Thinking about the box: toymakers reinvent packaging for the unboxing age

TORONTO — Any kid knows that the toy box is the most fun, and a plethora of wacky packaging these days makes that especially true this holiday season.

Credit those online unboxing videos that feature dramatic descriptions of every aspect of a toy inside and out, along with a drawn-out ritual of rotating the unopened box for inspection, speculation on what’s inside, a slow peeling of various layers, and exclamations at every stage.

Hand-in-hand, the market has welcomed an ever-expanding array of mystery-themed toys — blind-bags, surprise eggs and hidden collectibles tailor-made for eliciting that same kind of ritual at home, video camera optional.

Toy analyst Gerrick Johnson says he’s surprised that surprises still drive eyeballs to YouTube and parents to toy stores, predicting the end is soon near.

“The supply of surprise toys and products has grown exponentially. Meanwhile, the demand for surprise is growing as well,” says Johnson, a New York-based analyst with BMO Capital Markets who admits he’s not a fan, personally.

“I think we’re still in a growth cycle but we’re looking kind of peaky in terms of interest in surprise.”

Toys ‘R’ Us Canada president Melanie Teed-Murch sees a longer road ahead, with manufacturers upping their design and creative flair when it comes to a toy’s box or bag.

The box is now innately part of the product, she says, pointing to unique shapes and layered packaging.

“We’re seeing a conscious effort by our manufacturing partners to make the package part of the play pattern,” says Teed-Murch. “Whether it be an L.O.L. Surprise or other toys this year, you unwrap levels of play within the packaging itself.”

In some cases, the box turns into an accessory to the toy inside, perhaps turning into a display case for collectibles or ramps for a car.

“It’s not just a rectangle or a square anymore on shelves,” she adds, pointing to cut-outs that have replaced acetate windows for a quick touch-and-feel as a customer walks down the store aisle.

“If you go back two decades in the toy industry a lot of the boxes were closed. It would just be a photo-real package, you couldn’t look at any of the product and a TV commercial would sell it. Now today, those boxes are open, people immediately want to understand what they’re buying for their money.”

Companies are multiplying the number of surprise elements at the same time, says Johnson, who points to the pirate-themed Treasure X, which requires kids to use a map and then dig through a block of sand for pieces that need to be assembled; or Hairdorables, which contain multiple, individually wrapped mystery toys.

“It’s not just opening an egg and there’s one thing. Now you open an egg and there’s another thing to open, another thing to open, and another thing to open,” he says.

Toronto-based toymaker Spin Master has an “advanced concepts team” that not only looks at new toy technology but new technology for unboxing.

James Martin, senior vice-president and global business unit lead for the robotics team, says months can be spent figuring out how a toy is packaged, how the packaging is layered, what is revealed when and how.

Meanwhile, the visual branding team considers ways to improve on a traditional box: “How can it open differently? Sometimes it’s something simple, even that the box just opens differently from before — instead of being a flap, it folds open like a book or it unwraps,” says Martin.

While the primary focus is “always on the toy,” the company is very conscious that little tweaks can make a huge difference, he says.

“You’ve got three seconds in a toy aisle, in almost any aisle, as people are walking down it, to catch someone’s attention. So different shapes, metallics, all that (matters),” says Martin, whose company makes the quintessential unboxing toy, Hatchimals.

Still, the surprise factor can be a deterrent to some consumers, suggests Johnson.

“For parents, you’re spending a lot of money,” he says. ”You might have to buy five blind-bags before you get what you want, so you’re spending $25 to get the same $5 thing that you wanted in the first place. I think it’s dumb, but kids like the surprise.”

Johnson is more cynical on the trend overall, suggesting it can be a sign that the toy is less interesting than the package: “If they have a product line that’s not working or slowing or not performing as well has they had planned — they put it in a blind-bag.”

On the other hand, appetite for blind-bags could actually be a disservice to great toys, he suggests.

“I was talking to a toy company that had a great product…. and they put it in a blind-bag,” Johnson recalls.

“What other industry will take great innovation and great new product and put it in packages that their customers can’t see? It doesn’t make sense form a marketing standpoint and that’s why I think this whole phenomenon of surprise and blind-bags is reaching a peak.”

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