Toycos get smart with girls

As society continues to develop its digital dependence, kids of both genders are increasingly demanding high-tech playthings. This report goes beyond the doll to check out a new wave of technology-driven toys and games for girls....
August 1, 1999

As society continues to develop its digital dependence, kids of both genders are increasingly demanding high-tech playthings. This report goes beyond the doll to check out a new wave of technology-driven toys and games for girls.

AS the gap between boys’ and girls’ perceived play patterns continues to narrow, more and more companies are starting to churn out technology products for girls.

A frontrunner in this burgeoning trend is Girl Tech, a four-year-old smart toy company geared exclusively to girls. The concept for Girl Tech was originated by Dr. Janese Swanson, whose doctoral research on gender differences and game play revealed girls were being left behind in the digital arena. Swanson set out to change that by creating toys that have an interactive, adventurous and definitely non-doll approach. Girl Tech aims to tap into the 18.6 million-strong market of girls ages five to 14-a demo that’s armed with more spending power than ever before.

Girl Tech products range from a Password Journal that locks and opens via voice recognition technology (released in January for US$19.99), to Bug `Em (a bug-shaped, baby monitor-like device that allows girls to listen in on conversations) and the Keepsafe Box (a treasure box that girls can open and close from across the room via a coded remote control), both of which ship this month. All of the toys are priced between US$9.95 and US$22.95, a price range most girls can afford by saving their weekly allowance.

Swanson’s research shows that girls have the bucks to buy tech-based toys, but are waiting for products that are made with consideration to girls’ preferences. Currently, 85% of the revenues of the US$12-billion technical toy and video game market are derived from sales of products directly to boys. Although girls ages eight to 18 make over US$57 billion in retail purchases every year, that number has remained virtually untapped by leaders in the commercial technology industry-until now.

‘Girls are definitely technology savvy,’ says Gina Beebe, senior VP of marketing for Playmates Toys. ‘I think that manufacturers and retailers have realized that.’

For its part, Playmates has developed a mix of smart toys based on traditional girl play patterns and new technology. Its electronic note-passing machine, (U.S.$19.99), is a handheld device for inputting and sending messages to other users. It’s intended to encourage girls to use technology.

The company has also mixed technology with a traditional girls toy-the doll. It has developed two interactive dolls, beginning with Amazing Amy (which came out in fall 1998), and followed by Amazing Ally, which will be available in stores this October. While Ally’s predecessor was a baby that needed to be bathed and fed, the newer doll has more advanced technology and is expected to eventually replace Amy. With these smart dolls, the toyco is banking on the mixed appeal of traditional nurturing with a ‘virtual playmate’ who can remember things like a girl’s birthday and favorite color.

Like Playmates, most of the toy manufacturers getting into girl tech go the route of combining tried-and-true toy concepts with computer technology. ‘The idea is to take a sort of sociological profile of a girl at different ages of development, and then apply that electronically,’ says Holly Rawlinson, VP of domestic licensing for Viacom Consumer Products.

Based on Sabrina the Animated Series, Viacom is shipping a new line of Tiger handhelds for girls ages four to eight in spring 2000. Rawlinson sees a blue-sky future for girls smart toys, citing an increase in female executives at toy companies as a factor lending the trend staying power.

Although the consensus seems to be that girls enjoy quiet activities such as social interaction, puzzles, secrets and creative expression, a number of manufacturers stand behind research that indicates that girls also want the same level of action as boys get in their digital toys. ‘An adventurous spirit is innate in all girls,’ says Swanson, ‘and what we tend to do by offering them nurturing or fashion-based products is squelch that adventurous spirit.’

Swanson and others also agree that it’s especially important to develop smart toys for girls that are ‘open-ended,’ thus they encourage the use of imagination and enhance the depth of play.

Despite the animated debate among pundits about what makes the best smart toy for girls, there are still some doubts that girls’ attraction to technology will be sustainable over the long term. ‘What if this is cyclical,’ asks Beebe? ‘What if we put all our eggs in one basket, and then girls want to get back to basics? Then we’re in trouble.’

Debra Forte, division head of Scholastic Entertainment and executive VP of Scholastic Inc., believes that interactivity, whether it be found in smart toys, CD-ROMs or video games, is irrevocably revolutionizing the way in which girls communicate with one another, and that it would be virtually impossible for them to entirely revert to more archaic modes of social connection. In keeping with this never-look-back attitude, Scholastic is developing a line of Friendship Ring smart toys based on its same-name book series. The interactive playthings will hit shelves in fall 2000, along with a Friendship Ring TV series.

Another girls smart toy forerunner, Oregon Scientific, was hesitant to tout the push for girl tech as a major industry trend. ‘I don’t think the marketplace is making a dramatic shift. I think that people are just standing up and saying there’s enough here to do this,’ says David Childers, the company’s president.

Oregon’s flagship interactive girl product, the Princess Cleo talking laptop computer, is the counterpart to a male-based laptop called Super Zack. It’s essentially an electronic learning aid guided by a strong female character. Players must give correct answers to help Cleo grow from a teenager into a princess; thus, she becomes stronger with knowledge.

‘Self esteem for girls was something we were really keen on from the beginning,’ Childers says. He adds that it was also important that the product introduce younger girls to computer technology, which is the reason why Princess Cleo looks and acts like a regular laptop computer.

The jury’s still out on whether or not most of these toys are going to make it at retail. The Cleo laptop, which is shipping this month, will be sold in specialty stores only. Given its non-mass distribution, coupled with its price tag of US$79 per unit, Childers says he expects Cleo’s sales will be overshadowed by less pricey Oregon products that are getting more exposure on mass shelves. Swanson says the first round of Girl Tech products did well at retail. In April, the Password Journal was the number-two item in its category according to TRSTS (Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service), a point-of-sale tracking service that records actual purchases in a number of major chains. According to Playmates’ Beebe, Amazing Amy was a top-seller in the large doll category last holiday season, and the company expects equally strong sales for Ally.

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