A quick stroll around the carpeted halls of Jacob K. Javits Convention Center during American International Toy Fair, which took place in New York City in February, told visitors almost all they needed to know about the state of the toy industry as we open the books on 2009.
Gone (for the most part) were the costumed characters, the bells, whistles and break-neck pace of years past. And during a week when the unveiling of a doll modelled after Ponzi-scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff made the news scroll in Times Square, it became evident that the current economic turmoil in the US was top of mind for exhibitors and delegates.
Of course, the major toycos enthusiastically rolled out their spring and fall 2009 lines, but underlying the toned down pomp and circumstance was a mood of caution and restraint.
‘It seemed a little less busy and with a more conservative tone,’ observed Toy Fair vet and NPD Group industry analyst Anita Frazier. ‘But it’s no different from any industry in that regard; it’s just the state of the nation right now.’
The latest NPD toy industry stats validate the conservative approach most toy makers are taking in 2009. According to the latest numbers, US retail sales of toys generated US$21.64 billion in 2008, representing a 3% decline from the previous year. The fourth quarter fared worse, marking a 5% drop from the same period in 2007.
So it’s not surprising that many of the bigger players at Toy Fair were focused on presenting well-priced product. Take Malibu, California-based Jakks Pacific. The toyco rolled out a whack of goods with SRPs under US$25. For example, its new Road Champs GX mini-racing line is aiming to take on Spin Master’s Tech Deck in the mini finger vehicle category (one of the few bright lights in terms of growth in 2008) and offers multi-packs starting at US$11.99 and motorized launch and track sets for US$14.99. The skate line that features the same track technology in a skateboarding context includes a starter set for US$9.99 and a full quarter pipe for US$9.99.
El Segundo, California-based Mattel, meanwhile, kept price front-and-center for its major rollouts, including the anticipated Cartoon Network Secret Saturdays range. Slated to land at US retailers in June, the line features collectible figures for US$6.49 and up to full playsets in the US$14 to US$16 range. The Cryptipedia, a handheld accessory that can detect and read each collectible item and digitally display facts about its origins, tops out at US$29.99.
Also wallet conscious was Toronto, Canada’s Spin Master that made the expansion of bestseller Bakugan Battle Brawlers a priority. It’s adding play pieces to the line that should put a new wrinkle in Bakugan gameplay. There are traps – including the Cube, Coin, Drum and Pyramid that spring open when rolled and capture other game pieces – heading to stores this spring at US$7.49 a pop. On the girls’ side, Spin Master is putting a new twist on the standby pretend play category with the Magic Reveal line. Using nothing more than a light spray of water, the playthings resembling a breakfast set (US$7.99) and a full stove set with pots and pans (US$24.99) create fully cooked meals.
San Francisco, California-based Wild Planet took emphasis on price point to the Nth degree by placing stickers everywhere that proclaimed ‘All Toys Under $25.’ Even within its popular boys Spy Gear line, the company is offering tech-heavy toys like the Laser Tripwire, Spy Night Scope and Micro Ear Gear for between US$10 and US$25.
Additionally, Easton, Pennsylvania-based Crayola had people talking with the debut of Crayola Color Explosion 3-D, a kit which lets kids create multi-dimensional drawings with special markers, paper and 3-D glasses. The Explosion comes in two sets, one for US$9.99 and one for US$14.99. The re-playability of the sets make them an especially value-conscious proposition.
However, as Frazier points out, price point isn’t everything. ‘I think there might have been too much emphasis on just pure price point,’ she says. ‘I think the emphasis on price value was key. There were some very interesting innovations in that area.’ And Frazier argues that parents are not just looking to spend less money, but they’re also interested in getting more for the money they do spend. She adds that a number of these toys are relatively inexpensive, compared to other forms of kid entertainment like video game systems or even tickets to a live event.
To wit, Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro has tweaked its animatronics plush line Furreal Frends with the introduction of additional SKUs, including Lulu, My Cuddlin’ Kitty. The spookily realistic pet preens and meows like a real cat might and will even lick and roll over. At a price point of US$54.99, it’s costlier than most of the items showcased this year, but the playability and times-used numbers mediate the upfront spend. Notably, the cat’s cost also falls far below the company’s bestselling Furreal Butterscotch Pony, which met with accolades galore upon its intro in 2006 and had a price tag that sat north of US$200 to match.
Hasbro hasn’t eschewed its cost-conscious side entirely, and is miniaturizing the same tech for its Furreal Friends Teacup Pup line. At under US$20 apiece, the pint-sized pups open and close their eyes, respond to being petted and make puppy sounds.
But perhaps one toy in particular embodied the spirit of this year’s event. Found in a tiny booth deep in the bowels of Javits was the aptly named The Cricket Toy. Nashville, Tennessee-based Kardandak Enterprises sells the little plastic bug-shaped green guy for US$7.99. The device simply chirps twice when you squeeze a button on its back – it’s meant to fill those awkward pauses when jokes fall flat or news is received with less enthusiasm than expected. Let’s hope toyco execs don’t need to start snapping these babies up when it comes time to unveil their Q1 numbers this month.