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Raves in toyland

Retailers say the demand for fun and games is high this holiday season.

Tom O’Brien helped a customer purchase a large stuffed giraffe while working at Magic Beans, a toy store based in Cambridge. As the pandemic continues on, there has been a high demand for toys this holiday season, and retailers have been doing their best to keep up.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In a bustling storefront in Coolidge Corner, Eureka! Puzzles & Games is home to bright blue and green walls. Miniature Earth models. Custom jigsaw puzzles. And lately, lots of customers.

“Demand is certainly higher than pre-pandemic levels,” said owner David Leschinsky. “It’s holding strong.”

Toy retailers — from big box stores to neighborhood shops — have accommodated growing crowds during what Leschinsky called the “wackiest” holiday season in recent memory. Everyone, it seems, is hunting for Nerf guns, princess castles, and plush animals.

Juli Lennett from the research group NPD found that toy revenue since the beginning of October is up 10 percent nationally, compared with the same period in 2020, and up 32 percent since 2019. Big-name manufacturers, like Mattel and Hasbro, are reporting strong sales and outpacing stock expectations, according to a report from the investment banking company UBS.


The rush for Christmastime gifts could be driven by the fact that some families are limiting activities outside their home, said Matthew J. Quint, a director in the Center of Global Brand Leadership at Columbia University Business School, with trips to the movies, bowling nights, and sit-down dinners not in the cards amid rising COVID case numbers.

“If you’re not spending money to do that stuff, what are you going to do with the kids to make them happy?” Quint asked. “Toys are the natural inclination.”

It’s led to a run on the LEGO Elf Club House and WowWee Fairy Finder — both are out of stock on Amazon. Hot Wheels race tracks, Mickey Mouse-themed dump trucks, and TikTok’s favorite Squishmallows landed on popular annual toy lists, too, though all remain available online.

Leschinsky said his customers have flocked to two-player games and puzzles adorned with landscapes people hope to visit once COVID-19 subsides: the French Riviera, Italy, and Yosemite National Park. The usual favorites — Monopoly, Rummikub, Scrabble, and Settlers of Catan — have dominated sales, as did $150 chess sets. (“Blame ‘[The] Queen’s Gambit,’” he said.)


The frenzy is yet another consequence of disruptions to the global supply chain, Quint said. With looming fears of shortages, customers bought well before Thanksgiving. The week ending Oct. 23 saw the largest toy sales this year, NPD found — a 34 percent jump from the same week last year. Lennett noted that the bump could be attributed to the child tax credit, which landed in families’ pockets on Oct. 15.

Mostly, Lennett said, “parents feared the thing on their child’s wish list wouldn’t be on the shelf when they needed it.”

Despite those fears, major retailers such as Target and Amazon have largely sidestepped labor shortages, shipping delays, and supply issues. Walmart even chartered a cargo ship to move Paw Patrol Movie Towers, Batmobile transformers, and Baby Alive Lulu Achoo Dolls in October, Reuters reported.

And small, independent toy shops in the Boston area found their own solutions to supply chain woes.

Eli Gurock, who runs Magic Beans in Cambridge and Wellesley, said his staff has increasingly turned to mom-and-pop suppliers as big toymakers like Hasbro struggle to keep up with demand. “The small manufacturers are not having constant containers coming in from Asia,” he said. “They sometimes buy their toys for the year in one container and keep the inventory in warehouses in America.”


In mid-December, Magic Beans was only out of Jellycat plush toys and German-made Bruder toy trucks.

David Sakowski of Somerville’s Magpie Kids agreed. He ran into issues with a former supplier who provided wooden toys, like a meerkat bowling set he stocks. So Sakowski bought a safari-themed replacement from Begin Again Toys in Boulder, Colo., a 10-employee operation.

Gurock added small toy businesses like his “read the tea leaves.”

Hot Wheels race cars in a Houston, Texas, Target store in October.Brandon Bell/Getty

The supply chain crisis has been in full force for months, he said, giving retailers ample time to prepare. So Gurock “overbought” and began marketing holiday items in October.

The result? “Unbelievable” sales, he said. (To be precise, a 48 percent increase between October 2020 and October 2021.)

Ana Vujanic of Tadpole Boston went so far as to order end-of-year inventory in April and store it. The store specializes in baby gear year-round but offers toys like ride-on rocking horses, balance bikes, and lighted scooters during the holidays.

“You can never be too prepared,” she said.

Thanks to a combination of consumer demand and stores’ newfound holiday strategy, the last-minute shopping push is slowing. The handful of days before Christmas usually are some of the busiest retail days of the year. In 2019, Leschinsky did two months’ worth of business in the December weeks leading up to Christmas. This year, the sky-high traffic came in November instead.

“Bye-bye December rush,” Vujanic said. “The majority of people have already shopped by now this year.”

The group left behind by the bump in toy shopping, though, are those unable to purchase gifts themselves. Many of the same factors driving up demand are pushing lower-income families to the back of the line. NPD found that families with $100,000 or more in household income have supported the rise in toy demand. The second-largest group driving the bump are lower-income households making $50,000 or less.


ABCD Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center initially had 6,000 requests for individual toys and only 70 donors to fulfill them, according to Josh Young, director of field operations and legislative affairs. (With additional outreach, the organization reached its goal this week.)

“The environment surrounding donations is hard because of the rates of COVID-19 cases, the supply chain, and inflation,” Young said.

Still, several retailers believe the 2021 holiday season signals a larger shift in the way stores sell Christmastime gifts for everyone. The pandemic reminded people of the value of a great toy, Gurock said, while the meteoric rise in online shopping has meant maybe Christmastime doesn’t need to start so late after all.

“We always had this mentality that you can’t turn on the Christmas lights until after Halloween, that it’s tacky,” he said. “But maybe that’s what we should’ve been doing because it’s better for us and for the customers.”

Tom O’Brien stocked the shelves while working at Magic Beans in Cambridge on Thursday. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Diti Kohli can be reached at her @ditikohli_.