For nearly 50 years, the way kids played with Nerf was fairly consistent. You would take a foam ball or arrow and toss it by hand or by using a plastic blaster. But this year, Nerf wants to give kids a new way to play.
The brand, owned by toy giant Hasbro (HAS), will debut a new toy line called Nerf Nitro, which features those iconic blasters of course as well as foam toy cars. The new sets are poised to hit shelves this summer at major retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us and Walmart (WMT), but will be on display for media and retail buyers at New York City’s annual Toy Fair next month.
“The vehicle category is a big category and we thought we can bring some innovation to the market place,” said Michael Ritchie, vice president of global marketing for Nerf. “And because they are foam cars, you an get real height when launching the cars off the ramp. That’s a different performance that other brands in the category can’t do.”
Ritchie is right about the popularity of toy cars. The vehicle business grew 10% to $1.42 billion in the U.S. alone in 2015, according to the latest annual figures available from research firm The NPD Group. It is a category that has been traditionally dominated by Hot Wheels, a brand that’s owned by Hasbro rival Mattel (MAT).
Hasbro clearly seems some room to maneuver for market share. And it is doing so by relying on the strength of Nerf—one of seven core “franchise brands” that Hasbro controls, a group that includes Monopoly, My Little Pony, Play-Doh and Transformers. Nerf has been a star performer among that set, with sales in the U.S. rising from $251.5 million in 2010 to $367.7 million in 2015, according to Euromonitor data. Nerf is the top-performing outdoor and sports toy, commanding 20% of that market.
Part of what has been fueling Nerf’s strong sales growth—which is easily outperforming the industry—has been new toy product launches. Nerf Rival, for example, was conceptualized as a way of targeting kids over the age of 14 who had “graduated” from the brand into paintball play. A few years ago, pink- and purple-branded Nerf Rebelle was launched to make the brand more appealing to young girls.
Nerf Nitro is targeting kids between the ages of 5 and 8, slightly younger than the “core” Nerf crowd though that’s because the age range for vehicles is younger. Ritchie says the goal is that the toy line is gender neutral, adding that with Nerf “no matter what the gender is, people like the brand because of the battles.”
The Nerf Nitro line features around 50 different cars, each about 2.75 inches in length, and includes tracks and other blaster-type launching mechanisms. One thing that the Hasbro team learned in testing the product: parents loved that the Nerf set, unlike rival track-based vehicle play sets, took up less space in the living room. And because the cars are made of foam, there’s a safety component that’s appealing.
“One of the things I’ve experienced as a dad of three boys is that I’m always finding parts and pieces of toys around the house,” said Ritchie, the father of children between the ages of 2 and 10. “From a parent’s perspective, this delivers on everything that Nerf is focused on—unstructured fun.”