Toy sellers gearing up for what figures to be one of the weakest Christmas seasons on record aren't wasting time pumping up that $100-plus hot toy designed to spur weak-willed parents to cave to frantic, demanding kids.
This year's focus: basic toys priced to move. With sales of videogames and other high-tech gadgets slowing, the industry's perspective is that families are looking to put a decent stash under the tree by snapping up a lot of basic toys and games for under 50 bucks a pop. For a seller, that means at least partially making up in volume what you lose in margin.
"Kids will have the action figure, the board game and a few other things," says Victor Bertrand, chief innovation officer of Mega Brands, a Canadian toy manufacturer known mostly for plastic blocks and building sets. Mega is redoing the prices of the stuff it's pushing this year, from a $50 to $90 range to $40 and under. Among the firm's hot items this year: the game board and figurine version of kiddie TV star Ni hao kai-lan, the bi-lingual, Chinese follow-up to the enormously popular Dora the Explorer, who engages kids in both English and Spanish. Suggested retail price: $14.99. Of course, dolls — with their infinite need for new accessories — are also a gateway to future revenue once the economy improves. Mega will cross its fingers that early 2010 brings demand for the Ni-Hao accessories and DVDs and playhouses that go for as much as much as $29.99.
Another item expected to be a hit this year: Printies, which allows kids to turn their PCs into personal toy factories by coloring in animal designs online and printing them out on specialized paper to create an open 3-D version they can stuff and dress with accessories.
Designed to lure shoppers with affordability ($19.99), Printies also require regular paper refills at $9.99 a pop. Score another one for 2010 revenue streams.
Also hot: Zhu Zhu Pets, last year's breakout smash from Bayou Toys that's currently got several versions of furry fake hamsters occupying the top six slots on Amazon.com's list of best-selling toys. They're going for as little as $23.99 on Amazon (less if you're lucky enough to find them at Wal-Mart, according to user reviews).
The top-selling action figure of 2009, Bakugan, figures to keep flying off the shelves during holiday season, says Marianne Szymanski, an independent toy industry gadfly who runs the Web site toytips.com. Funny what a slight quirk can do: Made by Toronto-based Spinmaster, Bakugan has consistently infatuated 5-to-10-year-old boys through the added nuance of having its warrior action figures emerge from an enclosed sphere. Most versions go for $15 or less.
Tough as 2009 figures to be, retailers are at least better positioned inventory-wise for modest sales expectations. Christmas toys are generally ordered during the summer, with advertising bought and shelves stocked by Labor Day. Last year's September market meltdown came too late to salvage Christmas 2008, but it allowed toy makers and their retail partners to scale back for this year.
"Usually it's stack 'em high and let 'em fly," says Eric Levin, president of TechnoSource, maker of Printies. "This year, it's stack 'em low and see how it goes."
Levin can't help pushing one relatively expensive product. Making its holiday season debut at $149.99 is the Rubik's Touch cube, a modern version of the definitive 1980s game. Instead of twisting and turning, players solve the color sequence by running a finger over each lighted side of squares. Sounds perfect for boomer parents looking to get some fun from junior's toy for themselves. Maybe they can save money by sharing.