Consumer Products

Toy Fair 2003: Buyers’ market or PR expense?

Todd McFarlane
February 1, 2003

Todd McFarlane

I remember attending my first Toy Fair in February 1994, shortly after forming McFarlane Toys. Our booth was 8 x 10, and we actually had no product to show.

We took drawings and cutouts of photographs and pasted them onto packaging to get people to notice us and, hopefully, buy our line of Spawn toys.

Our big break came when one of the action figure buyers from Toys ‘R’ Us stopped by and said he would begin purchasing my product. We were off and running.

As time went by, things began to change, starting with the amount of space we required to show our wares. In 1994, we had only one line. Four years later, we were showing six lines and now have more than 15. We ended up leasing a showroom in Manhattan from 1997 until the end of 2002 to accommodate our growth.

During that time, the retail buyer end of the business also evolved. We started selling much sooner than Toy Fair, so we already had commitments by the time buyers got to New York, and Toy Fair became more of a social gathering than a true business event.

We ended up focusing most of our efforts on PR stunts, drawing attention to our products through media interviews and our website ( Over the last several years, we built up our Manhattan showroom, which the buyers increasingly visited because it was just as entertaining to see as the product.

But it was strange that our consumers – who have always had a big influence on my decisions – were never able to attend the event. So on the opening day of Toy Fair 2000, we launched on the website a virtual tour of our showroom that racked up 14 million consumer hits.

For Toy Fair 2002, the virtual showroom received 70 million hits, climbing to 95 million by year’s end. Moving towards this year, it became evident that all of our business is done prior to Toy Fair.

To change things up, we’ve decided to close down our Manhattan office and move a lot of those functions to our home base in Phoenix, Arizona. Now, instead of a five- or 10-day set-up for Toy Fair in February, we’re going to have a 365-day program in Phoenix, constantly revealing new product.

At any time of the year, we can bring buyers in to show them what’s new, as well as open it up to the public. Integrating our consumer and fan base into our day-to-day efforts, while maintaining the same media and PR presence we’ve had in the past and continuing to work with our retailers, strikes the perfect balance.

Our doors are essentially open to anybody who is involved in our success each year. That’s certainly better for business than one big binge in February and then a long wait until the following year for the next big rollout.

Todd McFarlane is the founder and namesake of action figure hotshop McFarlane Toys, comic book publishing company Todd McFarlane Productions (Spawn) and Todd McFarlane Entertainment, a prodco focused on TV animation, feature films, music videos and electronic gaming products.

Tom Conley

Last October, the Toy Industry Association (TIA) announced plans to split the toy industry show calendar into two separate events – a mass-market, early-ordering show in October, followed by Toy Fair in February.

Since then, we’ve seen an industry debate well up about the relevancy of Toy Fair. Some parties say that it’s largely a media-driven event that has become too expensive for manufacturer exhibitors. Naysayers cite this as the reason why some companies have reduced their presence or pulled out altogether.

While it’s true Mattel and Hasbro have realized the advantages of seeing buyers months before Toy Fair to preview upcoming product lines, what hasn’t been recognized is the great opportunity this has created for small- and medium-sized exhibitors. Key toy buyers now have the time to focus on products offered by these companies. In fact, when TIA’s Trade Show Committee interviewed mass-market retailers in 2002, this was one of the main reasons they requested a new trade show calendar.

Regrettably, it’s also true that some toycos, such as McFarlane Toys, have decided to stop exhibiting. Given its targeted product offering, McFarlane chose to close its small Manhattan showroom and conduct all business from its Arizona base. This is a bold action that has been attempted by several companies in the past, many of whom returned to the Toy Fair fold shortly thereafter. We hope that McFarlane’s shift is successful, but the truth is, the jury’s still out on whether this strategy will work. At the same time McFarlane is leaving, Lego is expanding its presence this year with a 1,000-square-foot booth at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in addition to its regular showroom in the Toy District at 1115 Broadway.

Now, to the misconception that Toy Fair is too expensive. I’ve been associated with trade shows for most of my 25-year career, and I have yet to see any company – retailer or manufacturer – beat the cost efficiency (i.e. travel time and transportation charges) of doing business through trade shows. Most companies recognize this business reality, as the growth of Toy Fair in recent years has shown. In 1999, Toy Fair covered 272,000 square feet of exhibitor space at Javits, and we had to turn companies away due to lack of space.

For 2003, we will have more than 335,000 square feet of exhibitor space. Remarkably, we’ve achieved these gains in the face of a shaky economy and worldwide fears about travel. The show also continues to attract 14,000-plus buyers from 83 countries, as well as 9,000 licensors, reps, inventor/design firms, etc.

The numbers speak for themselves. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job. We’re not promising perfection, but our confidence is bolstered – by manufacturers and retailers alike – that our new split calendar will meet the diverse needs of both groups. And remember that our door is always open to suggestions and concerns as we move into the second century of Toy Fair.

Tom Conley is president of the Toy Industry Association (TIA), which owns and manages The American International Toy Fair.

About The Author


Brand Menu