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Domestic players strut their own stuff at the British Toy Fair

Although foreign conglomerates currently dominate the U.K.'s US$3-billion toy biz, several homegrown players have been coming on stronger of late by signing distribution deals with growing international outlets and creating innovative in-house lines of their own. As the British Toy Fair celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, KidScreen checks in with two of the territory's largest domestic toy manufacturers to sniff out industry trends and get a preview of the coolest toys poised to hit British shelves in 2003.
January 8, 2003

Although foreign conglomerates currently dominate the U.K.’s US$3-billion toy biz, several homegrown players have been coming on stronger of late by signing distribution deals with growing international outlets and creating innovative in-house lines of their own. As the British Toy Fair celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, KidScreen checks in with two of the territory’s largest domestic toy manufacturers to sniff out industry trends and get a preview of the coolest toys poised to hit British shelves in 2003.

Surrey-based Vivid Imaginations (which has cornered 6% of the U.K. toy industry, according to The NPD Group) honed in on the spike in demand for retro products and licenses that swept the global market last year, signing on to create a toy range for American Greetings’ classic property Care Bears. Soft-launched in retail outlets such as Woolworths in December and slated for wide release this month, Vivid’s Care Bears range of plush, figurines and playsets (US$5 to US$48) is projected to garner between US$19.2 million and US$24 million in retail sales this year.

The company is also moving into preschool licenses for the first time, with vehicles and playsets (US$11 to US$48) based on Contender Entertainment Group’s CiTV-bound CGI series Tractor Tom due out in August. For the infant segment, Vivid recently signed a deal to start rolling out Neurosmith’s line of developmental toys in July.

Vivid CEO and co-founder Nick Austin notes that the small doll and fashion doll categories picked up steam in 2002, with lines such as Disney’s Princesses, Bratz and Polly Pocket posting solid sales. Indeed, according to NPD EuroToys, the mini doll category finished up by 25.6% over 2001′s figures, with fashion dolls up 14.8%.

‘The whole girls area is very much alive again,’ says Austin. ‘But interestingly, it isn’t Barbie and the rest anymore.’ After a strong 2002 market introduction that tripled expectations, Vivid’s Disney’s Princesses line expands this May with offerings for the three to six set. Ariel’s Magical Palace (US$40) leads the micro range, while Cinderella’s Castle (US$48), Snow White’s Cottage (US$80) and Magic Hair Ariel frontline the fashion doll range.

The boys side of the toy biz is still driven by entertainment licenses, says Austin, whose company is unveiling a range based on 4Kids’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles revamp this July. The line targets kids ages four to eight and includes the all-singing, all-dancing Sewer Lair Playset (US$72).

On the non-licensed, core toy end of Vivid’s business, some of the coolest 2003 offerings include:

Laserstrike (US$72, August) – Kids six and up can duke it out for aerial supremacy with this infrared action game system featuring two fighter planes with barrel-roll play apps. Vivid expects first-year sales for Laserstrike to top 80,000 units in the U.K.

Food Fun – With the food toy category heating up in Britain, Vivid is expanding its Food Fun line with two new additions: The Chocolate Maker (US$24, spring) and the Marshmallow Maker (US$24, August).

DJ Mixman – A follow-up to last year’s music toy hit VJ Starz, the DJ Mixman (US$80, August) comes complete with microphone and earphones, allowing tweens/teens to mix and record their own hip-hop, rock, rap, pop or techno tracks.

Like Vivid, High Wycombe-based F.E.V.A. is also dependent on sales derived from the distribution of foreign toyco lines, which accounted for 60% of the company’s overall revenues last year, according to managing director Kevin Jones. But F.E.V.A. (whose share of the U.K. toy market currently sits at between 2% and 3%) has several strong offerings of its own, many of which will be showcased for buyers this month at the British Toy Fair.

New to its dollhouse line (which enjoyed a 5% sales boost during the first 10 months of 2002) is My Dream Day Wedding Princess, a playset that allows girls to act out their ideal wedding day. The portable dollhouse (US$80), which girls can fold up and tote to a friend’s house, comes with four figures (bride, groom, bridesmaid and best man), a rotating dance floor with wedding tunes, confetti and more than 70 accessories. The playset is on track for a May debut, and F.E.V.A. is currently developing additional SKUs that will tie into other life events like My Dream Day Vacation and My Dream Day Shopping Adventure. Jones says F.E.V.A. also plans to court potential licensees to create MDD role-play costumes, jewelry and shoes.

The company will also debut Magic Mirror Princess (US$32), a large doll that comes with a handheld mirror/LCD screen. When girls press the doll’s hand, a full-motion color-animated character image appears on the mirror and poses one of six questions to the Princess about her upcoming trip to the ball. According to Jones, the application of the patented technology, which syncs the animated character’s expressions with her voice, marks a first for the doll category. Separately, F.E.V.A. is developing additional mirrors (US$13 each) and a vanity set (US$24), which will grace store shelves in August.

At the opposite end of the toy spectrum is the boy-skewing Extreme Machines, a battery-powered, all-terrain 4×4 truck whose key selling point is that it can climb up and over steep surfaces. Available in four separate SKUs with (US$49.95) or without (US$16) a playset, Extreme Machines come with interchangeable auto parts and three feet of track, which boys can lay out in a challenging array of configurations. Soft-launched at Toys ‘R’ Us in December, the truck will be available at most toy retailers beginning this month.

F.E.V.A. is currently looking for North American distributors for Extreme Machines, Magic Mirror Princess and My Dream Day Wedding Princess.

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