Wrestling toys on the ropes?

Habitual chair tossing and gold lamé costumes don't pack the punch they used to....
May 1, 2000

Habitual chair tossing and gold lamé costumes don’t pack the punch they used to.

After a year of enjoying meteoric sales growth, wrestling toys and their popularity with kids appears to be on the wane. For the first two months of this year, sales of licensed wrestling toys and video games dropped 35% and 45%, respectively, according to the NPD Group. The figures back up the experience of retailers who have watched wrestling go from a white-hot category-’99 sales of licensed WWF and WCW toys pulled in US$334 million collectively-to just another toy line.

‘We’ve seen a 15% to 20% decline in sales of the action figures from eight months ago,’ says one buyer at a large Canadian discount chain, who asked not to be identified.

For other retailers, like California-based Play Co. Toys, the slide has been more dramatic. According to Rich Brady, CEO for the 30-store chain located in southern California and Arizona, `99 Q4 sales for its wrestling action figures plunged 70%. Consequently, in February Play Co. decided to close its wrestling toy department altogether, selling off its remaining merchandise at markdowns of 40%.

While sales velocities for core wrestling items, like action figures and playsets, remain strong at KB Toys, ancillary product categories, like T-shirts and electronic handhelds, for example, have tapered off significantly, says John Tullock, boys toys buyer for the chain.

‘Last year a piece of die-cast would have sold because it had the WWF logo on it; this year that sort of product isn’t selling at all,’ says Tullock.

Though kids and retailers may not be as receptive to wrestling merchandise as they were a year ago, Maureen Cassel, senior VP of marketing at Jakks Pacific, master toy licensee for the WWF, balks at the suggestion that the category may be down for the count.

‘Everyone wants to assume that the WWF is over, and they make that assumption based on what’s happened with toy trends in the past-that they all have a three-year run and then they fall off the face of the earth. But that’s not the case with the WWF. I believe the WWF, like Barbie and the Power Rangers, is an evergreen brand. Does that mean that it’s going to sustain week-after-week increases of 10% in retail sales? No, but tell me anything that has.’

Cassel blames the current sales malaise on an overabundance of peripheral wrestling merchandise that flooded the marketplace last year, as well as products, like Jakks’ Wrestling Buddies, which feature play patterns that skew younger than wrestling’s core customer group of males in the 12 to17 age range. Neither types of merchandise, adds Cassel, ever sold well. (WCW’s master toy licensee Toy Biz was contacted for this article, but declined to participate.)

To stop the bleeding, Jakks has streamlined its 2000 product line to include only those items that have a strong appeal with the young male teen, namely the six-and-half-inch action figures, playsets and accessories.

Part of that effort has seen Jakks ratchet up the realism of its toys, which Cassel says is an important selling feature with its target market. Recently, Jakks introduced digital imaging technology into its production process, which allows it to manufacture action figures that more closely resemble the wrestlers that they’re modeled on. Furthermore, the process enables Jakks to reduce the time needed to create and ship its product to retailers by six to eight weeks, which means there’s a better chance that the dolls on store shelves will match what the wrestlers are wearing on TV.

Jakks’ new playsets, like Backstage Mayhem, which is designed to mirror the backstage area at a WWF event, will also boast a high degree of realism. Due to hit stores in June, Mayhem (US$29.99) comes with a Coke Machine that spits out tiny Coke cans when you slam a WWF figure against it, and, perhaps most importantly, the set also features a miniature toilet replete with a computer chip that makes a flushing sound when you stuff one of the figure’s heads into it.

‘It’s the first toilet-flush try-me in the history of retail!’ says Cassel, proudly.

Additionally, Cassel says Jakks has increased its TV ad spend for its WWF product by more than two-and-a-half times this year, though she wouldn’t say what amount the company spent on TV last year.

Ultimately, whether these measures will help boost momentum for Jakks wrestling toys and the category as a whole is far less certain than the outcome of a WWF match. In the meantime, retailers won’t be standing by to see if they take root. Many buyers, in fact, are already looking at other lines to fill the void.

‘There’s so much other great product out there that you could put your emphasis on,’ says Play Co.’s Brady. ‘We’re trying to get in as much Digimon merchandise as we can-that, Pokémon and Max Steel are the three hot boys licenses right now.’

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