Although the skies remained blizzard-free at this year’s Toy Fair, a different kind of cloud hung over Javits and the Toy District. Attendees spent a fair bit of time speculating about the February show’s future in light of its relatively quiet nature compared to the Fall Mass Market Toy Expo, and a sense of déja vu pervaded the scene as a number of the toys on display had already debuted at October’s show.
Many players say it’s not realistic to expect vendors to continue ploughing money into exhibiting at two shows when they reach most key mass retail buyers at the earlier event. And overseas attendance may be threatened when next year’s dates for the U.K., Hong Kong and Nuremberg toy shows move closer together, making a neat circuit for European/Asian/Australian buyers and potentially eliminating the need to hop the pond to New York.
Right now, both New York shows are on the slate for next season. The fall mass-market event, rechristened the American International Fall Toy Show, is set to run from October 19 to 20, 2004, and Toy Fair 2005′s dates are February 20 to 23.
When they weren’t discussing the merits and future of Toy Fair, show attendees were busy hunting for the next supernova. And although there wasn’t one stand-out toy that seems poised to shoot through the sales stratosphere, there were some key developments to keep an eye on.
The doll category provided quite a bit of action. A hot category in 2003, mini-dolls were sprouting up everywhere. Notably, Bandai is introducing its T*Neez line of three-inch poseable figures with magnetic feet (US$4.99) this fall. The range features 24 characters and a number of accessories, including Magnetic Flairs (L-shaped playsets with lights and sounds that are triggered by the dolls’ tootsies) and Kickin’ Back Cruisers play vehicles.
Hasbro is offering up Secret Central, a group of 20 three-inch dolls (US$4.99) that attend the same high school. Each doll comes with his/her own bio and locker, and girls can keep up with the dolls’ trials and tribulations at www.hasbro.com/secretcentral.
As for bigger girls, Barbie broke up with Ken and then hooked up with Australian surfer Blaine. Like ohmigod, unbelievable. But on a more serious note, the breakup marks the beginning of a significant new brand strategy.
Feeling the heat from MGA’s Bratz in the U.S. market, Mattel discontinued its urban-themed Flavas dolls and is now concentrating on coming up with Barbie backstories to give girls ‘content in their play’ – along the lines of the model established by Barbie Swan Lake in 2003. The company’s new Cali Girls put Barbie and friends on the beach (providing an entrée for Blaine to come into Barbie’s life), and each doll is packaged with a magazine that’s full of character bios, games and activities. My Scene dolls went Jammin’ in Jamaica for spring break, with playsets inspired by a same-name animated DVD adventure that hit shelves with the toys in February. Another themed DVD will come out with the fall line.
Meanwhile, MGA is looking to stage a Bratz-style ambush on the boys action category with its Alien Racers line of remote-control vehicles/characters. Skrash, G’Rog, Nitrox and Gnarl morph from creature to car and come with a backstory CD-ROM to inspire play. The vehicles (US$49.99) will hit stores in early fall 2004, and MGA is talking about a TV series for 2005.
Lego is also beefing up its boys action brand portfolio with a Bionicle-esque toy range called Knight’s Kingdom. The good-vs-evil backstory to the line centers around a kingdom that’s under siege by a dark knight and the efforts of a group of heroic knights to reclaim the land. The knights (US$7.99) are packaged in a turret-like container and come with collectible shield cards, which can be used to play a card game similar to that childhood classic War.
Interactivity and animatronics were the biggest trends this year, with San Francisco’s Wild Planet bringing the successful Japanese line of super-cute interactive Aquapets (US$9.99 mass/US$14.99 specialty) to the North American market. The nine virtual pets sing songs and respond to their owner’s voice and to each other when they’re grouped together. They’ll hit four Toys ‘R’ Us stores this month, with a full roll-out planned for later in the year. And a SpongeBob SquarePants Aquapet will be available in Canada this summer.
Interestingly, Bandai is set to relaunch its late-’90s Tamagotchi line. The virtual pets will have larger screens and are scheduled to hit retail sometime later this year.
Fresh from its TIA Toy of the Year Award victory for Hokey Pokey Elmo, Fisher-Price introduced E-L-M-O (US$29.99). This new doll, available in July, seemingly defies the laws of physics by bending sideways while standing on one foot, singing and spelling out his name to the tune of ‘YMCA’ by the Village People.
Mattel’s new Batman toys featuring Video Encoded Invisible Light (VEIL) technology made quite a stir at the market. When kids sit down to watch fall-launching Kids’ WB! TV series The Batman with these action figures in hand, the toys will pick up embedded digital data on-air and start whirring, bleeping and moving along with the show’s action. A Batmobile (US$51.99) that’s coming out in October will start up and turn on its lights when the one on TV does, and kids can download cues from the show onto their remotes for later play.
Wow Wee Toys’ 14-inch Robosapien (US$99) robot registered at the top of this year’s cool meter. Triggered by a remote control, the interactive ‘humanoid’ performs up to 67 functions like dancing and giving high-fives. It also responds to touch and sound signals, has sensors in its feet to detect obstacles, and can pick up your dirty socks and fetch you a drink.
The early learning toy category is about to enter a new tech era when Fisher-Price launches InteracTV in July. Using a regular DVD player with a special controller and activity cards, this US$39.99 system lets kids under seven answer questions posed by on-screen characters from preschool shows like Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Each DVD (US$15) comes with three different activity cards, and the questions are randomized.
VTech will intro the first learning-themed video game system for kids ages three to seven in the fall. V.Smile (US$59.99) has an oversized joystick/controller and aims to help kids learn language and math skills through interactive problem-solving games. It will hit shelves with a library of 10 Smartridges (US$19.99 each) featuring Scooby-Doo, Care Bears and various Disney characters.