Toymakers learn that construction sets aren’t just for boys anymore

Giant toymaker Lego has retooled its classic building kits with girls in mind.
Giant toymaker Lego has retooled its classic building kits with girls in mind. The Associated Press

For decades, toymakers believed the industry gospel: Boys want to build things and girls want to play princess.

But now, female chief executives are leading huge corporations, including Yahoo and General Motors, and more women are becoming engineers and mathematicians. Meanwhile, toy companies are realizing that girls want to build bridges and wire circuits.

Parents are demanding playthings that nurture a love of science and math in their daughters, driven in part by nationwide hand-wringing over a lack of interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

As a result, construction toys, bolstered by demand from girls, are a bright spot in the $22 billion industry, which has seen other categories stagnate or decline.

Eager to make up for lost time, Mattel in April acquired Mega Brands, known for its construction sets. Giant toymaker Lego has retooled its classic building kits with a splash of purple and themes such as pet salon and beauty shop. Upstart toy companies are designing girl-friendly toys that combine fun with scientific principles.

“It’s baffling that it took this long for toymakers to get on board,” said Jaime Katz, an equity analyst at Morningstar. “If you aren’t catering to the girls’ side you are leaving half of the market on the table.”

Although building sets were flat last year, the category climbed 22 percent to $2 billion in 2012, up from $1.6 billion in 2011, according to the NPD Group. Over those two years, action figures dropped 2.1 percent and plush toys slid 5.4 percent.

“This is an untapped opportunity,” said Michael Swartz, research analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “The hot product begets copycats.”

Toymakers have challenged traditional roles in the past — especially during the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Then manufacturers started moving away from gender-free toys and sharpened their focus on targeting girls and boys separately. The reason: Toys aimed at one gender were better sellers.

But after years ignoring the space, toy companies have been paying close attention to how girls like to build.

Lego spent four years researching the female market after realizing that girls weren’t demanding its toys as much as boys were, said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for Lego Systems.

The Danish company started its Friends line in 2012 with girls in mind. The sets have a bright color palette with lots of purple and come with more humanlike figures.

“It changed the perception that Lego is for boys,” McNally said. “It’s been a gateway for girls.”

Lego’s focus has paid off handsomely. Before Friends, only about 10 percent of Lego sets were bought for girls. Within eight months of the line’s launch, that grew to 25 percent, McNally said.

“We have only begun to scratch the surface,” he said.

To win over girls, toymakers say they have to walk a careful line: Avoid pandering by “pinking and shrinking” boy toys but also design a product that is entertaining enough to woo customers.

Though boys are often satisfied just by building something cool-looking, girls want more narrative and storytelling in their construction toys, experts say.

The first prototype for Maykah’s Roominate line was a car, said Bettina Chen, a founder of the Sunnyvale, Calif., company. Chen and her co-founder, Alice Brooks, later scrapped that idea in favor of a dollhouse.

“The car kit was an educational toy first,” Chen said. “We really needed to integrate education and fun in a more seamless way.”

The Roominate dollhouse is anything but traditional. Circuits are wired that power lights and a working fan. Later sets enable kids to build miniature spinning windmills and elevators that go up and down.

The growing popularity of construction toys for girls also reflects a shift in family dynamics. Parents are increasingly more open to toys that cross traditional stereotypes, and dads are taking a bigger share of child care duties.

“Parents are telling kids it’s OK to be different,” said Swartz, who pointed to Hasbro introducing an Easy Bake Oven with a color scheme more appealing to boys.

“Little boys are not berated by their fathers for playing with those kinds of toys,” he said. “Parents are telling their girls that you don’t have to be constrained to a life at home cooking and cleaning.”

Toys R Us is seeing more fathers buy building playthings for their daughters, said Richard Barry, the company’s chief merchandising officer.

“There is absolutely a pattern of dads buying and building Legos with their daughters,” he said. “It introduces a play pattern that maybe girls would like.”