Consumer Products

Preschool merch arena crackles as new properties invade the continent

Blighty's most popular school boy, Harry Potter, has all the makings of a hit toy franchise for 2001, but Hogwarts School's best-known pupil will face strong competition in what is becoming an increasingly tough sector around the world....
February 1, 2001

Blighty’s most popular school boy, Harry Potter, has all the makings of a hit toy franchise for 2001, but Hogwarts School’s best-known pupil will face strong competition in what is becoming an increasingly tough sector around the world.

In the U.K., Mattel’s Potter merch began to roll out last month with the launch of two puzzles and two games linked to the first novel. A Harry Potter Trivia Game, priced at around US$45, is suitable for kids eight and up. Another Potter product, aimed at the same group, is Mystery At Hogwarts, priced around US$30. There are also two Potter jigsaws: A 300-piece puzzle (US$15, kids eight and up) and a 260-piece puzzle, also priced at around US$15. The latter puzzle has both large pieces for six- to 10-year-olds and smaller pieces for adults.

In March, U.K. publisher Bloomsbury will add to Mattel’s offering with a wizard range of Potter-linked stationery including journals, diaries, calendars, notepaper and postcards.

The real blitz is planned for November, when the Warner Bros. Potter movie finally emerges. Given the hype surrounding the property, it’s probable that Mattel forked out big bucks for the rights, and while Potter is primed for success, merchandising types are still asking how easy it will be for Mattel to recoup the investment.

In the preschool arena, one of the biggest merch launches of the coming year is likely to come courtesy of The Hoobs, the latest puppet show from The Jim Henson Company. Henson owner EM.TV has already signed a master toy agreement with Tokyo-based Tomy to develop Hoobs toys and gifts for territories across Europe. The Hoobs debuted in the U.K. on Channel 4 last month, and with daily screenings, a 250-ep order and a strong educational element, its backers hope The Hoobs will repeat the international merchandising success of the BBC’s Teletubbies.

Hailing The Hoobs as the outfit’s ‘most important preschool development ever,’ Eric Rossi, managing director of Tomy France, described the franchise as ‘a unique project supported by Henson core values.’ Tomy will launch a plush range at Toy Fair U.K., with product priced between US$9 and US$22 hitting shelves by August, just in time for the back-to-school market.

Looking to other categories, Star Kids, in association with 4Learning, Channel 4′s educational division, will produce print material including parent/teacher guides, educational work books, mini textbooks, mini learning boxes, flash cards and card-based games. Master publisher Egmont Children’s Books will produce novelty, story, board and picture book formats, including The Hoobs Annual. Meanwhile, Egmont Fleetway has won the publishing license for a children’s monthly magazine, and Gemma International will provide greeting cards and gift wrap, gift tags, party invitations and badges.

Other Hoobs licensees include TDP/Cherub (nightwear and underwear); Samuel Eden (children’s socks); Bon Bon Buddies (confectionery); Euromark (toiletries); Leisurebrands (bedroom wall decorations); John UK (play balls); Spearmark (table top and lunch boxes); and Blueprint Collections (stationery, backpacks and accessories).

The Hoobs will be competing against yet another new entry to the U.K. preschool market, this one a BBC revival, after a gap of 30 years, of Bill and Ben, The Flowerpot Men. The new incarnation of the classic will see it as stop-frame animation production from British animation combo Cosgrove Hall. Says Richard Hollis, deputy head of licensing, BBC Worldwide: ‘There’s huge scope for merchandising because Bill and Ben should appeal to a double market. The preschool audience will love them, and their parents and grandparents will remember them. There is therefore the potential for a range of toys and products appealing to all ages.’

The BBC has signed a licensing deal with Hasbro in the U.K. for a plush range and figurines. The soft toys, some of which will include electronic features, are being lined up for the spring, but may not be out until the fall. A fall launch is planned for the figures. A gift range, including bags and toiletries, is also being discussed, but a deal is yet to be concluded.

Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues, which has already proved its worth in the U.S., will heighten the tot competition by another notch when it hits the European merchandising arena this spring with a range of plush and activity toys from Mattel’s Fisher-Price subsidiary.

Sing Along Blue (SRP about US$30) is a soft toy dog that plays the Blue’s Clues song and barks when its paws are pressed. It’s aimed at children 18 months and older. All Ears Blue (about US$45), another musical soft toy, is for kids two and up. All Ears can drink from a straw, play a trumpet and lick a lolly. Both products will be available in May. Bathtime Blue (about US$20) is a bathtime bubble toy complete with paw-shaped sponge, blue liquid soap and slippery soap water squirter. It will hit stores in April.

Moving up the age range, Carlton International is seeking merchandising partners to exploit its new CITV girl band comedy-drama, STARstreet, aimed at five- to 10-year-olds. The property was a top priority for Carlton International Consumer Products Group at the U.K. Toy Fair in January, and will also make an appearance at the U.K.’s Spring Fair this month.

Carlton is also pushing merchandise based on teen-plus cult classic The Prisoner. Paris-based agent V.I.P. has signed an apparel deal with Sans Interdit. T-shirts, caps and polo shirts will be launched in the fall to tie in with a new Prisoner DVD release.

ITV series Thunderbirds is also enjoying a big comeback. In the U.K., over 150 product lines have been launched from more than 40 licensees, generating more than US$14 million in retail sales since its relaunch last September.

New action figures based on lead characters Brains and The Hood, aimed primarily at four- to seven-year-olds, will be available in toy stores, Woolworths and some supermarkets in early spring and summer with an SRP of about US$22. A set of Thunderbirds inflatables will also hit stores this spring. Targeting all ages, they cost from US$3 (an inflatable swim ring) to US$22 (an inflatable chair). The line includes blow-up arm bands, paddling pools, Bop bags and Jet skis.

Not content with their U.K. invasion, the Thunderbirds will roll into the U.S., Australia, Benelux, East Asia, France, Italy and Finland this spring. In Benelux, department stores will stock Thunderbirds textiles and linen for the summer following a deal with Belltex.

Consumer products giant Saban has big plans for the year ahead based on a new range of Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue action figures and vehicles. Targeting boys and girls between four and eight, Bandai is rolling out the lines across Europe right now. The action figures include a firefighter, aviator, extreme sports enthusiast, paramedic, aquatics professional and martial arts expert. In France, Jemini is introducing a new plush line of Power Rangers toys, while Germany will see a new range of Power Rangers waterguns, with four different varieties. Japan’s Bandai will also showcase over 12 new items for Saban’s Digimon line at Toy Fair, and a new Digimon interactive game will be out shortly from Infogrames.

Meanwhile, European merchandising partners are also being sought by another U.S. import: Cartoon Network is looking to take The Powerpuff Girls across the continent following the show’s successful launch in the U.K. last year. ‘Syndication is pretty much sorted out everywhere in Europe except Germany,’ says Simon George, director of channel commerce at Cartoon Network UK. ‘We’ve been getting a very good response for the Powerpuff products in the U.K., so I’m optimistic about the rest of Europe.’ Apart from Game Boy Color titles launching this spring and pan-European video and DVD releases slated for later this year, an accessories and apparel collection is being rolled out in the U.K. for the summer.

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