THE MAKER MOVEMENT

A tiny electronics company makes some of the most popular toys on Amazon

Obsession
How We Buy
Obsession
How We Buy

One of the most popular toys on Amazon this year is made by a small company that doesn’t even specialize in toys.

Snap Circuits—kits that teach kids to build electronic projects—rank alongside Nerf, Jenga, and Star Wars toys.

As of Dec. 30, the electronic builder sets were on Amazon’s top 20 list of most popular toys, for at least the fifth year in a row. Jim Cecchin, vice president of Elenco, the company that makes the toys, told Quartz that sales of Snap Circuits have increased 10% this year over 2014.

Amazon declined to provide sales data for Snap Circuits, but confirmed the product has done well.

“I think we peaked at number six this year,” Cecchin told Quartz, of Snap Circuits’ spot on Amazon’s list. “That’s pretty good up against Lego and some of these other players.” Elenco employs about 40 people from a 60,000 square-foot facility in Illinois, and brings in less than $10 million each year compared to Lego, which employs more than 12,500 people, operates five main offices around the globe, and reported revenue of more than $4 billion in 2014.

Toys tethered to movie franchises come and go, but Cecchin said the popularity of Snap Circuits, which has increased largely through word-of-mouth and the e-commerce marketplace, is a testament that kids are still interested in building electronics.

Sales of electronic and building toys have increased in the last two years, in part, due to the maker movement and a renewed interest in STEM toys. Sales of building sets jumped 13% between 2013 and 2014 to $1.86 billion. In a year-to-date comparison between 2014 and 2015, sales are already up 11%, according to NPD group.

Elenco didn’t always make toys but the story of how Snap Circuits came to be is a microcosm of how the electronics industry has changed. When the company was founded in 1972, it was all about developing products used to test electronic equipment. It eventually expanded to include offering educational material for schools to give students a hands-on experience building electronics.

But when products such as televisions became more computer-oriented, Elenco’s business changed, Cecchin said. VCRs became obsolete, televisions became less prone to mechanical malfunction, and with that trend went the repair shops. Elenco still offers those products, but the company had to adapt.

Its toy division was created in the late 1990s, and Snap Circuits took off. Initially they were sold in specialty toy stores and mid-sized retailers. Business exploded exponentially, though, once e-commerce companies took hold.

So if your kids didn’t take to the latest gadget you got them for Christmas, maybe a toy that lets them hand-build an old-time AM radio will stick.

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