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Toy makers face a tougher sell

Veterans of New York's American International Toy Fair say the dynamics of the week-long showcase of next fall's toy hopefuls haven't changed much over the years. There is the same hype and promise, underscored by the same skepticism among buyers, who...
March 1, 1997

Veterans of New York’s American International Toy Fair say the dynamics of the week-long showcase of next fall’s toy hopefuls haven’t changed much over the years. There is the same hype and promise, underscored by the same skepticism among buyers, who know that so many new products will fail and so few will succeed.

But with retailers tightening up on inventories and sharpening up on what and how they buy, toy manufacturers and licensors are being forced to prepare for a much tougher sale.

‘Everybody has always wanted some kind of assurance, and that hasn’t changed,’ says one marketing consultant. ‘But now, it seems retailers are delaying their decisions, almost as though they’re hoping those assurances eventually will come.’

‘They’re just a lot smarter,’ says a prominent studio licensing executive. ‘Whereas years ago you might have found one really smart retailer out of 20, now there are 19 in every 20.’

And, since about half of all toys today are derived from a trademark of some kind most often a feature film or television property the guessing game in this US$21-billion industry has become even more complicated as toy sales become dependent on audience reactions.

Upcoming and current feature films seem to have created the biggest toy expectations at this year’s fair, with the biggest buzz coming from an excellent array of Star Wars regalia at Hasbro and the line of Star Wars miniatures by Galoob. Two other films that seem to have expectations running high are Warner Bros.’ upcoming Batman and Robin (for which Hasbro is the master toy licensee) and Twentieth Century Fox’s first animated feature, Anastasia, which has spawned an impressive offering of girls doll products from Galoob.

Among the relatively unknown films of the year but a potential hit is Fairy Tale: A True Story, a lovely picture about two girls who prove that fairies are real when they capture their image in a photograph. This sweet tale could easily engage the imaginations of story-starved parents and kids. The movie is from the people behind Forrest Gump (Wendy Fineman) and Braveheart (Icon Productions), and stars Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel. Viacom Consumer Products is handling the licensing and merchandising, and Playmates has the toy line of fairy dolls and playsets.

Another new product that could become next fall’s sensation comes from an alliance between two established names: software giant Microsoft and The Lyons Group, the creator of the enduring Barney franchise.

Microsoft, whose 40-year-old chairman Bill Gates is a new father, has launched an early learning system that uses a lifelike, 16-inch Barney as an interface between the computer or television set and the child user. Under the trade name ActiMates, the system uses specially designed hardware and software to bring Barney to life. He waves his hands, tilts his head and talks to the child as a kind of a coach, assisting the child to explore the software programs.

The full package, including Barney, a radio transmitter that activates Barney and a PC pack with a CD-ROM, will retail for about US$159. The system also includes VHS tapes that can be played on the television.

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