It's Toy Fair time, when thousands of grown-ups who live and breathe toys — as inventors, manufacturers and retailers — gather in the toy capital of the world to show and see what's new for the coming year. If there were a Furby-like frenzy in our future, this is where you'd find it.
Except that you probably won't, because toymakers are definitely playing it safe. The scene at Toy Fair is a lot like the scene at home — anxious and thrifty, but still trying to find a way to have fun. That effort is evident in the constant crashing, flying, spinning, whirring and beeping of demo toys all around.
What's missing from Toy Fair this year is the "wow" factor — the cool ideas that cause so many conversations to start with "have you seen . . . ?" This year, even reliable innovators like Spin Master — whose recent revolutionary hits include the car that drives on walls and the molding sand called Moon Sand — are flaunting only additions and improvements to their existing lines.
"Kids are still going to play, and parents are still going to buy toys. We just have to adjust to these new economic realities," said toy analyst Chris Byrne. Those realities mean toy buyers such as Brad MacIntyre, who owns three stores around Toronto, are walking around Toy Fair looking in vain for that one "big" toy. "We've seen a lot of little things that are good," he said with a shrug.
Skip the batteries
Toymakers have gotten the message that Mom and Dad want to buy toys that will be enjoyed over and over: dolls, games, arts and crafts, activity toys like yo-yos, sporting goods such as scooters. Lego is doing extremely well in this economy, and Crayola had the biggest sales week in the history of the company right before Christmas, when nearly everyone else in the industry was scraping by. "It's play that's powered by kids' imaginations," said Stacy Gabrielle, a Crayola spokeswoman.
And no batteries required.
Toywise, this year will feel awfully familiar. Toymakers are rushing to license brands we already know and love (think Disney) and to resurrect anything that was once a hit and could be again. There is an industrywide focus on games, too.
"In this particular economic environment, parents tend to do more things at home," explained Neil Friedman, president of Mattel. "They do more play dates, so games are always really strong in this type of economy."
Hasbro is about to launch a huge media campaign about how wonderful it is to stay home and play a game with the whole family.
"Staycations have replaced vacations," said John Frascotti, global chief marketing officer for Hasbro, maker of Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, among others. "For $20 you can get a great [game] and have a terrific family activity. We think it's a great return to family time together, but with new games that are culturally relevant."
That relevance can be found in Team Trivial Pursuit, where the players are in teams so the clueless (or youngest) kid in the family won't get clobbered and start sulking. (It's also a little easier than the Trivial Pursuit of yore.) Or there's a new version of Clue that will send clues to your phone by text message, appealing to even the most disconnected teens. And Boggle can now be played on a Wii, because once you own that expensive system, well, you really ought to use it more.
'Our kids have lost the value of toys'
Plenty of Toy Fair attendees think there may be a blessing in the state of the economy: Maybe it will get us to appreciate our toys more. With fewer trips to the toy store to buy something fun (for kids or adults), we better really like what we do buy.
"Our kids have lost the value of toys," said Ruth Morace, a girl-toy inventor from Texas who sells her ideas to bigger companies. "I'm hoping kids are going to get back to playing."
Prices are lower in general. At Jakks Pacific, executives are thrilled to say that everything is under $100 this year, even the itty-bitty portable movie projector (so cool). At Wild Planet, best known for its spy gear and the super-successful game Hyper Dash, all the prices are under $25.
"We have some things in the pipeline that are higher price points," said Daniel Grossman, president of Wild Planet. "We recognize it makes sense to hold these products for a later time."
Back to the 1980s?
Or maybe the idea is to go back to the golden days of . . . the 1980s! If you're 25 and female and reading this, you might remember PJ Sparkles, a huge doll brand in 1989 and 1990. Toy companies are sure that parents will open up their wallets when reminded of their own blissful youth, so Zizzle is bringing back PJ Sparkles with a slightly new look. So far, sales are brisk.
It wouldn't be fair to say there's no innovation at Toy Fair: At least two companies introduced games in which players place a brain-wave-reading strap on their heads and then think about moving a tiny ball into the air to make it actually move. Mattel's version involves maneuvering the ball through a tiny obstacle course once it's airborne.
The tricky part is you've got to really concentrate — and even then it's hard. But it's pretty exciting when it works. The Mattel demo guy, who stares at the ball as if he's in a martial arts battle and makes it float, says it helps to get mad at the ball.
That part, anyway, is easy.