When it comes to US toy sales, and those of most consumer products for that matter, there were few bright lights in 2009. So it’s surprising that one of the categories that’s grown despite the economic storm raging at retail is one that at first glance seems antithetical to the budget-conscious ethos currently driving US consumer behavior. Yes, the robots may be taking over.
Robotic toys have come some way since WowWee introduced its game-changing Robosapien in 2004. Priced at under US$99, the first cost-effective, mass-produced robotic plaything went on to sell four million units and revolutionized the consumer robot category. Six years later, the category seems to be providing fertile ground for expansion and innovation.
According to The NPD Group’s toy and video games analyst Anita Frazier, the robotic/interactive playmates category generated US$210 million in sales at US retailers in the 12 months between October 2008 and 2009, experiencing 23% growth over the same time period the year prior. It’s a sizable bump when, at press time, the toy industry was on track to mark a 2% decrease in overall sales for the year. Manufacturers, naturally, are keen to capitalize, and visitors to Toy Fair, taking place in New York this month, should expect to see a number of innovative takes on the category.
For its part, WowWee is introducing Roboscooper. The dumptruck-like gizmo incorporates all the technological advances made over the past several years, including the ability to detect objects lying in its path and pick them up. However, it’s telling how Amy Weltman, WowWee VP of marketing, chooses to describe the new offering. ‘He’s become a playmate,’ she says. ‘He’s friendly; he’s interactive in terms of speech and actions.’
And when it hits major retail this fall, Roboscooper will also have two more notable features – a price-point under US$80 and a younger target demo. Moving away from the established US$99 benchmark, WowWee is pushing the SRP down to US$79.99 and targeting a much younger demo than Robosapien did. ‘This is something that has always been in our brand plans,’ says Weltman. ‘Initially our target was older, but now we are re-directing our marketing efforts to an almost preschool-age market. Our message is probably less tech and more friendly play and interactivity.’
The migration of the robot category down to the preschool demo is something that major toycos are also pursuing. Fisher-Price, for example, is following up its 2006 Imaginext Mega T-Rex with Big Foot the Monster (US$99) this summer. With deals to place the new product on shelves at major US retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us, Target and Walmart, the robot has been designed specifically for preschoolers.
Big Foot can walk forward and backwards and is controlled with an easy-to-use remote. It can also laugh, pound its fists, raise its arm, sleep and play catch. ‘Instead of making our robotic toys look like robots, we design a cool character and really focus on building personality,’ says Shehnaz Safiuddin, director of marketing for Fisher-Price.
It’s a familiar refrain for the category and one of the factors pushing product forward. In terms of technology, manufacturers and designers are looking for technological advances that will enhance the hard-to-define notion of personality, which seems to be the Holy Grail for younger-targeted robots.
‘The key is to show parents and grandparents the value of the product and the long-lasting, grow-with-me nature of these sorts of items,’ says Safiduddin.
Of course, category game changers often seem to come out of nowhere and would-be robotic toy makers are now entering the market with technological chops and more modest budgets. One case in point is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Bossa Nova Robotics, which is making its first official Toy Fair appearance this year. The small firm has developed and marketed two complete lines of consumer robots under the I Love Robots banner.
Skewing towards boys eight and up is Bossa Nova’s Prime-8, a wheeled, somewhat temperamental gorilla that can run on numerous surfaces and perform a variety of tricks. ‘He can tap dance if you clap, and if you wake him up while he’s sleeping, there is a short circuit that makes him upset,’ says Sarjoun Skiff, Prime-8 inventor and partner at Bossa Nova. ‘He has a wide range of activities to encourage a mastery play pattern – you learn how to play with him to get the best results.’
And for kids under eight, there’s Penbo. The furry, pear-shaped penguin can play five games, including hide and seek, speaks a unique dialect known as ‘Pinglish’ and even comes with a surprise egg that hatches a smaller robot with whom it can interact.
The initial versions of Prime-8 and Pembo retail for US$99 and US$69 respectively, and have been sold across Europe, the UK and Russia. Bossa Nova is now approaching North American retailers for distribution, putting an SRP of US$79.99 on Prime-8.
What’s enabling manufacturers to maintain price-points that far exceed the under-US$25 sweetspot for toys is the cool factor. ‘Parents are looking for interaction and for quality,’ says WowWee’s Waltman, explaining that prices upwards of US$129 haven’t hampered sales of robotic products for the likes of Hasbro and Mattel.
Safiuddin, from Fisher-Price, agrees. ‘Parents are certainly thinking twice about spending,’ he says. ‘But we have found that when a toy is really cool and interactive, parents may choose to buy one for Christmas or birthdays rather than spend the same amount on more things.’ Safiuddin points to the success of Fisher-Price’s own US$140 Spike the Ultra Dinosaur, released in 2008, as a prime example of a relatively higher-priced item finding success in tight economic times.
‘Robot toys are inherently more expensive simply because the technology is more expensive,’ adds Bossa Nova’s Skiff. ‘But you play with it for a longer time, and that is a value-add. Preserving the low cost is challenging, but we have a proven product now so we are excited to enter the US market with that cost structure.’
To see where the roughly quarter-billion-dollar category might be headed, one can look to upstart Sandbox Innovations, based in New York. Chiefly a a designer of robots for search-and-rescue missions, the small shop is looking to find a partner to take its patent-pending robot technology to retail shelves.
‘We have basically taken a US$70,000 robot and turned it into what could be a US$60 product at retail,’ says founder Joel Weingarten. ‘We have pushed the technology into a different space in terms of interactivity and locomotion, and now we are looking for a traditional licensing deal.’
The prototype that resembles an insect is unique in that it’s a legged creature that can scamper over any terrain and is equipped with advanced sensors that propel real-time interactions. It can follow a child and react to sounds in an eerily natural manner.