It’s been said that fads pass through Japan faster than colds through a playschool, which can be both a worry and a comfort for toy manufacturers, depending on what side of the sales curve they find themselves on. Right now, with a dearth of new hit properties in the market, the Big Three Japanese toy firms-Takara, Tomy and Bandai-are hoping that the next fad just hurries up and gets here.
For the coming year, aside from the obvious overlapping in lines such as candy-toys and robotic dogs, all three firms have pretty much opted to venture down separate paths.
For Takara-maker of Jenny, the nation’s most popular dress-up doll-2001 will be a year of taking the path less traveled, with the bulk of the company’s hopes resting on a souped-up gyroscope, a home karaoke unit and the updating of many of its existing toy lines. ‘We are looking to make many of our toys more high-tech and introduce more electrical, interactive products that are equipped with CPU chips this year,’ says Shinichi Suzuki of Takara’s international division.
In particular, the company has great expectations for products based on Bakuten Shoot Beyblade, a TV anime series produced by Tokyo’s Madhouse Studio, based entirely around the Beyblade gyroscope. In the series, which made its Tokyo TV debut on January 8, schoolboys battle each other in gyroscope tournaments to become the top Beyblader. In the series-and in real life-the gyroscopes are spun using a launching device comprising a small connector unit and a plastic ‘blade,’ which releases the spinning gyroscope onto the playing surface. The object of the game is for Beybladers to knock each other’s gyroscopes, which are about an inch and a half in diameter, off a plastic playing surface. The loser of the match has to forfeit his or her gyroscope to the victor.
Beyblade toys range in price from US$5 to US$8, according to Suzuki, and the full line of Beyblade toys is expected to be released throughout the year. There are no plans as of yet to export the product. Hudson’s Software, which teamed up with Takara to create the Beyblade project, will produce Beyblade Game Boy titles, and a manga series is expected soon.
Takara also plans to build on the success of its Plug It series of toys, featuring E-kara and Popira, which became an instant hit thanks to a marketing campaign featuring the all-girl singing group Morning Musume.
E-kara is a home karaoke machine developed jointly with Daiichikosho, a lead marketer of karaoke equipment. The E-kara console connects to a TV, and when a music cartridge containing 16 to 20 songs is inserted in the machine, lyrics appear on screen and the stage is set for wannabe singers to croon their hearts out.
Popira, on the other hand, is a game that puts a player’s hand-eye coordination to the test. The Popira unit also plugs into the TV, and the player must push buttons on the console to keep a bouncing ball moving. The difficulty level increases until even with two hands, the game becomes almost impossible. Takara will build on the initial success of the toys by introducing a plethora of new song titles for E-kara this year, as well as different games for Popira, which first debuted last October. Prices of both products run at about US$50, with E-kara music cartridges retailing for about US$20.
For its part, Tomy has decided to follow in the footsteps of others this year, first by trying to duplicate the success of Furuta Confectionery Co.’s Choco Eggs, which were introduced in September 1999 and sold one million units per month at their spring 2000 peak. Tomy will also debut robot canine DOG.COM on the heels of Sony’s Aibo achievements. Finally, Tomy will debut highly-anticipated additions to the firm’s Bit Racer motorized car sets, along with additions to Tomica World (which includes miniature diecast vehicles and Thomas the Tank Engine playsets), and an expansion of the company’s Pokémon lines.
Looking to cultivate demand for toy snacks through brand power, Tomy opened a candy-toy specialty division in December and is targeting sales of US$40 million a year by March 2003 for its hollow chocolate eggs containing detailed toys. Tomy’s Kazuo Watanabe says 10 candy-toy items will be released in March and will eventually feature such licensed giants as Pokémon.
DOG.COM, which retails for about US$130, is a pooch with potential. The canine has tiptoed quietly into the market, receiving minimal TV exposure since hitting store shelves in December, but looks to make its presence known in March when the company launches a full-scale marketing blitz. Tomy hopes DOG.COM’s 16 different personalities and command of 800 Japanese words will make up for the rather hefty price tag.
Tomy’s contribution to the ‘iyashi boom’-a relaxation fad that has healing products ranging from CDs and books to acrylic-resin prisms selling like mad-is Mutsu the Water Looper, an electric toy fish that is cared for like a real pet. The product, which includes a special Mutsu fish tank, hit stores in November for about US$35. Caring for the fish and watching it loop around its tank are said to put the owner in an mellow state of mind.
Bandai estimates that its consolidated net profit will increase 700% to almost US$90 million for the fiscal year ending March 2001, thanks largely to sales of DVDs at subsidiary Bandai Visual (triggered by PlayStation 2 sales), along with high sales for Digital Monster and Gundam toys in the U.S. As a consequence, the company has decided not to significantly alter its marketing strategy for the rest of the year.
‘Our current Gundam products comprise mainly plastic models and figures,’ says Bandai’s Akiko Tagami, adding that the toy giant will seek to add more characters to both its Digimon and Gundam lines, with some products being released simultaneously in Japan and the U.S. The biggest change for the Gundam line in 2001 will be a move into game software, Tagami says, while a new monster figure and a Tamagochi-like Digivice should spur Digimon sales.
Bandai has also jumped head-first into the candy-toy business, teaming up with a Spanish confectioner to introduce Wonder Capsule chocolates, a Choco Egg clone containing tiny plastic Digimon toys. Bandai expects unit sales for candy toys in the fiscal year ended March 2000 to be 24 million, triple the eight million chocolate-toy combos it sold a year earlier.