Anatomy of a Hit

Parents stormed the toy aisles this past holiday shopping season in search of Amazing Amanda, Playmates Toys' surprise best-selling doll. And the toyco delivered, managing to keep shelves stocked and countless girls happy.
February 1, 2006

Parents stormed the toy aisles this past holiday shopping season in search of Amazing Amanda, Playmates Toys’ surprise best-selling doll. And the toyco delivered, managing to keep shelves stocked and countless girls happy.

It’s a common story. Almost every holiday season, parents run from store to store, desperate to get the hot toy. And while everyone in the industry knows there will be hits each season, it’s often difficult to predict which pony will be the first past the post. After all, who saw the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo phenomena coming in the ’80s and ’90s? But what if it’s your toy that is all of the sudden flying off the shelves? Sure, it’s a thrilling prospect, but how do you ensure your product makes it to retail in time to satisfy demand without flooding the market and winding up in clearance bins?

Costa Mesa, California-based Playmates Toys had a Kentucky Derby-like champ this year with Amazing Amanda. Stories appeared all over the media about how tough it was to find the interactive doll that not only responds to voices, but also to having different accessories placed in her hands. The doll’s nurturing play pattern proved a smashing success with girls ages five- to- eight, ending up as the top-dollar volume generator in the large doll category in 2005 – even at a steep US$99.99 a pop.

Playmates COO John Sinclair admits the company was somewhat surprised Amanda took off as quickly as she did. But with some careful planning and close market monitoring, the toyco was able to strike a balance between getting enough product out, and not leaving retailers with a ton of overstock.

Calling the play

Playmates looked closely at several factors when determining sales projections for Amanda. First, Sinclair says, you need to know your market, and that includes factoring in the competition. In Amanda’s case, age compression and its narrowing of target demos for dolls was an important consideration. ‘In years past we could define a far broader demographic for the doll business,’ he says, noting the company is now very careful to take the winnowed audience size into account when estimating market capacity. ‘And we knew we were going to be alone in the doll category,’ he explains. It’s been dominated by a lot of private label SKUs and fairly standard nurturing and caring products in recent years, and Playmates saw an opportunity to up the ante.

Amanda is the latest in a long line of Amazing-branded dolls, which launched in 1997 and racked up US$250 million in sales before it was discontinued in 2001. Sinclair says the doll’s brand equity led the toyco to forecast somewhat more aggressively than if it was a newcomer to the space.

But price point also played a role. In fact, Playmates ceased producing the original line in ’01 because the company felt it had exhausted the affordable toy technology available at the time. However, once the toyco found a reliable voice-recognition technology to take the Amanda line to a new level, the cost had dropped enough to support mass production but not enough to hit the more desirable US$50 price point. ‘We had to decide very early in the process if we could set a new standard in doll play that would warrant a higher price point,’ Sinclair says.

The single most important tool in making projections (as for any new SKU, really) was the point of sale data coming in from retail partners. Sinclair says the data is painstakingly scrutinized during the first week of sales, then monitored over the second, third and eighth week of the TV campaign. ‘It is a TV-driven category, and we have to make sure that we’re responsive. We’re anticipating what may happen [in November/December] as early as mid-September, and adjusting our inventory to reflect trends.’

The company was well aware the more complicated a product is, the more difficult it is to turn off or increase the flow of the production tap. Playmates had to work closely with its manufacturing facility and vendors to ensure that raw materials and component parts were available, and production capacity was reserved in the event that Amanda hit pay-dirt. The forethought paid off: When the POS data suggested runaway sales, all the materials were available to fast-track production and even more dolls could start rolling off the assembly line.

It takes anywhere from eight- to- 10 weeks once manufacturing has started to get a toy to U.S. retailers. Maintaining that window is key to restocking shelves for the November and December crunch, based on earlier POS reads. But without due preparation, those eight weeks can quickly become 14. Playmates kept on top of the window in Amanda’s case, but Sinclair says things can unravel quickly.

‘If we haven’t made those decisions early enough, then we’re starting from scratch, and that’s when the system breaks down and you’re stuck staring at empty shelves in mid-November,’ Sinclair says, adding Playmates shortcut the lead time from the factory door to its domestic warehouse. ‘The front end is where we can realize the most time savings.’

Exercising your marketing muscles

Precisely timed marketing efforts also played a big role in Amanda’s success last year. Sinclair says the doll’s high price point and unique abilities called for a concentrated trade and consumer media campaign well in advance of airing traditional TV ads. Press coverage further helped solidify the product’s abilities as a must-have in the minds of parents.

‘For an item like this, it’s not an impulse purchase,’ Sinclair says. ‘If you haven’t set the hook and established it in the eyes of little girls as the toy they want for Christmas by December 11, you’re not going to turn the tide at that late date.’

Even with the best marketing in the world, the last chance to communicate with the consumer still has to be the strongest – the packaging. Playmates had to get the merits of the doll across as loudly as possible on-pack to justify the US$99.99 price tag.

Because the box itself was so big, the toyco designed it to be merchandised both horizontally and vertically, making it an easy fit for retailers’ planograms. The box came with a fifth panel that, when opened, showed the doll and all her accessories and the inside flap provided a clear outline of her features. Sinclair says the company opted against the popular try-me packaging, because it didn’t want to run the risk of users running the batteries dry prematurely. Plus, try-me couldn’t showcase all of Amanda’s talents, possibly leaving consumers with an impression that talking was the sum of her abilities. The doll’s full functionality only becomes apparent after she’s been programmed.

Sinclair says Amanda’s sales performance last year has affected the company’s plans for this year. ‘We’re now confident we can maintain and extend the brand at that price,’ he says. Playmates is hard at work crafting the next generation of Amazing dolls. First up is Amazing Allysen (US$99.99), set to bow this fall. With functionality similar to Amanda, Allysen hits on a best-friend play pattern that should appeal to the aspirations of an older six- to nine-year-old demo – but different enough that it shouldn’t cannibalize Amanda’s market.

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