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The real warning in Target’s holiday sales: Toys are in trouble


Ahead of the 2018 holiday season, Target added a quarter-million square feet of space permanently dedicated to toys across more than 500 stores.

Source: Target

Target didn’t have the strong holiday in the toy department that many expected, ringing alarm bells for the entire industry.

The retailer on Wednesday reported its toy sales were about flat over the 2019 holidays compared with the prior year, though it said it continued to gain market share in toys, based on data from NPD Group.

Target shares fell more than 7% on the news, while the report sent Walmart’s stock down more than 1%. Toymaker Hasbro‘s shares dropped about 2.5%, while Mattel‘s stock tanked more than 6%.

Target’s struggles in toys appear to be part of a much bigger set of problems that the industry is facing. While retailers during previous holiday seasons benefited from hot toys like Hatchimals and Fingerlings, or a popular entertainment property, 2019 had neither.

“While ‘Frozen II’ gave the toy industry a boost, the lack of other strong hits was often cited for lackluster industry performance,” Gerrick Johnson, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a research note last week.

Then there is the lingering pain from the Toys R Us’ bankruptcy.

Manufacturers like Hasbro, Mattel and Spin Master are offering a smaller variety of toys and games. When Toys R Us shuttered, toymakers lost a lot of shelf space and also faced huge inventory issues. Faced with this new reality, they streamlined their toy lines.

“The chickens are coming home to roost from the Toys R Us bankruptcy,” said Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts. “You cannot eliminate that many toys from the marketplace (remember TRU had vastly more items) without it having an impact. A great loss of incremental and impulse sales.”

Target is not the only big-box retailer to have faced tough toy sales during the holiday season, Jim Silver, CEO of TTPM, an online toy review site, said. He expects Walmart also struggled. The retailer hasn’t yet reported its quarterly holiday sales.

The only true winner this holiday season was Amazon, which continued to grow its share of toy sales, Silver said. The e-commerce site announced the day after Christmas that it had had a “record breaking” holiday season, and said toys was a popular department for shoppers, although it has yet to disclose any financial figures for the period.

“E-commerce is continuing to cannibalize brick-and-mortar sales,” Gottlieb said. “Millennials are now parents and they are very comfortable buying online.”

Ultimately, BMO’s Johnson sees full-year 2019 toy sales falling 2%, assuming that sales in the fourth quarter increased around 2%. The NPD Group, which tracks toy sales during the holidays, has yet to release its final figures.

“Six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas had a material negative effect,” Johnson wrote. “Toy industry contacts called performance ‘mixed,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘OK, not great.'”

The lack of a hot holiday toy and weaker sales of entertainment properties, Johnson and Gottlieb noted, were big factors in the lackluster toy sales.

In the past, Star Wars has been a massive driver of toy sales. But that property fell flat during the holiday season. Additionally, other holiday film releases didn’t lend themselves as strongly toward large toy lines.

“Spies in Disguise,” the big family film released on Christmas, is almost entirely absent from toy shelves, save for a plush pigeon of the main character.

Meantime, analysts say it’s important to remember that Target was lapping an incredibly strong 2018 holiday season, making the base in the toy category that Target must grow from in 2019 even larger.

In 2018, a number of retailers ranging from Kohl’s to Best Buy to Barnes & Noble tried to rush in to the toy space, especially during the holidays. But Target was among the most successful. It devoted more space in stores to toys permanently, and expanded its toy assortment.

During the 2018 holiday season, Target’s total same-store sales were up 5.7%, due in large part to strength in toys.

Target tried to do even more with the space in 2019. It teamed up with Disney to open mini Disney shops in some Target stores, and ran the website of the relaunched Toys R Us brand. 

Target shares have rallied more than 70% over the past 12 months, including Wednesday’s losses. The retailer has a market value of about $59 billion.

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