W hen a sizzling category begins to fizzle, risk-taking and reinvention become the building blocks of manufacturer comeback strategies. That’s certainly been the story of the construction toy category over the past year. Following a red-hot 2001 in which sales rocketed by 22% – thanks largely to the strong showings posted by Lego’s Bionicle line and Harry Potter and Star Wars SKUs – the category fell back to Earth last year. According to NPDFunworld, sales for July to November dipped by 20% compared to 2001 figures for the same period.
So rather than offer slightly different variations of last year’s stock – often the modus operandi when coming off a hot year – toycos are going after new kid demos and incorporating new play patterns into their 2003 lines.
Hatfield, Pennsylvania-based K’NEX – which racked up a 20% sales increase in 2002 – is constructing a preschool range called Kid K’NEX that features chunky, colorful parts that connect to form a person, animal or thing. Each set (US$10 to US$20) comes with plastic eyes, ears, nose and mouth, as well as a storage case that kids can build on. The line marks the first time that K’NEX has designed a product for customers younger than age six – an age bracket that the company can no longer afford to ignore. ‘Research has shown that if kids aren’t into building – or your company’s style of building – by age five, you have a very low chance of ever recruiting them,’ says VP of worldwide marketing Chris Campbell.
For its core six-plus demo, K’NEX will roll out ReKonstructors (US$9.99) this June. Designed for quick construction, the action figure line consists of parts that kids can piece together into one of three different battle modes – attack, escape or scout. According to ReKonstructor lore, heroes (the Pilots) and villains (the Creatures) battle for one another’s ‘powercores’ to gain greater abilities. Each of the ReKonstructors (which will be available in higher-end versions for between US$20 and US$35) comes with a comic book outlining building tips and scenarios in which ReKonstructors must alter their battle mode. Though Campbell concedes that there are similarities to Hasbro’s Zoids and Lego’s Bionicle, he says the multi-mode feature offers a major point of difference.
Montreal, Canada’s Mega Bloks, which posted a sales hike of more than 30% over the first three quarters of 2002, is also toying with new play patterns in 2003. Alien Agency, the latest addition to the toyco’s micro line, also offers a new twist on boys construction play with the addition of creative activities. Alien Agency consists of five playset SKUs (D.N.A. Lab, Hangar 18, Mobile Recovery Unit, Burger Barn and Freaky Fill-Up) that transform from pedestrian-looking vehicles and environments into science labs. The line’s underlying premise is that the Agency is protecting Earth from an alien takeover.
Lead SKU D.N.A. Lab (US$40) is an unassuming red brick building that opens up to reveal a laboratory in which elite government operatives conduct tests on aliens. Each set comes with plastic agent figures and aliens, as well as colored dough or bioplasm that kids can place into molds to create their own gnarly extraterrestrials. All five SKUs come with a manual/comic book containing Agency background info and how-to instructions for using household items like flour, cornstarch and food coloring to create additional bioplasm.
Mega Bloks introduced the creative play element in Alien Agency partly to attract more five-year-olds, a demo the company wasn’t capturing through other items in its micro line, says director of marketing and communications Susan Spiegel.
Although Mega Bloks’ 2002 success rests on the popularity of its proprietary product ranges like the medieval-themed Dragons line, the company is moving into licensing more aggressively this year with a variety of lines tied to Disney licenses Winnie the Pooh, Power Rangers and Disney’s Princesses. The latter will be featured in the company’s new Mega Play line for preschoolers. Containing large colored panels, the Mega Play system lets kids construct a life-size Disney Princess castle in which they can stand up. The Mega Play SKUs (US$59.99 each, July) also include generic items like a castle and a pioneer fort.
Though category leader Lego has successfully attracted girls with its Harry Potter SKUs, the construction toy aisle is still geared towards boys, who make up 85% of the segment’s customer base. So Lego is aiming to bring more girls into the fold with its new arts-and-crafts line Clikits.
Targeting girls ages six to 10, the Clikits designer kits (US$3.99 to US$29.99) allow girls to create hair accessories, jewelry, handbags and décor items such as pillows and notepad holders.
Rather than using the standard Lego blocks, Clikits come with a variety of units called icons and bases that girls can click together. According to Lego spokeperson Michael McNally, Clikits tap into the elements of self-expression and customization that are important to girls in the six to 10 age range.
At press time, Lego was close to signing a marketing deal with a tween girl entertainment property to help promote the Clikits line.