Aug. 6, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET
Among the many Americans who stayed up late to see if NASA’s Curiosity rover would alight safely on Mars, there were probably at least a few executives from Mattel.
The toy company could see a bump in business next month when Mattel brings to market a tiny Hot Wheels version of the six-wheeled nuclear-powered vehicle now sitting on the surface of the red planet.
Mattel executives no doubt are hoping for a repeat of the success they saw in the late 1990s, when the company produced a scale model of NASA’s Sojourner Rover that it sold as part of a three-vehicle “action pack.” It quickly sold out, prompting Mattel to produce more to meet demand. It even made a gold-plated variation for adult collectors that sold for around $50.
Analysts say it’s too soon to tell if the 1:64 Curiosity Hot Wheels will take the country by storm in the same way. The company’s Wheels segment could see an appreciable boost. “It probably gives a nice little bump,” said Eric Handler, media and entertainment analyst at MKM Partners LLC. “When they do a special edition like this, I think it helps to some extent.”
Mattel executives did not respond to requests for comment, but their plans were outlined in a Space.com story last week.
“My guess is that they will sell tens of thousands of units,” Needham & Co. analyst Sean McGowan said via email. He added that’s not enough to move the needle on the bottom line for a company of Mattel’s size, especially given the item’s low price point.
The odds-defying logistics of the real Rover’s touchdown on the red planet posed a challenge for Mattel. Analysts say the company hasn’t been talking about the Hot Wheels version of the spacecraft, and with good reason: If the Rover had crashed and burned, the appeal of a toy in its likeness would suffer a similar fate.
Mattel learned this the hard way. the company continued making spacecraft-model Hot Wheels after the success of the Sojourner. When a trio of Mars-bound spacecraft failed in 1999, the company was stuck with toys nobody wanted. (This time, Mattel said it would produce the Curiosity Hot Wheels regardless of how the actual Martian landing turned out.)
While Mattel was smart to hedge its bets in the event that the Curiosity’s Martian landing failed, it puts the company at a disadvantage.
Unlike NASA, Mattel might have gotten the timing wrong with its Curiosity. The Sojourner was available for purchase immediately, and the toy market was in a different economic climate in the mid 1990s. Hot trends today often peak and fade fast, so the nearly month-long span between the historic landing and the toy’s arrival could hamstring its success.
And it’s unlikely that the (toy) Rover will have enough momentum to carry it into the holiday season. Skittish retailers are reluctant to fill shelves with toys meant for holiday purchase in September; by the time the holiday shopping season rolls around, the market for collectible spacecraft might be as dry as a Martian crater.
Counterintuitively, if an initial surge in demand leads to product shortages and waiting lists like demand for the Sojourner toy precipitated, Mattel could benefit, said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar. "A shortage isn’t always a bad thing," she said, since it could keep the toy's relevance fresh through and possibly even past the holiday quarter.
If consumers are overcome by Curiosity, the toy could give Mattel a boost among boys, where the manufacturer of Barbie and American Girls dolls traditionally has not been as well-represented, Katz said.
"Maybe this is a way for them to reach a male audience that’s a little more interested in the science and techie side of things," she said.
Nostalgia from baby boomers who grew up alongside the space program also has the potential to boost sales, Katz said, whether the purchases are made by adult collectors or grandparents who want to share their childhood interest with today's generation of kids. "Maybe they’re trying to pull at the heartstrings," she said.
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