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The role-play category booms as kids play at superhero emulation

While they may not be responsible for the larger-than-life superheroes that currently proliferate the entertainment world, toy companies can take credit for the increasing number of pint-sized copycats running the streets these days. The action figure role-play category (wearable accessories that help kids become their favorite hero) has exploded in the last year, prodded by technological innovation, new twists on old ideas, and tie-ins to box-office blockbusters.
September 1, 2003

While they may not be responsible for the larger-than-life superheroes that currently proliferate the entertainment world, toy companies can take credit for the increasing number of pint-sized copycats running the streets these days. The action figure role-play category (wearable accessories that help kids become their favorite hero) has exploded in the last year, prodded by technological innovation, new twists on old ideas, and tie-ins to box-office blockbusters.

According to industry tracker the NPD Group, role-play sales for July to December 2002 increased over 300% compared to the same period in 2001. And while this summer lacked a truly huge superhero hit movie, the category continued to hold its own, dropping only 30% from January to June 2003. With Hollywood gearing up for dozens more comic-based movies in 2004 and 2005 (Sony’s Spider-Man 2, Artisan’s The Punisher and 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four, to name a few), many toycos are betting that the role-play boom will continue.

Last year’s upswing can be largely credited to two SKUs from New York-based Toy Biz (the Spider-Man: Dual Action Web Blaster and the Hulk Hands) and the Star Wars Light Saber line from Hasbro. The Web Blaster, which uses wrist action to shoot foam string from a cannister, offered just the right tech twist on a pretend play pattern and catapulted up the sales charts to rank sixth in overall toy sales in 2002 (NPD). Meanwhile, the Hulk Hands (giant green fists that use motion sensors to create bashing sounds) hit shelves in May and jumped into the top 15 on the toy charts for Q1 and Q2 2003. According to Marvel Entertainment, the hands are the number-one item in the merch program for Hulk, which launched in theaters June 20.

Marvel has no plans to slow production on superhero flicks. Next in line will be the Spider-Man sequel due out in July 2004, and though Toy Biz marketing manager Patricia Rinaldi says it’s too early to talk product specifics, the program for the follow-up film will definitely include a line of role-play toys. ‘It’s a very license-driven category, and it absolutely lends itself to superheroes, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for us,’ she says.

The flurry of activity hasn’t gone unnoticed by other toycos, and several are pumping up their lines to meet increased demand. Power Rangers has long been the role-play king of the small screen, consistently hovering in the category’s top three, and Japanese toyco Bandai has seen its role-play sales jump 70% in the first half of 2003 compared to the same period last year. Director of marketing Matthew Golding says Bandai will be releasing a new wave of role-play toys tied to Power Rangers Dino Thunder this spring – including Morphers, weapons and mega weapons (US$9.99 to US $19.99) – before expanding the line in fall 2004.

Malibu, California-based Jakks Pacific is counting on the stickier nature of TV properties too, following the August release of a line of Dragon Ball Z electronic role-play sets (US$29.99 each) in try-me packaging. Goku’s Kamehameha Wave (a pair of rotocast hands) and Vegeta’s Power Gloves both use motion sensors to make sounds imitating the energy blasts featured in the show. And hitting shelves in spring 2004 will be a laser-tag set called the Super Saiyan Challenge (US$39.99). Gina Lannen, VP of product development at Jakks, says role-play toys used to have to be under US$14 to sell well. But as companies like Toy Biz have proven, customers will spend more if the toy is innovative, uses technology well, and is a perfect fit with its license.

The Power Rangers also helped propel Manley Toy Quest’s action role-play sales up 32% last year, with a line that included electronic gloves and toy weapons. Though it’s too early for details, marketing manager Allyson Serino says the L.A.-based company will be jacking up its role-play line significantly in 2004 with new licenses.

Hasbro also rode the movie-based property wave to the top of the toy charts last year after expanding its line of electronic light sabers tied to Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The product was the number-two role-play SKU in 2002. The toyco will be expanding and repackaging the light saber line this fall to tie in with an animated Star Wars interstitial series bridging the second and third movies that will start airing on Cartoon Network this fall. Jeff Popper, director of retail marketing for Star Wars at Hasbro, says the category will be central to the merch program to go with Star Wars: Episode III, due out in 2005. And the toyco is also currently sifting through its roster of boys properties to find another role-play fit.

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