February 14, 2007 9:43 AM PST

Has the toy industry screeched to a halt?

NEW YORK--If you were a kid 15 years ago, or even 20 years ago, you likely would have found the current selection of products at the American International Toy Fair to be far more familiar than you might have expected.

Some of the biggest attractions at the Toy Fair, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, were Legos, action figures, Nerf guns, Barbie dolls, Klutz books, K-Nex building sets, and Transformers--all things that most twentysomethings and thirtysomethings would undoubtedly recognize from their younger years. Sure, some of the plastic pistols now have laser-sight features, and most of the action figures can talk, but these toys would still be far more recognizable to a child of the 1980s or '90s (or even '70s) than a Wii would be to a gamer who knew only the Super Nintendo system, or an iPod would be to a Walkman listener.

"If we were to constantly change the base, which is our figure, we would lose recognition."
--Michelle Winfrey, marketing manager, Playmobil USA

In short, the toy world seems to be evolving at a noticeably slower pace than the rest of this rapidly changing 21st-century world. And it raised the question for this reporter: is this a sign of healthy stability in the toy industry, or a sign that it may be losing ground to video games and the Internet?

Video and computer game manufacturers were entirely absent from the show floor at the Toy Fair, and the companies that were dabbling in tech-savvy toys tended to be major corporations with their own electronics branches. Hasbro, for example, was featuring a new online version of the Magic: The Gathering card game, the kid-oriented NetJet gaming system from its Tiger Electronics brand, and I-List, a party game for teens and grown-ups that involves searching for songs on MP3 players' playlists. But Hasbro's gadgetry, along with Lego's programmable MindStorms robots and a handful of toys with online tie-ins, were the exception to the rule.

Some toy brands, it seems, have adopted a strategy of churning out branded or modified versions of essentially the same product--themed variations of the Monopoly board game, Sea-Monkey aquarium kits with pirate or spy decorations--rather than innovating. To this reporter, it seemed like a sign of stagnation and perhaps an indicator that the toy industry has passed the innovation torch on to its oft-rivals in the video game and Web realms. Toy manufacturers, however, were quick to insist that their approach is intentional: continuity in a product line is a how they create and maintain brand loyalty. Playmobil, for example, has been making the same 3-inch-tall smiling figurines for decades and has no plans to alter the formula.

"If we were to constantly change the base, which is our figure, we would lose recognition," said Michelle Winfrey, marketing and public relations manager for Playmobil USA.

Winfrey indicated that Playmobil, with a base demographic of 4- and 5-year-olds, is not concerned about the possibility of video games encroaching upon its market share. That age group simply isn't old enough for high technology, she said, explaining that Playmobil is "based on imaginative play. Before any child gets to electronics, they have to pass through pretend play." And Winfrey added that she thinks even a precocious 4-year-old who's eager to master Wii Sports will still find time for Playmobils. "I think it's shared," she said. "Having watched my son grow up, he liked both."

But what happens when kids reach the "tween" ages of 8 to 12 years old, when video games and the Internet start to draw them away from toys? The growing popularity of gaming consoles and online activities is indeed a concern for companies that cater to that age group, including Klutz, which has made a name for itself over the past three decades by creating spruced-up activity book sets for everything from face-painting to magnetism. Sheryl Brunell, executive director of sales for Klutz, acknowledged that high-tech games and the Web are indeed "a distraction" to the toy industry.

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12 comments

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maybe the newer toys are just crap?
I'm a parent of a 17 month old and my wife and I both find ourselves buying similar toys for our little one as we had as kids. Those include legos (the giant quattro line at the moment), alphabet blocks, and matchbox cars. We've seen the leapfrog toys and the elmo DMX and while the elmo is interesting, we didn't feel that it lead to the imaginative play that legos and blocks do. It's no so much that innovation is dead, I love the new mindstorms kit that Lego came out it, I just can't afford it. But rather the people buying toys for those children now are like my wife and I are, and are looking beyond the battery sucking beeps and lights and looking instead for toys that actually lead to a kid having an unstructured good time. It teaches independent thought and that's sorely lacking these days.
Posted by menty666 (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
We're after the "shapes ball" that seporates in the middle
Who knew it was from rubbermaid?

You may have something with that "new toys are crap" bit though. Seems everything today goes above and beyond to insure a child needs no imagination. Everything talks or makes noises or projects something by spring or air pressure. Heck, there's a complete line (picture was in the article pictures) of doll hoses, cars and such that are just digital displays and buttons to move the little "doll" avatar between platic blobs.

Like the movie industry; rehash, redesign, reuse, recycle, rewrite and my favourit "modernize". why continue evolving the toys industry when you can just pain Snake Eyes a new colour, give him a voice box and repackage him from the same molds.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
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It's the amount of collectors, too
There have always been crappy toys. Look at some of the stuff that was foisted on kids in the 50s and the 60s... it's not just that new toys are crap.

What isn't being discussed here is the amount of collectors in the market. Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Magic: The Gathering, Barbie, etc. - Hasbro and Mattel realize that, by just tweaking those (and other) toy lines, they can continue to bring the collectors along and that the collectors (being adults) are employed and have more disposable income than a child does. As a Star Wars collector and an adult I decide if I want to buy a $50 or $100 toy from the Star Wars line. A child might want it for Christmas or their birthday, but it's a question for the family as to whether the kid is going to get it. Come on: How many kids own a Darth Tater Mr. Potato Head? I only know of adults who own one.

So, when I see a lot of the toys being focused on the sustaining lines it's because the manufacturers are trying to keep the collectors interested.

There will be more innovation when the current crop of collectors finally give up on buying every single thing that is licensed for a specific property and they need to attract a lot more kids to new properties (I, and many collectors I know, have scaled back on my Star Wars collecting over the past two years now that the movies are over).
Posted by Geoffrey Sperl (18 comments )
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hehe.. gotta get me a darth tater
I nearly picked it up for a collector friend at christmas though he's more a purist and won't touch anything not from the first three movies.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
It ain't just toys...
Movies have done the same thing (re: the recent "Project" of making the old '70s TV series [i]The Bionic Woman[/i] into a movie).

Both problems can boil down to one source of blame: Overpowered copyrights. Movie Studios and Toy making shops BOTH have a ton of "intellectual property" they've been sitting on, and both will be damned if they can't squeeze the last possible penny of of them. There's no incentive to innovate when folks like, say, Disney can simply re-hash old crap in both toy and movie form.

There's no incentive to innovate for the big players, because there's less risk in simply pushing out the same old concepts. The little guys have a ton of innovation, but they don't have the resources to really get their ideas to market as easily.

/P
Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
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What you are describing is
these companies [i]playing[/i] to the Baby Boomers (those who began to be born from the early 1940s...look up the term Baby Boom or Baby Boomers to learn something new! :| ) who NOW have money to spend. It's all about getting their money! It boils down to worshipiing the [b][i]almighty $ [/i][/b]!!! ...NOT "stagnation". Where have you been? These companies learned quite a few years ago that [b]Nostalgia [u]$ELL$[/u]. Isn't that a sad commentary on today's world??? THINK about that..................................
Posted by btljooz (401 comments )
Link Flag
"New" Toys
Interesting thoughts. The last several things I bought for my three-year-old grandson were purchased from www.backtobasicstoys.com. They have some nice quality products which obviously appealed to me. Just wonder if others are thinking along the same lines these days.
Posted by Jane in KC (94 comments )
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I agree with you.......
What's [i]wrong[/i] with "basic" toys? I see a LOT wrong with toys that do it all for kids ...stunting their reasoning powers and ability to think for themselves. (...making them better [u][i]puppets[/i][/u] of the bergioning oppressive governmental regimes that are in place at present.)

Sure, having [b]SOME[/b] of the "latest, greatest" tech toys are fun and help ready kids for the tech world ...quite a [b]small[/b] part of **** Sapiens' [b]BASIC[/b]survival. However, 'basic' toys help ready kids for the [b]REAL world[/b]...and [u]THAT[/u] is what is [b]MORE[/b] important!!!
Posted by btljooz (401 comments )
Link Flag
It's all about choice.
If you are a parent then it's up to you to present a child with alternatives to computer games or TV. A child isn't going to necessarily make choices which will lead to good habbits. I remember when I was about 5 when my Mum decided to sell the TV to make sure I would find something else to do.
Posted by ozidigga (77 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yup, and that made you have a
more enriched life in the long run, too. (...with a honed ability to reason things out and think for [b]yourself[/b]!!! Didn't it? ;)
Posted by btljooz (401 comments )
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