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Toy biz uses downtime to strategize

As memories of the holiday shopping rush fade from the consumer consciousness (although bills may still linger), the 1999 marketing season is in full swing. 'It's the first time in the year we get to show off what we have,' says...
February 1, 1999

As memories of the holiday shopping rush fade from the consumer consciousness (although bills may still linger), the 1999 marketing season is in full swing. ‘It’s the first time in the year we get to show off what we have,’ says Michelle Amis, spokesperson for Toronto, Canada-based Irwin Toys. ‘It’s pretty tough to be competitive during the rest of the year without getting an early start.’

On the surface, this is generally a quiet time for toy retailers, but behind the scenes, both manufacturers and buyers are busy with next season’s promotions, albeit tight-lipped about their plans. The last two months have been particularly hectic as toy makers have been preparing their wares for the Canadian, Hong Kong and New York International Toy Fairs, which give both buyers and sellers a head start in bringing their promotional campaigns in line with market trends.

That being said, exactly what are buyers expecting to find this year?

‘One of the major things we look for is innovation and newness,’ says David Niggli, executive VP of merchandising at FAO Schwarz in New York. ‘We sell classic toys, but different and creative toys are generally the items that attract a lot of attention during the season.’

One major holiday season trend that’s held its own is the demand for computerized games and toys that talk (or learn to talk, as in the case of Furby). Manufacturers have further leveraged the technology by combining it with classic brands, a trend that industry experts say will continue this season. Last season for example, California-based Mattel sold a Hot Wheels Cyber Racer in response to a more sophisticated market.

Movie tie-ins will once again be high on the list for buyers. The 1999 release of the new Star Wars film, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, for instance, promises to draw young and old alike to theaters and toy stores, says Ron Crane, a senior buyer with Canadian department store, Zellers. ‘We knew Star Wars items would be hot sellers before ever seeing them,’ he says. ‘We’ll also see other futuristic toys or items that have millennium tie-ins.’

Canada’s Irwin Toys is ready for the coming century. The toy maker’s ‘Me and the Mellennium’ kit is set to hit the shelves early this year. As part of its Kids Can craft line, the package contains a year 2000 scrapbook that kids can fill with memorabilia, as well as a storybook offering information and interesting facts about the turn of the century.

Mattel also has ‘special items planned’ that tie in to the end of the century fuss.

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