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For the uninitiated, Shopkins is a collection of miniature, cute-ified versions of typically boring items you’d find in a store: there’s a spectacled jar of jam, its fabric cover resembling a dainty bonnet; a sudsy pink shampoo bottle; a scarf-wrapped popsicle; and a sparkly rubber glove. The entire assortment of googley-eyed collectibles can be found on the brand’s website, a digital world where you can browse and "meet" the Shopkins, reading about how Brenda Blenda likes "mixing with her friends" or how Chloe Flower describes herself as "a bit of a hippy." Shopkins doesn’t just assume girls like heels and lipstick; it’s built on the notion of consumerism as activity, that girls think anything can be fun to play with as long as it can be bought. When Michaela takes out her Shopkins, she sits there for hours, assuming different personas for different characters, getting lost in the imaginary aisles of a hyper-girly superstore.
She is just one among many in Shopkins’ global fan club. Since Australian company Moose Toys launched the brand in the summer of 2014, over 100 million characters have been sold worldwide. Packs, which range from $4 to $35 for a playset, are routinely sold out of licensed retailers, which include Target, Walmart, and Justice. With this year’s coveted Girl Toy of the Year Award, edging out the likes of Barbie and Lego, Shopkins is the fastest-growing company in its category, according to industry-tracking firm NPD Group. Those who get their hands on the toys may sell them online for up to $2,000; a quick Ebay search yields an $1,100 limited edition Twinkie. As the brand’s motto says, "once you shop, you can’t stop." And Moose Toys is producing over five million toys a week in four different factories to try to keep up with the demand.
"It’s incredible to think Shopkins is only a year old," says Paul Solomon, co-CEO of Moose Toys. "It’s really taken the world by storm."
"Products like Shopkins are easy to bring to school because they’re small, so other kids see them, and it spreads."
"There’s something about the product that’s extremely appealing — I call it the playground social network," says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts, a toy consulting firm. "It’s that old-fashioned thing, where you used to go out on the playground and look at other kids’ toys, and you’d get excited by them. Products like Shopkins are easy to bring to school because they’re small, so other kids see them, and it spreads. It’s like a virus."
In addition to its current licenses for Shopkins-inspired bedding, games, and plush toys, the company announced in June its partnership with British brand Aykroyd & Sons for a line of children’s pajamas, underwear, and swimwear. Moose Toys has also tapped Autumn Children’s Books to help them launch a series of scented books. It's become clear that Shopkins is more than a collection of miniature plastic toys; it is a full-fledged phenomenon.
So what’s the secret behind Shopkins’ rapid success?
"The collectibility factor is huge — being able to trade with friends, and collect rare Shopkins," says Adrienne Appell, toy trend specialist. Collectible fads aren’t new; any ‘90s kid is sure to remember Pokémon cards, Beanie Babies, and Crazy Bones (and probably still has a box of them sitting in their parents’ attic.) But Shopkins has proved that the value of collectibles hasn’t died in the digital age, an era when passing time by scribbling Crayons on restaurant tablecloths seems obsolete. In fact, the attraction may be even stronger.
"We decided to target it toward girls because there wasn’t really a collectible for girls in the market," Solomon says. "We’re kind of on our own there." Starting in 2012, Moose Toys had seen success with Trash Pack, its brand of collectible toys that resemble little monsters. They decided to take the formula to the girls’ space.
Having just launched season three, Shopkins has created a diverse array of characters, each with their own unique characteristics — not unlike the girls they are targeting. On top of the expansive "meet the Shopkins" section on its website, Moose Toys has added cartoon shorts to its YouTube channel, ShopkinsWorld, that portray characters in the land of Shopville. Recently, consumers have begun uploading their own fan videos on YouTube, creating a following among kids like Michaela. "Today, we see that the success of so many brands is all about the content and the story. Having those backstories, having a destination for kids to go to learn more about the characters and engage with them is really brilliant," Appell says.
"The content is there, but the kids create their own stories. We’re not relying on a Blockbuster movie that’s telling the story of Shopkins," Solomon says, referencing Frozen, the 2013 Disney film-turned-movement. "It’s not just about collecting them, it’s about role-play, it’s about imagination."
Another factor of Shopkins’ appeal is the toys’ miniature size. From micro pigs to Japanese mini food cooking tutorials, our society is in love with all things mini. This is hardly a recent fad; we are evolutionarily programmed to gravitate toward things that are smaller and younger-looking for the survival of our species. The Shopkins characters all contain baby-like features. With big eyes and oversized faces — most of the toys lack body parts other than hands and feet — the toys exhibit the kind of adorableness we usually ascribe to infants and puppies. The concept lies at the core of Japanese culture, whose kawaii products are equally adored among adults and children. All that, and they’re easy for travel.
Moose Toys has also mastered the art of pricing. Since Shopkins can be bought as small $4 packs or expansive play sets in the $30 range, they can be given as a post-dentist treat or a birthday present. "It’s a pretty low price point, so parents might buy them for a high report card grade, or maybe at the end of the week for a special treat. Kids can also save up their own money to purchase them, which is fun," Appell said. "And they continue to refresh and have new seasons and new characters, so you’re giving kids the incentive to want more."
"They continue to refresh and have new seasons and new characters, so you’re giving kids the incentive to want more."
But there may be something about Shopkins that lies beyond the sum of its parts. The very idea of it — a shopping-themed toy — capitalizes on our consumer obsessions, acting as a primer for the young American, whose country’s success depends on the heft of her wallet and her will to spend. After all, women account for 85% of all consumer purchases in the US, according to Greenfield Online for Arnold’s Women’s Insight Team. Though Shopkins is Australian, it makes complete sense that this would be the product to make its way from Down Under.
"I think the key to success is a great theme. Whether it’s tomato sauce or a donut or a cupcake or a lipstick, these are objects that are recognizable to kids," Solomon says. "We were trying to find the most iconic products to turn into Shopkins characters."
Shopkins isn’t necessarily a girls’ toy, but females make up at least 70% of the brand’s audience, it estimates, and it’s pretty clear what segment of the population the brand is going for. The packaging is pink. There’s a lipstick called "Lippy Lips" and a nail polish named "Polly Polish" (guess what color they both are). And the "teams," or categories of toys, read like the shopping list of a 1950's housewife: frozen food, health and beauty, cleaning and laundry, and baby, among others.
Like other toy companies, Moose Toys separates its toys that are designed for boys and girls on its website. While some toys, like Little Live Pets and Chocolate Bar Maker, are listed under both categories, Shopkins stands in stark contrast to some of the "boys" toys. The newest one, Qixels, is a building kit that includes a Fuse Blaster Water Gun (required to solidify the designs); the website says users can create their own world of "monsters, warriors, ninjas, skeletons, and more, then add weapons to characters to create an epic battle scene." The boys’ section also includes a toy called The Ugglys Pet Shop, described as "the totally sickest, most rudest, and crudest pets yet!" Despite its categorization of boy and girl toys, however, Solomon insists, "we did create the brand for all kids, regardless of their gender. With all our toys, there may be elements that appeal more to boys or girls, but we certainly don’t eliminate one or the other." Solomon also notes that many of the Shopkins characters appeal to boys as well.
With Target’s recent decision to de-gender its toy aisles and the rise of toys like Goldiblox that aim to teach girls construction skills, we are living in a time of increased momentum to level the playing field. And yet, generally, toys are now divided by gender at unprecedented levels. In a Sears catalog from 1975, the height of second-wave feminism, less than 2% of advertised toys were marketed explicitly to boys or girls. In fact, many ads in the ‘70s challenged stereotypes, depicting girls playing with traditionally masculine toys like carpenters’ sets or using boys in ads for domestic toys like play kitchen appliances. But when the ‘80s brought the deregulation of children’s TV programming, toy companies saw huge marketing opportunity. By 1995, roughly half of the toys in Sears’s catalog were rigidly gendered.
"This sort of overwhelming pink-ness didn’t exist in years past," says Judith Elaine Blakemore, a psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University who studies the development of gender roles. It actually wasn’t until after World War II that pink became associated with femininity. Its ubiquity extended to all things traditionally female: kitchens, sanitary pads, and dolls. When Mattel launched Barbie in 1959, its pink logo and packaging seemed to fit perfectly with the toy’s embodiment of girly fun. "When Barbie came in in the 1950s, it was a sensation, and that solidified pink as a girls’ color for toys," Gottlieb says. "And since that time, it’s seemed to grow so much to the point of the absurd."
Judging by Mattel’s bleak numbers and the play preferences of Michaela and her 8-year-old cohort, it’s clear we’re not living in a Barbie world anymore; we’re living in a Shopkins world. But to a growing class of parents who are showing frustration with corporate marketing tactics, is that any better?
It depends who you ask. "Now that I think about it, it is very domestic," says Michaela’s mother, Karen Levy, a fifth grade teacher. "But this is the first time she’s really collected something. And I’m a fan of anything that gets her imagination rolling."