Why you should care
Because millennial parents care about the environment and their hard-earned money.
For Jhie Velasco, a 36-year-old blogger and mother, having to buy toys for her children — Jem, 9 and Adriel, 3 — regularly is a drain on her pocket. The toys, she says, also take up a “lot of space” in her apartment in Winnipeg, Canada. So, when she heard of toy-sharing services, she “thought it was an awesome idea.”
She’s not alone. A growing number of millennial parents are turning to toy-subscription services that are promising kids fresh toys every month at a much lower cost than buying them, while also reducing the environmental impact of plastics in the toy industry. More and more companies are now offering these services, in the U.S. and beyond, and they’re witnessing fast growth.
Green Piñata Toys, which started in Boston in 2015 and launched nationally in 2017, has witnessed 60 percent month-on-month growth, with more than 2,000 shipments. For a monthly fee of $24.99, you can choose up to four toys in each box, for children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. KiwiCo, one of the forerunners of toy-sharing, launched in Mountain View, California in 2011, and has now shipped more than 10 million crates, which are catered to different ages and interests: teenagers can pick between a “doodle crate” if they’re interested in art and design, and a “tinker crate” if they’re keen on science and engineering. Monthly subscriptions cost $19.95. ToyLibrary similarly allows you to choose from a collection of about 500 toys that can be customized depending on the child’s age and preference for $19.95 a month.
They [kids] enjoy getting a fresh new experience every month — designed to pique their curiosity.
Sandra Oh Lin, CEO, KiwiCo
Little Passports, Spangler Science Club, Pley, Toy-Yo and Rent the ToyChest are among a slew of other toy rental firms that have come up in the U.S., all in the past decade. Khilonewala, toys-on-rent, Toy Express, Funstation, Toy Box Monthly, Bambaram and friendlytoyz.com offer toy subscription services in India. In Singapore, there’s Toy Rental Club. And while these are all startups, the big guns are now joining in too. In 2017, Amazon launched a STEM toys subscription service.
These firms are responding to a growing demand — Pinterest, the idea-sharing social networking site, witnessed a 441 percent increase in toy-sharing searches on the site last year. The average parent in the U.S. spends $6,500 on her child’s toys over her lifetime, according to a 2016 study by the Toy Association, the trade body that represents the industry in America. And an average home has 71 toys — for $6,500, as many as 260 toys from Green Piñata would be available.
They’re also carving out a fresh niche in the global toys market, expected to touch $120 billion in revenue by 2023, with a 4 percent annual growth. Equally, the rise of these toy-sharing firms is part of the overall increasing market for subscription boxes of all kinds — from cosmetics to clothes — which grew by 40 percent in 2018.
For kids these services offer a simple attraction. “We hear from parents how much kids love getting mail! We see that delight regularly in our social feeds,” says Sandra Oh Lin, CEO and founder of KiwiCo. “They enjoy getting a fresh new experience every month — designed to pique their curiosity.”
As a concept, toy libraries have been around for decades. Harlem got its first toy library in the 1940s. But while these libraries were built around the idea of ensuring that children from poorer families had access to toys even if they couldn’t own them, the new move toward digital toy-sharing subscriptions is driven by a set of concerns that have taken deep root only in this century.
The toy industry, it is estimated, could contribute more than 1 million tons of plastic waste annually by 2023. This plastic burden could be cut if kids share toys instead of parents buying them. To be sure, this could hurt overall sales for the toy industry. When Toys R Us decided to close all brick-and-mortar stores in America last June, it blamed millennials, who also have fewer kids than earlier generations, noting that “revenues are dependent on the birth rates.” But many of these toy-subscription firms also offer the possibility of parents buying toys their kids have tried out and liked — opening up a fresh window of opportunity for manufacturers, by luring customers through toy-sharing first.
For the most part, though, the idea is that you return the toys to the company at the end of the month, when you get a new box of toys. You need to clean the toys before returning them and the toy-sharing companies claim that they sanitize returned toys before sending them to another family.
To be sure, the growing toy-sharing industry comes with its own glitches. Some customers have complained that once they’ve returned toys back to the company, it’s taken time before a fresh toy box is delivered, eating into their subscription period. Velasco also worries that “there is no sense of ownership” with rented toys, among parents or kids. And what happens when a child damages the toy or there is wear and tear? Green Piñata Toys, for instance, offers insurance against such accidents and charges a “minimal fee for replacement.”
Still, for many parents, the benefits outweigh these risks. You get to pick and choose toys for your child for way less than what they would cost if you bought them. That experts curate the toy box for kids based on their age and interests also appeals to many parents. “We design our products so as to inspire those young innovators,” says Lin.
For kids, sharing toys also inculcates a greater value to them, because children know they’ll only have them for some time, suggest some toy-subscription entrepreneurs. Bangalore-based Preeti Ramuka, 32, of toys-on-rent, grew up in a joint family with many kids around her. “We had a big stack of toys which we never played with except for the first week,” she recalls. But in an aspirational society such as India where ownership — from cars to toys — is seen as a sign of success, such services are yet to gain mass traction. “It still seems a long way before Indian parents start accepting the concept as a whole,” says Ramuka.
Toy-sharing firms aren’t just waiting though. Amid growing evidence that toys help children become more imaginative and creative, these firms are now designing products accordingly. Alongside Hot Wheels and Barbie toys, they’re also offering toys such as Eggspressions, where kids use wooden eggs to share their feelings. With gender sensitization becoming a must, parents are also making sure toys “encourage their children to … participate in activities that are typically associated with the opposite gender,” a 2017 Pew Research Center study found.
All of which means that kids receive a greater variety of toys through their subscriptions than most parents could buy. Every month, there’s something new to look forward to. “It’s the anticipation, wanting to explore the toy in front of them,” says Velasco, “that makes every kid excited about toys.”