Santa Claus won’t have to break the bank this year to spread joy and cheer to children all over America on Christmas morning. He only needs trillions of rubber brands.
A simple plastic loom that lets children weave rubber bands into bracelets, key chains, and even sandals is the hottest — and perhaps most rudimentary — toy this holiday season. Sales of the Rainbow Loom are on track to reach 3.5 million units nationwide by the end of the year — about triple the Tickle Me Elmo dolls sold in the 1996 frenzy.
But analysts say the plastic loom and rubber bands are more than just the latest craze. It’s the tip of a new trend emerging in the $22 billion US toy industry: simple fun. A generation of children who can manipulate smartphones and tablets before they can walk are yearning for some of the lowest-tech toys around this year.
“This is the most basic of arts and crafts out there,” said Gerrick Johnson, a toy industry analyst from BMO Capital Markets. “What the Rainbow Loom tells you is that you don’t need the most technically advanced toy or game available, you just have to make something that is fun.”
The phenomena is sanctioned and encouraged by parents, who are eager for their digitally obsessed children to spend more time doing creative hands-on activities — or just use their imaginations. Dolls are making a comeback, said Johnson, in modern variations, such as Mattel’s Monster High figurines, billed as the teenage descendants of the world’s most famous monsters, and Rhode Island toy maker Hasbro’s Equestria Girls, dolls with horse-like features.
Another toy flying of the shelves is GoldieBlox, a board game that aims to interest girls in engineering. Developed by Lincoln, R.I., native Debbie Sterling, the game includes figurines, a book, and tools. In the story a little girl engineer, GoldieBlox, solves problems by building machines and the players try to build their own versions as they follow the story.
Sterling said her company, GoldieBlox Inc. of Oakland, Calif., has already sold 100,000 units.
“I spend a lot of time with kids, and they become enthralled with anything that’s on a screen,” said Sterling. “I made GoldieBlox a rather low-tech toy because I felt it was really important to make something with your hands.”
In addition to parents’ desires to turn their children’s attention away from screens, simple toys are attracting an increasing number of fans for several reasons, said Adrienne Appell, a trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association, a trade group based in New York.
For children who have been constantly exposed to cellphones, tablets, computers, and all means of electronic toys and devices, the opportunity to play with dolls, or blocks, or board games represents something new and different. “When they can turn off the technology, it’s almost exciting for them,” said Appell.
The low-tech toys also stir nostalgia for parents, Appell said. That’s one reason old favorites like Lego, My Little Pony, and even Play-Doh remain popular. The Rainbow Loom, Appell said, reminds parents of the friendship bracelets they made decades ago.
“Overall it’s a good sign for the toy industry and it shows the strength of the physical toy and classic toy patterns,” Appell said. “Although toys change and evolve, the traditional toy is not going away.”
Perhaps no toy this year captures this trend better than Rainbow Loom, which was developed by a crash-test engineer in his living room in Michigan. Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian immigrant who wove thread bracelets as a child, came home one day to find his two young daughters making rubber band bracelets. He tried to impress them with his weaving skills, but his fingers were too big. So, he created a loom from a wooden board and push pins.
He fine-tuned his invention over six months and began selling a plastic Rainbow Loom on his own website in 2011, after he struggled to find stores to carry the product. Now he’s on track to exceed $15 million in sales this year alone.
“A lot of times with computer games, kids sit in the corner and are isolated,” he said. “It’s more fun to make bracelets with friends because they can teach each other.”
At Learning Express in Newton, part of the Devens-based chain of educational toy stores, owner Richard Gibson said he can’t keep the toy on the shelves. A few weeks ago, he sold 200 Rainbow looms in a day — sales that reminded Gibson of the Beanie Babies hysteria of the 1990s.
At a recent Rainbow Loom class at Gibson’s store, Molly Delahunty, 9, and her sister, Meaghan, 8, who live in Wellesley, and Olivia Alper, 7, of Needham, concentrated at a child-sized activity table. Their fingers fastidiously pulling small rubber bands around pegs mimicking the “Butterfly Blossoms,” an intermediate level bracelet pattern demonstrated by a teenaged store employee.
“It’s the hardest one I’ve made,” said Meaghan without looking up.
Olivia, who averages about two bracelets a day, said everyone at school wears the bands on their wrists, which is creating complications for the second-grader. “Usually I don’t have time to make one for myself because people at school want them,” she said.
Patrick Delahunty, father of the Delahunty girls, said he enjoys seeing his kids busy with something else besides video games, tablets, or computers. He added the demand for rubber band-wear is spreading beyond elementary schools.
“I’m in financial services,” he said, “you see parents in suits with Rainbow Loom bracelets on.”
Despite its low-tech appeal, the loom still has digital ties. Weavers mostly learn new patterns by watching instructional videos posted to YouTube by children and parents. One video explaining how to make a “Starbust,” an intricate bracelet with many complex loops, has been viewed more than 6 million times.
Rainbow Loom has captured the attention of both girls and boys. David Allbritton, a university professor who lives in Winchester, said his 7-year-old son, Evan, is more than transfixed by the loom. The first-grader spent eight hours on a recent Saturday weaving bracelets in his room and dumping them into a bucket full of other bracelets, rings, and Christmas ornaments he’s made.
“It’s been really fun to watch him because he has such a good time with it,” Allbritton said. “Sometimes you have to remind him to eat.”