Not Child’s Play

USC Marshall professor dials up the lessons as pandemic shutdowns disrupt the global toy industry 

April 16, 2020

The toy industry isn’t all fun and games. In reality it’s a $20 billion global business, with a massive supply chain. 

So when the coronavirus pandemic shut down economies around the world, Marianne Szymanski knew she was in for an interesting semester. 

A three-decade toy industry expert and creator of the influential “Toy Tips” brand, Szymanski has lectured at Marshall since 2015, teaching a 4-unit Entrepreneurship of Small Business class and a 2-unit class that teaches Entrepreneurship through the lens of one industry: the toy industry. She has co-authored three Harvard case studies on the topic.

“It’s not business as usual,” said Szymanski, who is teaching BAEP 460: Entrepreneurship of the Toy Industry, to students via Zoom in eight time zones. “With the COVID-19 disruption, toy industry executives visit our class about how they’re handling this disruption, making pivots and temporarily changing business models.”

In BAEP 460, every student follows a public toy company—Mattel,  Build-A-Bear, Jakks Pacific, Funko, Spin Master and Hasbro, or an entertainment company closely related to the toy industry though various licenses (Disney, Nickelodeon (ViacomCBS) to watch and learn about growth potential.  

She points out, however, that the majority of toy companies are not large. “More than 90 percent of toy companies are small and mid-size businesses,” she said. “We learn about the inner-workings of small business through these smaller sized toy companies.”

Through case studies and guest speakers, the class studies every aspect of the global toy industry, including manufacturing, legal, trademark and copyright issues and consumer behavior and trends. 


"My students are learning the ins and outs of how the industry is changing through success, failure and disruption.”— Marianne Szymanski

But it’s the guest speakers she invites that give her students a front row look at what’s going on in the toy world.

T. S. Wong is the chairman of Jetta Company Ltd, the leading Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) in the toy industry.  “I can’t tell you how exciting it was to have him Zoom in live from China to talk about toy manufacturing during this pandemic,” she said. 

Tom Neville from Madame Alexander told the story of Beatrice Bernstein Alexander, who in 1923 created what became a toy empire in the doll space.  

This is the second term Szymanski is teaching this class.  “Last year, our class met the creator of Pictionary, learned about the story of the invention of the Hula Hoop, how Slinky came to be and heard all about how JoJo Siwa and how her bows attracted Nickelodeon. My students are learning the ins and outs of how the industry is changing through success, failure and disruption.” 

Toy Story Two

The pandemic and economic shutdown has caused unprecedented disruption in the toy industry. 

There is one big change she sees coming in a post-Covid-19 world. “I’m excited children are back to interest in classic play,” she said. Think board games, jigsaw puzzles, collectibles and make-believe. “It’s not back-to-basics. It’s back to family play, sibling play, sidewalk chalk and crafting.”

“Before the shutdown people would retreat into their individual devices to play games, download apps and watch videos,” said Szymanski. “This is still happening, but now we are seeing the resurgence of basic play patterns that people have forgotten about.”

With everyone at home, people have returned to a time where toys require socialization and interaction, she said. 

Manufacturing was on hold in China until recently being allowed back on track. “Christmas is happening,” she said, “So is Hannukah, Kwanzaa, birthdays and other holidays and celebrations in the 4th quarter.”

But the question is, will consumers want the kinds of toys that were made before the pandemic? Or will the pick toys that made their families comfortable during this time?

Another upside to industry-wide disruption? Now is a good time to get your toy idea noticed. 

“Many toys span multi-generations and now is the time to develop that toy idea you always thought of but never created. Now, is the time to elevate your entrepreneurial spirit,” she said.