Like many 4-year-olds, Benny Nelson adores Thomas the Tank Engine.
He has amassed a collection of more than 40 engines in the Thomas & Friends line, which he now shares with his 2-year-old brother, Theo.
Their mother, Lisa Nelson, says Benny’s favorites are the mischievous saddle tank engine twins Ben and Bill. She likens the trains to dolls, with stories and personalities.
“It’s a very creative outlet,” she said. “My son talks to himself the whole time while playing with them.”
Mattel hopes that level of personal interest among children and parents is the key to selling more toys. This month, the toy company is establishing a direct-to-consumer program to sell a premium line for the brand, Wooden Railway tracks and engines brand. Part of Mattel’s East Aurora-based Fisher-Price unit, the wooden toy line will be sold via catalog, an e-commerce website and through a partnership with 20 specialty stores nationwide.
Mattel plans to publish the catalog three times a year; the first one will be mailed next week to 1.3 million homes. Inside, the glossy pages will feature some exclusive sets and characters, including one that will be offered in limited release every year.
For Fisher-Price, the direct-to-consumer model was a natural fit for the Thomas & Friends brand.
“Kids that collect Thomas are more passionate about the story line and the characters,” said Geoff Walker, executive vice president for global brands at Fisher-Price.
Walker said the company was inspired by a similar program for American Girl, a popular line of dolls and accessories that has been very successful. Mattel reported an 11 percent rise in gross sales worldwide for American Girl in 2013, the company’s only core brand to show an increase last year.
Building on that model, Mattel is trying to leverage an existing infrastructure that could, in turn, be applied to other toy lines.
“It’s a significant investment in the brand,” Walker said. “This is a growth model for Fisher-Price as a whole.”
A catalog helps build brand awareness, said Jaime M. Katz, an analyst at Morningstar, because it puts a universe of products in the hands of the child.
“Kids see it, and they want it,” she said. “You have the train; don’t you want the track? It’s a complementary business.”
But more important, it also appeals to parents, she said. “It’s really the parents who are driving those sales home.”
Other companies have direct-to-consumer programs, but they are primarily intended to promote a particular brand and encourage fans to participate. Their e-commerce websites offer toys that can typically be found at most retail stores.
Mattel and Fisher-Price each have an e-commerce site, as well as a site that caters to adult collectors called MattyCollector.com, which houses news and forums, and sells some of the company’s key brands, including Masters of the Universe.
But like American Girl, Thomas is getting his own site.
Although the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway toys have been around for years, Mattel only recently acquired the rights to make them. Mattel bought HIT Entertainment, the home of Thomas and other preschool brands, from private equity firm Apax Partners in 2011. At the time, Mattel was making toys for HIT, selling $150 million worth of Thomas the Tank Engine plastic and die-cast toys in 2010, so the acquisition made sense.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that Mattel acquired the rights to Wooden Railway, one of the longest-running Thomas merchandise lines.
Because the toys are made of wood, they cost a little more than their plastic counterparts.
“This is a premium segment of the brand; the consumer expects to pay a little more for the product they get,” Walker said.
The higher price does not faze some parents. As children grow out of Thomas, the wooden trains are often handed down to younger siblings and cousins.
“I think it’s worth the money because these trains last,” Nelson said, “and I have them from 17 years ago, so I know they last.”
In their home in Los Angeles, her sons have a permanent track glued to a coffee table in the family room, with drawers underneath stuffed with engines and track pieces. And Nelson joins in, with the help of her husband, an architect.
“We show each other up by building the tracks,” she said.
But for some parents, Thomas toys can become expensive to collect. Natasha Cipolli tends to buy secondhand engines for her son, Mason, who is 4ø.
“If you are a thrifty parent, you go onto eBay and buy them used,” she said. Mason has about 75 wooden train engines in their Manhattan apartment that he has collected over the years. “We can make a room full of Thomas,” she said.
Because Mason owns so many engines, a specialty Thomas catalog would make it easier for relatives to avoid duplication and get Mason exactly what he wants, said Cipolli, who added that she did the same thing when her niece showed her the American Girl catalog. And Mason would enjoy looking at the catalog to get ideas for his birthday.
Nelson agreed that a new engine made a nice gift for her son on special occasions. To celebrate a benchmark in potty-training, she said, “We took him to the train store.”