Toy makers have 'iron' will for industry
Feb. 22, 2010
By G. Michael Dobbs
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Local toy manufacturers exhibiting at the annual Toy Fair at the Javits Center in New York City said that while sales might not be significantly improved, there was an optimism among buyers not seen at last year's trade show.
The 2010 edition of the Toy Fair also showed that even the most traditional toys still have a place in the marketplace. From a sock monkey doll to robotic bugs, buyers saw a dizzying array of toys, games, dolls and action figures. Of the 100,000 toys were on display, 7,900 of them were new, according to information supplied by the Toy Industry Association (TIA).
Once again manufacturers seemed hesitant to invest in licensing books, movies or television shows for toys, sticking to tried and true properties with built-in appeal. Several companies were celebrating the 30th anniversary of "The Empire Strikes Back," though, with pens that look like lightsabers, and one company has designed chopsticks to resemble Luke Skywalker's favorite weapon.
Considering the success of the Disney/Pixar film "Up," or the box office explosion of "Avatar," it was a little surprising this reporter saw no products on display from either of those two animated films.
The TIA reported that despite the economic crisis, the unit share for toys priced under $5 decreased in 2009, both for the full year and in the fourth quarter. Consumers weren't buying the cheapest toys, but instead went for items in the $5 to $10 range.
The TIA also noted U.S. retail sales of toys generated $21.47 billion in 2009 compared to $21.65 billion in 2008, a decline of under 1 percent, and the categories showing the most significant increases were Building Sets and Arts & Crafts. The categories that took the biggest drop were Youth Electronics and Plush. Action Figures and Games/Puzzles also saw increases.
Local buyers came away from Toy Fair with different opinions. Rosa Falvo, co-owner of Sister's Kids in Springfield, thought the trade show was "very flat."
"The booths were smaller and showing less product," she said.
Falvo said for her there was "nothing new or exciting."
"It used to be mobbed [with buyers]," she added.
She believed this year's Toy Fair was a reflection of the nation's ongoing economic problems.
On the other hand, Joy Leavitt, co-owner of Kiddly Winks in Longmeadow, thought the Toy Fair was "wonderful."
She beleived that manufacturers and buyers were both upbeat.
Leavitt said she saw many exciting new toys with Hexbugs (covered later in this story) as a standout. She also noted there were many new outdoor products for the summer she intends to carry.
She said she was very excited to fill out her order forms for the new inventory.
For the largest toy company in the world, this year is a year of anniversaries. Monopoly, created in the Depression of the 1930s, is noting its 75th birthday and The Game of Life is turning 50.
The company is also continuing its evolution from being just a toy company to an entertainment company with a third Transformers film planned as well as movies based on the games Battleship, Candyland and Monopoly in various stages of development. Even the company's Ouija board is being given the movie treatment.
On the day this reporter visited the Hasbro showroom, actor Taylor Lautner, the breakout star of "New Moon," was also at the showroom. Lautner has signed up to star in a movie version of the 1970s Hasbro toy Stretch Armstrong.
Robert Downey Jr., who is continuing his role as Iron Man in the second film due out later this year, visited the showroom the previous evening. The company is offering a large line of Iron Man toys.
Hasbro is at the point where other companies are coming to them for licensing Hasbro toys and games into products. Dominos Pizza is adding board games to its pizza boxes and Cheez-It Crackers have a special line of crackers resembling Scrabble letter blocks.
Hasbro, a long time producer of "Star Wars" toys is among the companies noting the 30th year of "The Empire Strikes Back," and is sticking to other well-known names: the new Iron Man movie, Marvel comic book heroes and Disney properties such as "Toy Story 3."
Family Game Night continues to be a success for the company, encouraging families to set aside one night a week to play a board game together. This year, not only will the company be releasing new games such as Funglish, but it will also offer variations of classic games such as Sorry and Scrabble with quicker playtimes.
There will be two new Monopoly board games in honor of its anniversary - Monopoly: Revolution, with a round board and an electronic game unit, as well as Monopoly U Build, in which the players build the game board and determine the length of play.
The toy that caught this reporter's eye, though, was a flying model of Han Solo's spacecraft, the Millennium Falcon. Retailing for $49.99, the remote control spaceship flies like a helicopter.
Also for the "Star Wars" fan is a spinning electronic lightsaber and a two-foot tall toy version of the AT-AT military vehicle seen in "The Empire Strikes Back."
The Chicopee firm that is known for making oversized plastic and metal version of ice cream cones, scissors, baby bottles and many more items as well as offering banks, lights and clocks was displaying new electronic banks with sports themes and novelty clocks this year.
Owner Joel Nulman said the mood of the buyers was better than last year and the traffic at the show was better. While there seemed to be greater optimism, the verdict was still out on whether buyers would spend more at the show.
"It's like fishing and catching," he said. "It's two different games."
The Indian Orchard-based company that sells a wide variety of glow products and party goods was introducing a glow sticker in the shape of a circle or heart at the Toy fair that could be customized.
Company spokesperson Susan Roy said the Spotglow was attracting buyers at the show. Another new product was a glow pirate's eye patch.
Roy said the party good line for the company had good sales last year. She added that buyers did seem more upbeat at this year's show, but were exercising caution.
Thomas Lonergan, executive vice president of the Chicopee-based crafts company, said the surprising hit of last year's sales was a product that had long been part of the company's offerings: sock monkey kits.
Sales, he said, "have been off the charts."
The modest doll was born out necessity during the Depression when families would take used socks and fabricate a monkey doll from them. Lonergan said the company's sock monkey kit sales have "skyrocketed" during the last two years. They have been part of the company's line-up of craft kits for the past 15 years, he added.
Overall, Lonergan said the company has seen solid increases in orders and sales leads. One of the reasons for the sales increase, he believes, is that retailers who did not buy much inventory last year have empty shelves at the same time consumer confidence is growing.
Janlynn acquired a line of sport-oriented craft kits from another company last May that Lonergan said has also proven quite popular. The kits allow kids to customized their own soccer ball, football, baseball, flying disc and skateboard.
The cool and the inexplicable
Want to spend $175 dollars on a doll depicting David Tennant as Dr. Who? The Toy Fair is where one sees such esoteric items. Tonner, the company that manufactures the doll - which is over a foot in size - also makes a Captain Jack doll from the cult hit show "Torchwood."
Or how about chopsticks that look like lightsabers from "Star Wars"? Kotobukiya, a Japanese company that specializes in collectible statues of comic book heroes, is selling chopsticks they say are "suitable for sushi or defending the galaxy."
One of the neatest items was the collection of Hexbugs being demonstrated. Innovation First Labs spokesperson Doug Galletti explained the small robotic creatures are designed to help spark interest in science and technology. The company makes five different robots from a six-legged toy that looks like the cockroach of the future to a crab and now a new model, the Nano, that doesn't have moving legs, but is propelled by vibrations.
The robots retail from $11.99 to $19.99 and the company has designed tracks for the Nano so they can be raced.
The hands-down oddest item, though, was TV Hat, billed as your personal theater. The young woman at the company's booth spotted my press pass and asked if she gave me a TV Hat would I write about it? How could I resist such a bribe?
The TV Hat is a standard baseball hat with a long bill and cloth flaps that create a private little space in front your head. Slip your iPhone or other device that plays video into the special holder at the front of the hat and adjust a magnifying lens and voil ! instant personal theater.
I found the experience rather appealing in a goofy way, but TV Hat may not be for you if you suffer from claustrophobia, the company warns. Also, the company advises not to use the TV Hat to watch a movie and jog or walk at the same time.
The cost? Just $19.95.
Progress is wonderful.
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