Erin Davis would be thrilled if her 3-year-old daughter did not like pink.
But on a rainy December morning at a Target store in the District, she is pushing through the toy aisles a cart full of Christmas gifts that includes a $5.99 pink sled.
“My value system and what she wants do not always line up,” Davis said with a laugh.
Davis’s conundrum — wanting her daughter to be unconfined by gender typecasts, but also wanting to give her a pleasing gift — is one that also bedevils retailers and manufacturers.
They face greater social pressure to ditch gender-specific labeling and marketing, yet they do not want to cut into profits. They want to make it easy for busy shoppers to find what they are looking for, but they do not want to alienate customers who are uncomfortable with the old labels.
So toy sellers are stepping gingerly. Target recently removed gender-based signage in its toy and kids’ bedding departments after it said customers “raised important questions” about the practice.
A new generation of start-ups is trying to cash in on what they believe is a demand for a different approach to kids’ toys and
apparel: Woozy Moo is a new e-commerce site that promises a gender-neutral format to toy-
selling, while Princess Awesome sells girls’ dresses printed with the dinosaurs and ninjas often found on boys’ clothes.
And a commercial posted to YouTube in October for the new Moschino Barbie recently went viral as users noticed — and often applauded — that it featured a boy playing with the doll.
In an age of social media, retailers that ignore gender issues can get a quick response. Under Armour took heat last month when shoppers called out the brand for briefly offering only men’s and boys’ Star Wars gear on its Web site.
Elizabeth Sweet, who studies gender-based toy marketing at the University of California at Davis, said toys today are more gender-specific than at any time in a century. But parents are becoming more vocal about the issue, she said, and that is putting pressure on companies to respond.
“We’re beginning to see the shift in large part due to the parents and other activists saying, ‘Hey, we need something different out there,’ ” Sweet said.
One result is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Oven, a new toy that you will find on the shelves at Toys R Us near the Girl Scouts Cookie Oven and the pink-and-purple Chocolate Treats Maker. It is a cooking toy — something traditionally marketed to girls — that has been branded with characters typically geared to boys.
“It’s 2015,” said Jeremy Padawer, co-president of Wicked Cool Toys, the company that makes the oven. “Very simply stated, I don’t think that the gender roles around cooking as a pattern of behavior is something that still exists.”
Meanwhile, Mattel, one of the world’s largest toymakers, said that it is evaluating ways to make the marketing more inclusive for its stable of major toy lines, which includes Barbie, Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price and American Girl.
“We’re not there today, but that is absolutely something the company is looking into,” said Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman for Mattel.
A British activist group, Let Toys Be Toys, has in recent years pushed for gender-specific signage to be removed from large chain stores, and has so far had some success in its home country. Last month, the British version of the Toys R Us Web site removed its labels for boys’ and girls’ toys following pressure from the group. Let Toys Be Toys also played a role in pressuring publishers such as Scholastic to remove gender-labeling from children’s books. Tessa Trabue, a member of the organization, said Let Toys Be Toys is next going to push for manufacturers to remove gender labels and rethink the colors of their toy packaging.
“Putting labels on toys is completely based on stereotypes,” Trabue said. “If it’s so natural, then you don’t need any signs to direct them to that choice.”
At Toys R Us, the world’s largest toy chain, brick-and-mortar stores are now organized in the way Trabue’s group prefers: by category, such as bicycles, dolls or construction sets, and not by gender. But its U.S. Web site prominently displays separate sections for boys’ toys and girls’ toys.
“Based on feedback we’ve received from consumers over the years, we have continued to offer the option to search by gender, as have many other retailers, and this remains the most popular way parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other gift-givers search for the toys that will delight the children in their lives,” said spokeswoman Alyssa Peera in an e-mailed statement.
Peera added that the Toys R Us Web site also lets shoppers search by age and brand, or by category such as action figures.
Not all shoppers are enthusiastic about the move away from gender labels in the toy aisle. Joanne Davis, a grandmother who lives in Tampa, said she is happy to watch her granddaughters play with trucks and that she always welcomed her now-grown son into the kitchen to make cookies with her when he was a boy.
But she said she has vowed to no longer shop for her 12 grandchildren at Toys R Us after reading about the decision to drop the gender categories on the British Web site.
“When I saw the article, I said, ‘Here we go again.’ It just makes it harder to shop,” Davis said, because she believes the labels can help shoppers to more easily navigate a store.
“It’s getting really tiresome, the ‘politically correct,’ ” Davis said.
Earlier calls to action on gender-based marketing and merchandising have typically had limited reach. In 2012, teenager McKenna Pope launched a petition on Change.org asking Hasbro to manufacture a version of the iconic Easy-Bake Oven in colors other than purple and pink so that they might have more appeal to young boys. Her petition ended up getting more than 40,000 signatures, and Hasbro responded by producing a black-and-silver version of the classic toy.
Still, there seems to be a lack of consensus about the best way to avoid stereotyping.
In 2011, Lego debuted its Lego Friends line, a suite of toys aimed at getting more girls interested in Lego bricks. The line was developed based on anthropology-style research about girls’ play patterns, and the sets come in pastel colors, contain curvier figurines and feature a salon and a café. Instead of being celebrated for inviting girls to play with a traditional boys’ toy, Lego Friends was greeted with a harsh backlash from parents who thought the line simply reinforced stereotypes. Yet Lego Friends has seen up to 20 percent sales growth a year since it launched, a sign that many parents have been comfortable purchasing them.
Wicked Cool Toys, the company behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Oven, is taking two different tacks as it tries to bring cooking toys to a wide audience: The oven has two smiling boys on the packaging, suggesting that it is squarely aimed at boys. However, Wicked Cool has also debuted a line of MasterChef Jr. cooking toys this year which feature on the packaging a boy and girl playing together.
“That product is very clearly and obviously reaching out to both genders,” Padawer said.
Laurie Schacht, publisher of toy review Web site Toy Insider Mom, said that she doesn’t expect store shelves will soon be taken over by toys meant to appeal to both boys and girls.
“Toymakers will continue to work harder to create toys that have that gender-neutral feel,” Schacht said. “However, they are also going to make plenty of toys that are specifically targeted to boys and specifically targeted to girls — because that’s where the sales are.”