Business & Economy

Not just kid play: Toy companies aim more products at older adults

Toys Older Customers
A Scrabble game with larger tiles is displayed at the 2023 Toy Fair, in New York's Javits Center, Monday. Toymakers are tweaking original classic games or coming out with new ones that embrace an audience that's been around for a while: people over 65 years old.
Richard Drew | AP

Toymakers are tweaking original classic games or coming out with new ones that embrace an audience that's been around for a while: people over 65 years old.

The products are being marketed as a way for older folks to sharpen their brain skills as well as allay loneliness by helping them connect with other family members and friends, although some experts have raised doubts about toymakers' claims.

Toymaker Hasbro penned a licensing deal with Ageless Innovation — which designs toys with older people in mind — to come out with new versions of Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and Life with a tagline “Generations” that offer bigger fonts on tiles and bigger game pieces.

The new “Generations” versions of Life and Trivial Pursuit also have expanded their content to cater to younger and older people alike. For instance, the answer to a question in Trivial Pursuit about fitness can be Jack LaLanne or Zumba, depending on the player’s age. The new offerings hit stores in August in time for the holiday season.

Educational Insights, which focuses on educational toys for pre-schoolers, is incorporating images of older people in its marketing after noticing last year that its brain twister toys like Kanoodle and BrainBolt were resonating with older customers in online reviews. Next year, it will unveil a new twist called BrainBolt Boost that has bigger buttons and is more simplified.

And an app-connected robotic dog called Dog-E from WowWee that was originally marketed to kids and families is finding buzz with the over 65-crowd. So next year, the dog — which can tell the player when it's hungry, when it wants love or when it wants to play — will see some new twists, including a voice command feature as well as memory games on the app, according to Andrew Yanofsky, WowWee’s head of marketing.

“We continue to think about what are the issues that older adults are facing," said Ted Fischer, co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, a spinoff of a toy company that Hasbro had created in 2015 for older people. “We’re finding joy in play can have meaningful impact."

The strategies come as the pandemic has changed toy buying habits. Long before the pandemic, many adults turned to toys from Legos to collectible items to tap into their inner childhood for comfort.

But the pandemic not only accelerated and solidified the trend, it also kicked open the door for older adults who were feeling isolated when they were in lockdown. Many toy companies found them gravitating toward plush animals and robotic pets as companions.

Toys Older Customers
A "Trivial Pursuit Generations" game is displayed at the 2023 Toy Fair, in New York's Javits Center on Oct. 2.
Richard Drew | AP

Market research firm Circana reports that toy sales are increasingly geared toward adult buyers. Roughly 5 percent of the total U.S. toys sales are for males ages 35 and over, up 13 percent since last year. About 4 percent of total U.S. toys sales are for females ages 35 and over, up 9 percent since last year.

And while Circana doesn’t tease out that sales data for the 65-plus group, it estimated those identifying as grandparents who bought a toy for their grandchild in its surveys have big spending power, accounting for 19 percent share, or $7.8 billion, of total toy sales in the 12 months ended September. And grandparents spent on average 7 percent more per toy than the total market during the fourth quarter of 2022, the highest amount spent across all buyer segments. That means toymakers have an interested audience in the toy aisles.

The U.S. toy industry itself has been in need of a jolt following a weak year, particularly a lackluster holiday 2022 season. The malaise has continued so far this year, with toy sales in the U.S. down 8 percent from January through August, based on Circana’s most recent retail tracking service data.

Ben Swartz, 92, who lives with his 85-year-old wife in a retirement community in Des Moines, Iowa, and who ran a chain of 14 toy stores in the 1970s, has noticed some of the new offerings from the toy industry, and he applauds the moves.

Swartz plays games five days a week, including bridge and poker with his friends, and he said it's important to keep his mind flexible, otherwise “I would be fearful that my mind would start to go a little bit stale.”

Still, while some scientists welcome toymakers paying attention to older consumers, they also warn of these products' limitations.

Neil Charness, professor of psychology and a leading authority on aging and cognition, teamed up with Walter Boot, professor of psychology, both at Florida State University, to test the theory that brain games like crossword puzzles help preserve cognitive function and found that people get better in those specific skills if they play over and over again. But it doesn't translate to the cognitive skills needed for everyday living activities, such as job performance or maintaining independent living, they said.

They also said that there's limited evidence to date that playing games can dramatically reduce loneliness.

"It’s an ageist notion that everything that we design for older adults needs to serve some kind of cognitive purpose instead of just designing games for them to have fun,” Boot said. “And I’m hoping that these companies are doing that: designing games for the sake of leisure and just for the sake of games and not expecting that it's going to improve X, Y, and Z.”