Here's a statistic that will astound you ahead of Christmas: Two million LOL Surprise! dolls have been sold in the New Zealand market in the last two years.
So far, not so shocking – until you realise that the target market consists only of 150,000 girls aged between five and nine. That's an average of, gulp, 13 dolls per girl. In New Zealand alone.
You can't call that a fad. Or even a craze. That's a kind of kiddie lifestyle.
The list below comes from leading New Zealand toy distributor Planet Fun and is a compilation of the biggest-selling toys in the country and the ones they expect to sell fastest and best this Christmas. Planet Fun founder and CEO, Jeremy Kirk-Smith, says if parents are able to provide one of the items on this list, chances are they will have a very happily occupied child.
1. LOL Surprise! O.M.G Dolls
2. LOL Surprise! Glamper
3. Paw Patrol Ultimate Rescue Fire Truck
4. Ty Flippables
5. Bakugan Starter Pack
6. Little Tikes Cozy Coupe
7. Peppa Pig Deluxe Car Playset
8. Baby Shark Singing Puppet
9. Bananagrams game
10. LOL Surprise! Amazing Surprise
11. Tiny Tukkins Deluxe
12. Treasure-X Aliens
13. Monster Jam Kinetic Dirt Starter Set
14. Ryan's World Giant Egg Surprise
15. Disney Frozen Elsa Feature Doll
Planet Fun sell to major New Zealand retailers and Kirk-Smith and his team try every year – and mostly succeed – to pick the trends and desires that result in major toy purchases. Kirk-Smith spends about 100 days a year overseas visiting suppliers, inventors and going to toy shows and says new themes and patterns have stood the toy market on its ear in recent years.
One is the "unboxing" phenomenon; another is the "surprise" element embodied in the LOL Surprise! Dolls and other toys, like Ryan's World Giant Egg Surprise. It is basically a giant egg with many mystery toys inside, promoted by the world's richest YouTube earner – an eight-year-old boy, Ryan Kaji, who pulled in a whopping US$22 million last year doing toy reviews, according to Forbes.
That is closely related to "unboxing", which refers to the hugely popular YouTube audience first recognised by Iranian-US entrepreneur Isaac Larian whose company makes the LOL Surprise! dolls. He was fascinated watching kids being fascinated watching YouTube videos of other kids unwrapping presents.
"Those kids were mesmerised," says Kirk-Smith, "and he was clever enough to incorporate unboxing in his toys." From that, Larian has produced an empire which is this year expected to top US$5 billion in sales this year.
Ryan's World began with young Ryan unboxing toys in occasional 5-minute video posts in 2015 but has now grown to a YouTube channel with 22 million subscribers and hundreds of millions of viewers a year.
Last year, Larian's LOL Surprise! dolls provided eight of the top 10 traditional toy items sold in the US. The surprise factor is strong, with layers of wrapping containing surprises like stickers, charms, more toys and many other "mysteries" which delight kids. There are dozens of different dolls, all collectable, hence the high ownership figures per girl in New Zealand.
Also strong, says Kirk-Smith, is the way the dolls have played to changing social mores: "These days, the best-selling of the LOL Surprise! dolls is a doll with coloured skin. That would never have happened, even in the recent past, as the traditional doll has been blonde and slim, with model looks.
"Now, however, these dolls have booty and are shaped like real women – and that is great to see. They have re-invented the fashion doll. It shows, I think, that we as a society are moving away from old stereotypes."
TV and movies still provide many of the top toys of 2019, he says, with Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, Bakugan and How to Train Your Dragon toys popular. Traditional brands like Ty Flippables (also collectables, cute characters with flappable sequins) have also taken off, as has the Baby Shark Singing Puppet (it plays that song when you put your hand in and, if you move your hand faster, it sings faster).
But, no matter what the toy, Kirk-Smith says there is a golden rule: "Whatever the toy and whatever the concept, it has to be a viable product in terms of creativity and giving a kid true play value. If it doesn't do that, it will not succeed."