With the holidays fast approaching, many folks will find themselves standing in the aisles of a toy store faced with one big question: boy or girl? The majority of big-box toy stores, and even many local ones, tend to organize their aisles based on gender. Eye-searing pink pervades the girls’ section—which is packed with dolls, princess attire, plastic jewelry and play ovens. The boys’ section, full of muted blues and browns, boasts much more active toys: cars and trucks, sports equipment, science kits. Stacked somewhere in the middle are the gender-neutral board games.
The color scheme is no accident. In fact, the division of toys based on stereotypical gender codification is extremely intentional. These stores spend a significant amount of money on consultants who help them create toy aisles that will boost sales and who believe that pink and blue will do so.
However, just this past week, a store in the U.K. pleasantly surprised me. Hamleys’ toy store, a London fixture, has scrapped the pink and blue signs littering the store and replaced them with gender-neutral ones in red and white, the store’s signature colors. Toys will now be categorized by type, rather than gender.
The change came after a monthslong campaign by Laura Nelson, a U.K. blogger who has been working tirelessly on promoting gender equality, demanding that Hamleys to change the way they stocked their toys. Nelson celebrated writes on her blog,
The campaign worked! Thank you all for your support (moral and otherwise) and encouragement.
However, Hamleys denies that Nelson’s campaign influenced the switch. A spokesperson told the press:
While we welcome comments from all customers and interested parties on improving Hamleys, in this case we regret that the changes to our signage were not due to any campaign. We are in the process of detailed planning for a complete refit of our store on Regent Street. As part of this planning, it was made clear to us from consultants and customer surveys that our store directional signage was confusing. As a result we commenced changing all our signage in October of this year in order to improve customer flow.
Nelson tells me she doesn’t buy it:
I think it’s a remarkable coincidence that the store changed their signs a few days after I wrote to the CEO, and a few days after I spoke to Landsbanki, the Icelandic bank that controls Hamleys. Also, when I spoke to their marketing team at the same time as sending the letter, Hamleys did not mention that they planned to changed the signs–surely if they were going to do so, they would have told me and all this could have been avoided! I think that, as it is so near to Christmas, the change of signs could only be due to campaign pressure. Iceland is a progressive county in terms of equal rights and opportunities, so I suspected there would be interest and pressure over there.
If Hamleys was telling the truth, I was curious as to why marketing dictate non-gendered signage. I asked Nelson if she had any ideas on the matter.
I really have no idea. I would be very interested to know whether gender-codified toys actually increase revenue or whether there is no difference. I suspect the latter, and I think all people want is to be able to find their way around with minimum confusion. When the toys are categorised by type, there is no confusion whatsoever. I am surprised that Hamleys did not use the opportunity of this campaign to show that they were a forward-thinking organisation and had listened and responded to public opinion on this issue.
We can only speculate as to the actual reasoning behind Hamleys’ decision. But in any case, it’s good news: Either raising a stink about gender roles can push retailers to rethink the pink and blue divide, or at least one megaretailer believes it to be simply bad marketing strategy.
Of course, retailers are only one piece of the puzzle. As Nelson writes, “We still have work to do on the nature of the toys themselves, and the gender stereotyping of their marketing.” Witness the new line of Legos “for girls” to be released this January. The lines features hot-pink figures slightly larger than the traditional inchlong ones, so that handbags and hairbrushes can be fitted into their hands. Anyone want to raise a stink?