Western Mass. shines at Toy Fair
By G. Michael Dobbs
LEGO System's re-designed Mindstorms NXT is impressive. Reminder Publications submitted photo
NEW YORK, NY Western Massachusetts toy companies came to the American International Toy Fair last week with a positive message about the state of their business.
Representatives from Hasbro Games of East Longmeadow, Omniglow of West Springfield and LEGO Group from bordering Enfield, Conn., all had good things to say not only about their new lines of products, but about the financial state of the industry at the American International Toy Fair that took place from Feb. 12 through 15.
According to the Toy Industry Association's most recent annual report on toy sales, there was a five percent decline in overall sales from November 2003 to October 2004. The decline, according to the report could be attributed to a variety of factors including "age compression" in which children are being interested in more sophisticated toys at increasingly younger ages to the lack of trendy licensed products.
In two categories important to the region, building sets went from $706.5 million in sales during November 2002 to Oct. 2004 to $614.8 million from November 2003 to October 2004. During the same two periods games and puzzles went from $2.5 billion to $2.3 billion.
More recent statements show that in 2005, local companies were on the rebound. According to a press release issued in October 2005, Hasbro reported, "Revenues in the games segment were $252.9 million for the [third] quarter compared to $236.5 million a year ago," the release reported. The increase was seen due to strength in both board and electronic games.
A press release dated Feb. 15 from the LEGO Group corporate office in Denmark cited, "The LEGO Group's results before tax have improved considerably from a loss of DKK 1,688 million in 2004 to a profit of DKK 702 million in 2005.
"Also the Group's financial resources (cash at bank and in hand less short-term debt) have improved considerably from a negative DKK 82 million to a positive DKK 2,604 million at Dec, 31, 2005."
All representatives of the three companies reported a good response from the attendees of the annual trade show, despite the fact that the record-setting snowfall on the first day of the show cancelled flights and tied up traffic for several days. The Fair draws distributors and retail buyers from around the world.
The Fair is conducted in two locations in the city the "Toy District" and the Jacob Javits Convention Center. There was far less security at the toy showroom buildings at the intersection of 25th and Broadway than in previous years and there less ballyhoo efforts as well. In past years, costumed characters handing out promotional items were common in front of the showroom buildings. This year there were none and many of the showroom themselves were not occupied.
At the Javits Center there were much fewer samples and give-aways than this reporter noticed in the past five years of covering the Fair.
Julie Stern, who works in brand marketing for the construction toy company, said that 2005 was an "amazing year" for the company and said the company has new additions to its line that should build on its recent successes.
The Creator series is one of the new additions. Designed for children aged six and up, the series features kits in which from three to eight models can be built. The X-Pod line, which is now in the third year, carries on the theme of multiple choices in a smaller package designed to for children on the go. Each X-Pod has the material for three different models per kit robots, dinosaurs, helicopters and cars are among the subjects.
Stern pointed out additions to the Technics lines for skilled builders aged eight and up that included a tow truck featuring 1,831 pieces and a motor box to power the model.
Another older line with new additions is the City line and among them is a 401-piece airplane model complete with pilot and ground crew.
Licensing plays an important role at LEGO, and the company introduced a new Batman line of construction toys at the show. Stern said the license includes characters and images from the comic books, the recent animated television series and the movies. Kits include several different Batmobiles, the Batwing plane and a Batcave playscape.
Nickelodeon also plays a major role in the new LEGO line. The company secured the rights to the entire catalog of Nickelodeon properties and has come out with a SpongeBob Squarepants group of toys among its initial effort. Children can build the Krusty Krab, as well as SpongeBob himself.
The other brand in the Nickelodeon line several kits based on the series Avatar the Last Airbender.
Stern said that 2005 was "huge" for the company's Star War toys and that LEGO has extended its license until 2011. Among the new kits are Jabba the Hutt's Sail Barge, complete with eight Star Wars mini-figures.
Bionicle is returning for a sixth year, Stern said, with the characters coming in new packaging featuring a different story line and swords that light up.
Imagine building a computerized toy that can be programmed for tasks as complex as sorting M&M candies by color? Mindstorms NXT is an updated version of a LEGO kit that has been sold since 1998. Stern explained that the kit has been completed updated so that a child can use his or her PC or Mac computer to download through a USB cable a program into one of thousands of model possibilities. The robots have ultrasonic, light, touch and sound sensors. The kit also is Bluetooth enabled. The kit is designed for children aged 10 and up.
A new initiative for the company is through its LEGO Builders of Tomorrow program. Children are encouraged to donate one or more of their LEGO bricks and send drawings, photos or notes describing something they think would help New Orleans become a strong city again. Each child who donates one or more of their bricks will receive a LEGO-studded rubber bracelet to recognize their contribution to the cause.
In a recent press release, Michael McNally, senior brand relations manager, LEGO Systems, said, "We are thrilled to launch a program that supports one of the largest and most important rebuilding efforts in contemporary American history. Of the 117 public schools in New Orleans, only 15 of them are currently open. We want to inspire children and families everywhere to stay mindful of this massive undertaking, but also to contribute in a playful way to a program that provides opportunities for children in New Orleans to imagine, learn and have fun, all the while knowing their peers across the country care about their well being."
For additional details on how to participate in the program, log onto http://www.legobuildersoftomorrow.com/be.html.
Toy-making giant Hasbro's 2005 line-up features old favorites in new incarnations, plus a blend of both high and low technology.
For instance, Mr. Potato Head is coming in an Easter edition. The light bulb has been replaced with a heating element in the E-Z Bake Oven, and SpongeBob Squarepants has a Monopoly set to call his own.
The company is celebrating two birthdays as well. Play-doh is 50 years old and the venerable card game Rooke has reached the century mark.
Plus the company has answered the prayers of every girl who wanted a pony but couldn't with Butterscotch.
Butterscotch" is a new member of the company's Furreal Friends line, explained Patricia Riso, the vice president of public relations for Hasbro Games. Unlike the other electronic plush toys in the brand, Butterscotch is big about one third the size of a real pony. It features moving eyes, ears and head, soft fur coat and a swishing tail as well as the ability for her to "feel" when she is being groomed. She will whinny or snort her approval. Children can even "feed" her and she will support up to 200 pounds.
Butterscotch runs on batteries and will be available this fall at a suggested price of $299.99.
The best part of Butterscotch is there is nothing to clean up.
Riso noted the company believes that "tween" girls those ages between 10 and 13 has been under-served in the game world and the company developed several new products for them.
That's So Raven is a licensed board game from the popular Disney Channel television series in Raven herself gives advice.
Designer's World is a video game that allows the players to create their own fashions, select their models and present a fashion show. They also have to face the critics!
Although not just aimed at tweens, the new "Twister Dance DVD" is designed to replicate video arcade dancing games. Players try to re-create the dance steps they see on the DVD on a mat. The game gets kids up and active, Riso said.
The new Twister game requires good memory skills, as does the new version of the electronic favorite Simon. Simon Trickster just doesn't require players to repeat a musical sequence. It will change the rules of the game as play goes along.
Cosmic Catch is an electronic catching game in which the ball tells you to whom it should be thrown.
The long-time board and dice game Yahtzee has also seen a big change with a new edition, Yahtzee Turbo.
The goal of these changes is to create games with "faster, more robust game play," Riso explained. Another example of a high-tech overhaul is that Clue now has a DVD edition that provides visual clues.
Hasbro Games is the largest producers of puzzles in the world, Riso said, and the company is introducing a new division that will place puzzle-making kiosks in amusement parks and malls across the country. An adult or child can select one of several backgrounds, sit for a digital photograph and then two minutes later have a personalized puzzle. The company expects to roll out 50 of the kiosks in the first year of the program.
There is now both a junior and adult line of Quizzles, puzzles that combine a quiz with a puzzle challenge and additions to the company's three-dimensional puzzles of great buildings.
For the generation lost in the 1980s, there will be a new edition of Trivial Pursuit with four collectable'80s tokens The Trapper Keeper, Compact Disc, Care Bear, and Rubik Cub as well as 2,400 questions about the decade.
The West Springfield-based world leader in glow stick technology has come to the Toy Fair in past years with novelties that center around several times of the year Halloween and Fourth of July as well as some items designed for parties.
This year, though, the company's line has changed dramatically, Randy Weinstein, executive director of Omniparty, explained that the acquisition of a party goods company.
Weinstein was brought in to develop a new product line that would combine the assets of both companies. The result is a line of party goods and novelties that are "now more everyday," he said.
Now along with the company's glow cups, leis, jewelry, necklaces, and sticks are balloons, candles and novelty packs.
The glow technology has been added to such new products as congratulation ribbons. Weinstein said the new items feature "spot glow" the liquid glow technology in a non-glass casing. The spot glow technology is also used in a line of light-up lollipops as well.
Weinstein said the company also coordinated its packaging for a more uniform look.
The company was demonstrating two items that are not yet on sale at the Fair as well. Weinstein pointed a plastic gun in the air and with a pull of a trigger there was an explosion of confetti that flat through the air. He said the gun uses cartridges of confetti that consumers will be able to buy.
The other product, which will be on say in 2007, is glow in the dark bubbles. Children will be able to blow bubbles that they can see in a darkened room. Weinstein said that the bubble liquid is non-toxic and non-staining.
Ira Leemon, the chairman of Omniglow, is also heading up a separate new business from Omniglow's West Springfield location. Leemon is now the American distributor for a line of candy and toys from Great Britain called Sweet Cred.
Stephanie Lepsch, the operations officer of the new business, explained that Sweet Cred a play on the phrase "street credibility" packages toys and candy together at an affordable price point. She said the thrust of the distribution would be convenience stores.
The Sweet Cred brand features a variety of toy and candy combinations. Lepsch demonstrated one in which a tube of candy is topped by a small remote car complete with batteries. It will retail for $2.99.
Jackpot Bags are the company's more expensive item. These contain toys and candy centered on a play theme and there is a line for girls and another for boys. They will sell for $4.99.
Another item is Wristlickers, a snap-on bracelet with a lollipop-style hard candy under a plastic dome. The dome protects the candy in between licks and once the candy is eaten there is a light than can be turned on for additional play value.
Western Massachusetts inspirations
Eric Carle, the children's book artist whose museum is in Amherst, was fairly prominent at the Toy Fair with seven different companies carrying his books, games and toys.
Dr. Seuss was also represented with a number of products including a line of hats from Elope. The new hats include a Oh The Places You Will Go inspired graduation mortarboard and several hats featuring Horton the elephant.
Springfield's own GeeBee racing planes from the 1930s are the subject of detailed wooden models from Toys Models Corporation. The mahogany planes are hand-carved in the Philippines and the company was offering two different GeeBees in its current catalog.