Toycos rely on old tricks to win over buyers at Toy Fair 2002

Responding to a global economy that's still limping along, toycos at this year's Toy Fair favored modest lines modeled on classic play patterns over the high-tech, high-priced fare of previous years.
March 1, 2002

Responding to a global economy that’s still limping along, toycos at this year’s Toy Fair favored modest lines modeled on classic play patterns over the high-tech, high-priced fare of previous years.

‘This year, everyone is getting back to basics–creating good, strong toys for good value,’ says Chris Duquette, a preschool and licensed plush buyer with KB Toys. ‘Companies are hitting the topical licenses where applicable, but the focus is on making sure they have the stuff customers want.’

Judging by this year’s entries, kids are apparently jonesing for bubbles, and Spin Master’s Catch-A-Bubble (spring/US$3.99) and Jakks Pacific’s Liqualoons (spring/US$4.99 to US$6.99) are there to fill the niche. Both items contain special solutions for bubbles that keep their form longer and that can be held and stacked together in bunches. Spin Master imported Catch-A-Bubble from Australia, where it sold more than 700,000 units in its first three months at retail last fall.

Toys that incorporate food play were also on order at this year’s show. Spin Master showed two new licensed items that it will deliver this fall–the Icee Maker (US$19.99), with which kids can make slushies using different flavors, colors and liquids; and Hershey’s Chocolate Magic (US$14.99), which can be used to melt chocolate into several different shaped molds.

Also gorging on the food craze, Hasbro introduced its first boy-skewing Easy Bake Oven after research indicated that boys were playing with their sisters’ models. However, Queasy Bake Oven, as its name suggests, is not for making soufflés. Instead, boys can rustle up stomach-curdling dishes like Mud ‘n Crud Cake or Drip ‘n’ Drool Dog Bone Cookies. Slated to hit shelves this fall, the Queasy Bake line also features a mixer (US$14.99) for concocting equally gross drinks.

On the heels of the arts and crafts category posting a sales increase of 14% last year–the fourth-largest category increase in 2001–Malibu, California-based Jakks Pacific inked a mammoth deal with Disney that will see it create activity toys, including compounds and jewelry kits, based on the studio’s kids properties and the ESPN brand. Jakks hit the arts and crafts jackpot in 2001 with its Nickelodeon-branded Nicktivities line of compounds and stationery products, and has been trying to replicate the experience ever since. The Disney deal will see most products roll out under Disney’s Magic Artist brand in May. Jakks also introduced its Smatter line of compounds (Smatter, Fatter Smatter and Spit Smatter), slated for a retail debut this spring. Each SKU (US$9.99 each) comes with a gun that kids can use to shoot the compounds as projectile strings or balls.

On the acquisitions front, Jakks picked up 64% of shares belonging to New York-based Toymax in a cash-and-stock deal worth US$54.7 million. At press time, the toyco was expected to purchase the remainder of the Toymax shares late last month. Jakks spokesperson Genna Goldberg says the company hasn’t yet decided which of Toymax’s brands it will keep, or if the company will remain in its Plainview, New York headquarters once the acquisition has been finalized in June.

Though the tech toy category enjoyed a much lower profile this year, there were still some strong entries, particularly in music. Toymax’s VJ Starz Karaoke Music Studio offers up a new twist on last year’s big hit–the karaoke machine. In addition to playing karaoke versions of hit pop songs, the system plugs into a TV or VCR and features a built-in camera which kids can use to watch and record videos of themselves singing the latest Britney ditty. Retailing for US$99.99, VJ Starz will come with one cartridge containing 10 songs when it hits stores this August; additional cartridges will cost US$9.99 each.

For more camera-shy music-lovers, Tiger Electronics is gearing up to release Finger Jamz this fall. The toy is essentially a container with a built-in motion sensor that translates vibrations, such as fingers tapping on a table, into music. Finger Jams (US$11.99) will enable even the most tone-deaf musician to flawlessly tap out one of 12 well-known songs.

Bulgy-eyed, big-headed dolls with fashion advice to spare dominated new girl offerings once again. Trendmasters bowed with Boppin’ Rockers–four music-crazed dolls sold separately (US$7.99) or with a battery-powered dance floor (US$19.99) that allows them to shimmy to their favorite tunes. Both SKUs will be available in stores this fall.

Fashion doll matriarch Barbie also strutted her stuff–with Mattel unveiling a product line tied to Barbie as Rapunzel. The doll brand’s second direct-to-video title is pegged to match the revenue of last year’s Barbie in the Nutcracker, which raked in US$150 million in video and merchandise sales.

In addition to the video, Mattel will bow with a range of related merchandise including dolls, books, plush, apparel and accessories this October. Mattel also debuted the Barbie spin-off line Mystery Squad, an assortment of multi-ethnic dolls, each of which comes with its own dossier and special decoder device for solving crimes. (Think Barbie meets the Mod Squad.) Mattel will release the MS dolls (US$19.99 each) this June.

As for boys toys, Mattel is betting on the relaunch of He-Man to capture the young male imagination. Beginning in July, the company will start rolling out three waves of merchandise, including figures, beast riders, a Masters of the Universe vehicle and a Castle Grayskull play set. Mattel is supporting the product launch with a 90-minute He-Man special and 26 half hours of a new TV series (both produced by Mike Young Productions) that will begin airing on Cartoon Network in late July or early August.

Like Mattel, Hasbro also showed several new items from its proprietary boy brands G.I. Joe and Transformers, which both had banner years in 2001. New for this year, Hasbro is currently rolling out a revamped Cobra vs. Joe line of three-and-three-quarter-inch figures (US$7.99). The toyco has a huge promotional initiative for G.I. Joe slotted in for fall, including a contest and a US$7.5-million ad campaign.

For Transformers, Hasbro debuted its new Armada line, which includes Mini-cons–tiny robots that plug in together to form a larger robot. Mini-cons will come in three-packs and retail for US$6.99 each starting in August, preceeding the fall debut of the new Transformers Armada TV series. Hoping to further leverage the strength of its mega boy brands, Hasbro also debuted chubby dolls and vehicles for preschoolers that carry the Transformers and Star Wars licenses.

That toycos were relying on their existing brands to catch the fancy of attending buyers didn’t seem to shock many attendees at this year’s show. ‘I think it’s smart for toycos to focus on their core strengths, rather than just throwing stuff up against the wall,’ says Melissa Bomes, executive VP of licensing at DIC Entertainment. ‘Retailers are very conservative right now, so it’s still a very hard environment in which to launch new products.’

While that may be the reality, it doesn’t exactly signal a boon for innovation, says toy inventor Richard Levy, who was in town attending his 24th consecutive Toy Fair. ‘Toy companies are unwilling to assume the risk and expense of launching new proprietary lines anymore,’ says Levy. ‘Despite claims to the contrary, for the most part, the industry remains trapped in the squirrel-cage existence of entertainment licenses.’

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