Until the recession, business at Earthworld Comics in Albany was as good as it had ever been.
But the store’s booming business wasn’t driven by kids and younger teenagers, the demographic once considered the cornerstone of the comics market. Rather, it was adults who were sinking their money into increasingly sophisticated comics and action figures.
Earthworld’s owner, J.C. Glindmyer, said the market for comics and action figures has changed drastically since he purchased his store two decades ago. Today, most of his customers are between the ages of 17 and 55; teenagers and young adults comprise the majority of his market.
“We don’t see as many kids,” he said.
But he’s not overly concerned about this. The rise in adult readership, he said, has more than made up for the drop-off in kids.
“I’m not really worried about the younger reader,” Glindmyer said.
The trend is not particularly new; industry experts such as Glindmyer said that in recent years, comics have become darker, more complex and morally ambiguous, while action figures have become much more sophisticated. What’s new is that even as adults gravitate toward entertainment and toys once intended for children, kids themselves have moved on; instead of dolls, action figures and other traditional toys, they are more likely to request electronic items, such as iPods, cellphones and video game systems, for Christmas. There’s even a term for this phenomenon — “kids getting older younger.”
“There are different types of entertainment avenues for kids,” Glindmyer said. “There are movies, video games, the Internet. Their tastes are maturing. Kids are very social animals. They like to talk about things they’ve seen.”
Linda Ambrosino, owner of G. Willikers, a toy store in downtown Saratoga Springs, said that she first began noticing the trend about five years ago.
“I’ll see people walking into my shop and they’ll say their kids are too old for the toys,” she said. “That used to happen when the kids were 10, 11 or 12, but now it’s happening when they’re 7, 8 or 9. I’ll think, ‘How can they be out of toys?’ because toys and using your imagination are the most valuable thing you can have for education.”
For kids who have outgrown toys, video games and the Internet have taken their place, Ambrosino said.
“I don’t think video games are evil,” she said. But she doesn’t think a “constant diet of anything” is healthy, either.
David Riley, a spokesman for the NPD Group, which does market research for the toy industry, said that the phenomenon is real but that it’s only had an impact on a few categories within the toy industry.
“Manufacturers have been quick to adapt to this, offering a more robust product line that appeals to a much wider audience,” he explained.
Riley said there is no evidence that adults are buying toys for themselves, either as collectibles or for other purposes. They are buying board games, he said, although “that’s an ongoing trend, not a growing one. We do have research that shows a growing population of adults into playing video games, but a lot of that is due to younger gamers continuing to play video games as they get older.”
Figures released by NPD in September showed that U.S. toy sales during the first three quarters of the year were essentially flat when compared with the same time frame in 2007. Certain toy categories, such as plush (up 41 percent), building sets (up nearly 35 percent), games and puzzles (up 7 percent), arts and crafts (up 4 percent) and action figures (up 1.2 percent) were doing particularly well. But sales in other toy categories, such as toy vehicle sales, dolls, youth electronics and outdoor/sports, had slumped.
In a report on the worldwide toy market, NPD said that toy sales reached $71.96 billion in 2007 and predicted that they would top $86.3 billion in 2010. The only country to show negative dollar sales growth in 2007 was the U.S.; all other major countries posted positive dollar sales and gains. But NPD also predicted that in 2010, the U.S. toy market would return to growth. Last year, the toy industry was hit hard by reports that millions of toys manufactured in China contained toxic substances such as lead.
Adults buying in
Meanwhile, the video game industry has been doing extremely well in almost all age brackets.
“Video games are no longer just a form of entertainment for children and young adults,” the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry’s trade group, proclaims in its press kit. “The industry, its customers and its technology have vastly advanced in the past three decades. Entertainment software is now one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. economy.”
The average gamer is 35 and has been playing video games for 13 years, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Forty percent of all players are women; one out of four gamers is older than 50. Though many games are created for children, a growing number of games cater to adult interests and tastes.
In contrast, very few comics are actually written for children, said Bill Townsend, owner of Electric City Comics on Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady and author of the chess column that runs in The Sunday Gazette.
“Comic books are being written strictly for adults now,” he said. “The average reader is 30-plus. The comics of today are aimed at people who were 13 20 years ago.”
As for kids, “Kids don’t seem to be reading,” Townsend said. But there are a few comics for children: the Archie comics, for instance, and Marvel Adventures.
“We keep them in stock for adults who bring children in,” he said. “But generally, the adult is in here for himself.”
Twelve years ago, Townsend thought comics were about to become extinct. But the wave of big comic-book movies that began with “X-Men” in 2000 helped renew the sagging fortunes of the comics book industry.
Fifteen years ago, Glindmyer stocked about 20 different graphic novels, which are written for adults. Today, he estimates that he stocks about 1,500 different graphic novels.
“That’s driven by changes in the market, by changes in tastes and changes in the people who buy stuff,” he said.
Toys for big boys
Christopher D. Parker orders action figures for Electric City Comics, and on Sundays collectors gather at the store to order and discuss action figures. He said that a larger percentage of adults are purchasing action figures for themselves than in the past, sometimes with the intent of passing them on to their children when their children are old enough to appreciate them.
“The appeal generally comes from getting something that one remembers having as a kid and trying to recapture/rekindle memories or the feelings they had when they were young,” Parker said.
Parker, 38, collects action figures, too, although he’s had to slow down a bit. The problem, he says, is that he’s running out of room for his collection. In an e-mail, he said he had lost count of the number of figures he owns but estimated that it was more than 1,000, possibly 2,000 to 3,000.
“I had catalogued them, but as far as I can tell, that file was lost or corrupted, and I have not been able to re-create it. … I’m guessing over 200 boxes of toys that should hold an average of 12 figures per box.”
Glindmyer, 50, is not an avid action figure collector, but every once in a while he’ll purchase a figure that strikes his fancy. For instance, earlier this year he purchased a glow-in-the-dark Batman figure.
“I thought it was so cool,” he said.
Although most of the adults who purchase action figures also buy comics, only about 15 percent of comics buyers also buy action figures, Townsend said.
Comfort in ‘kid stuff’
Adult interest in toys and activities once geared primarily toward children has caught the attention of sociologists, who have suggested that adults behave more like children during times of uncertainty.
“When you’re having hard times, one way to deal with it is by being a kid,” said Richard Lachman, a professor of sociology at the University at Albany. But he noted that adults have always collected things and that women have long enjoyed passing their dolls and other treasured toys on to their daughters.
What’s new, Lachman said, is that a lot of adults are waiting to have children, and so they have more time to pursue their own interests.
“If you don’t have children until you’re 35 and you want to play with toys, you can play with toys,” he said. “Fifty years ago, the typical adult had kids between the ages of 20 and 50.
“In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it,” Lachman continued. “Adults playing with toys is much less harmful or dangerous than a lot of things adults do. But it’s not great for people in their 20s or 30s to not be able to grow up.”
Christine Page, chairwoman of the department of management and business at Skidmore College, said that during an economic downturn, people place a greater value on being close to home and spending time with family and friends, which can fuel interest in toys and games. Though marketers are not responsible for such trends, they do try to capitalize on them. An advertisement for the Nintendo Wii, for instance, might feature a happy family sitting around the TV and playing a game together.
Ambrosino said that she’s selling more games than in years past and that G. Willikers has made adjustments to accommodate this increased interest. The store sells games for individual children, groups of children of all ages and families.
“People are way into games,” she said.
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