Knight" having debuted in June and "My Little Pony" scheduled for the fall.

There are other signs, too, that Hasbro is in good shape and that you shouldn't read too much into its Tuesday stock plunge.

Its biggest corporate division, the one that includes crown jewels such as Transformers, Nerf and Monopoly, saw robust 21 percent growth in the latest quarter compared to the same period last year.

Growth in the Right Places
Hasbro's franchise brands had $546 million in revenue in the quarter, meaning its largest segment had the strongest growth rate
Source: Company filings

The company's overall operating profit increased 18 percent in the quarter compared to a year earlier.

And Hasbro has shown real savvy when it comes to innovation. Its popular new game Speak Out went through the entire product-development cycle in just 11 weeks. That shows Hasbro knows when it needs to react on the fly to score a hit, and that it has the organizational and supply chain infrastructure to do it.

Besides the strong sales it delivered on "Cars 3" merchandise, it is harder to find bright spots in Mattel's results. But the issues at Mattel seem less a reflection of the conditions in the wider industry and more a reflection of issues specific to the company.

Vroom Vroom
Sales have been weak in Mattel's largest division, which includes Barbie and Hot Wheels, until "Cars 3" gave it a jolt this quarter
Source: Company filings

Mattel is still trying figure out how to plug the crater left on its income statement after Disney took its Princesses license over to Hasbro in 2016.

Barbie got a bounce last year after Mattel introduced new body types and looks, but that hasn't proved sustainable. American Girl has tried to shake things up with new offerings such as Wellie Wishers, aimed at younger girls.  The company calls these two brands -- along with Fisher-Price, Thomas & Friends and Hot Wheels -- its "power brands." They need to start performing like it. 

Fortunately for Mattel, there are fresh eyes looking at these issues. CEO Margo Georgiadis just stepped into her job in February, and she is currently hunting for a new chief financial officer to help her shore up Mattel.

In June, Georgiadis laid out plans for Mattel to turn up the heat in emerging markets, develop more media content to tie in with its toys, and speed up innovation cycles, among other things. It is simply too early to know if her playbook will work. 

But, in the meantime, Mattel's woes shouldn't be interpreted as a sign of trouble in toyland.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Don't know what Speak Out is? It's a game where you have to try to get your partner to guess what you're saying while wearing a mouthpiece that makes it hard to talk.

To contact the author of this story:
Sarah Halzack in Washington at shalzack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net