By Matt Townsend
Jennifer Chandler-Saunders buys Doc McStuffins toys because the Walt Disney Co. character teaches her 2-year-old daughter to care for others.
“My daughter fell in love with Doc right away,” said Chandler-Saunders, who nabbed a $35 Doc McStuffins medical kit from Toys R Us after the toy topped her daughter’s Christmas list.
Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, a 6-year-old aspiring physician who treats her toys with help from her dragon and snowman friends, is making most-popular lists this season. The doll is already flying off store shelves, according to retailers, which sell about $10 billion worth of toys in the fourth quarter or about half the annual total, according to researcher NPD.
Based on “Doc McStuffins,” Disney Junior channel’s animated hit show, the dolls are vying with toys inspired by Viacom Inc.’s Dora The Explorer character, long the undisputed queen of the toddler set.
For parents like Chandler-Saunders, Doc’s skin color enhances the appeal.
“I’m Caucasian, and the doll is black, so it’s kind of cool kids can look up to someone” of another race, said the 35-year-old mother of two, who runs her own insurance agency in Jetersville, Va.
Doc McStuffins’s rapid ascent since debuting last year is something of a departure for an industry that has a tendency to reboot old brands.
Exhibit A: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which debuted in the 1980s and was revived last year as a line of toys and a Nickelodeon series, is a top pick for boys this year, according to hot toy lists.
Another familiar friend is Hasbro’s Big Hugs Elmo, the latest incarnation of the fuzzy Sesame Street character, which industry analysts predict also will be a top seller this holiday season.
Last year, McStuffins’s popularity took some retailers by surprise, leaving them with insufficient inventory, said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy review website Time to Play. The shortage prompted moms to hit websites such as eBay where they spent double the toy’s $10 retail price, he said.
This year retailers are prepared. Disney’s top four U.S. retail accounts — Walmart, Target, Toys R Us and Kmart — have on average quadrupled the shelf space given to McStuffins from last holidays, said J.D. Edwards, senior vice president of licensing for Disney Consumer Products.
Doc McStuffins appeals to a wide range of demographics, said Jennifer Dominiquini, Sears chief marketing officer for fitness, sporting goods and toys. (Sears is the parent company of Kmart.) “It addresses that human need for nurturing. It’s a perfect recipe for success.”
When Disney executives were pitched Doc McStuffins in 2008, they greenlighted the show quickly because it introduced the concept of nurturing to children’s television.
“It was almost like one of those, ‘Duh, why didn’t we think of this before?’ moments,” said Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide.
The company made one key switch: changing the family’s race from white to black.
“It’s important to us that the brand and the content represents the world as kids live it and see it and that is a world that’s very diverse,” Kanter said. “Just the notion that for some kids this will look exactly like their families and for others it will look like what they see in their neighborhoods.”
This year, Disney added a range of accessories, including clothes, bedding and even Doc McStuffins Band-Aids from Johnson & Johnson. The company is also releasing toys aimed at boys, including a blue rather than pink check-up kit because the show’s viewers are almost evenly split between boys and girls.
The brand’s growth helped more than double retail sales of Disney Junior products to $1.8 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 28, Edwards said. He declined to give specific data for Doc McStuffins. Success in the toy division is important to Disney because the unit generates high-margin sales on characters already created by other businesses. Consumer products accounted for 10 percent of profit in the most recent fiscal year, while making up 7.9 percent of total company sales.
Hot holiday toys come and go. That’s why toymakers rush to add bells and whistles to keep kids interested. In September, for example, Viacom released the Dora Sizzling Surprises Kitchen and Spin & Skate Dora and Boots.
“Ten years running Dora remains a beloved property and is doing very well for us this holiday,” said Dan Martinsen, a spokesman for Viacom’s Nickelodeon networks. “Dora continues to be a trailblazer and has a long, bright future ahead of her.”
For now, Doc’s race and her TV family’s reversal of gender roles — mom is a doctor; dad stays home — has strong appeal for some parents, said Laurie Schacht, chief executive officer of “The Toy Book,” a trade publication.
“It makes it more real, and more interesting,” she said. “Whether we’re talking about color or women, everyone has come a long way, and it’s nice to see that in our kids.”
Such distinctions are beside the point for toddlers, who relate to the story and character — not what makes adults feel good, said Nancy Zwiers, a former marketing executive for Mattel.
Parents’ discomfort with sexy Bratz fashion dolls didn’t prevent MGA Entertainment Co. from building a billion-dollar business. (MGA is the parent of Little Tikes Co., based in Hudson.) And the Barbie brand hasn’t suffered from complaints that the doll’s unrealistic proportions may hurt girls’ self-esteem.
“We adults like to overlay our perspective on things, and that’s not the way kids make choices,” said Zwiers, who now does brand consulting for toy and entertainment companies, including Disney. “Kids are making choices emotionally.”
Doc McStuffins, who once soothed a bubble bottle character’s stomach ache after it was accidentally filled with paste instead of soap, is seen as a role model.
She “teaches manners and how to be respectful and how to be nice toward others,” said Chandler-Saunders. “That’s hard to teach children.”