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Toymakers in playful mood to begin NYC show

The U.S. toy industry is hoping to rebound from a lackluster holiday sales season in which demand petered out after a strong start.
Image: New Mr. Potato Head greets kids near toy fair
 LEGO Master Builder Erik Varszegi unveils a life-sized model of Lightning McQueen from the movie "Cars" at the show Sunday. The model, measuring 12 feet long by 6 feet wide by 4.5 feet tall, commemorates a new collection of LEGO building sets inspired the movie.AP
/ Source: Reuters

From Mattel's sweet-talking boyfriend Ken doll to Hasbro's Kre-O building sets based on Transformers characters, toy makers lined up an impressive array of hi-tech and movie-themed playthings to win sales in 2011, which some say will be a better year for the industry.

The mood on the opening day of the American International Toy Fair in New York was rather upbeat as manufacturers like Mattel Inc, MEGA Brands Inc and Spin Master tried to woo potential buyers from across the globe.

"I have become increasingly optimistic as we have gotten into the year," Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said in an interview on Sunday. "We are at this show right now, completely sold out of space."

"What we are seeing here is great new product and I think that is going to drive demand over the course of the year," he said.

The U.S. toy industry is hoping to rebound from a lackluster holiday sales season in which demand petered out after a strong start. Both Hasbro Inc and LeapFrog Enterprises Inc missed sales estimates in the fourth quarter.

Still, U.S. toy retail sales rose 2 percent in 2010 after declines in 2009 and 2008, with sales in the recent holiday quarter up 3 percent over the prior-year period, according to market research firm NPD Group.

"It is going to be a stronger sales year for the toy business," said Jim Silver, a toy analyst at Unlike prior years when demand for toys is focused around the holiday season, a huge summer movie lineup should help toy sales even in off-season periods this year, he said.

"This year, in 2011, is by far the most and strongest movie lineup associated with toys I have seen in 25 years," Silver said.

Many manufacturers such as toymaker Lego Group, known for its colorful building blocks, are also optimistic about their sales prospects in 2011.

"The lineup of products that we have for 2011 has gotten off to a very good start in the first few weeks of the year," Soren Torp Laursen, president of Lego Americas said on Sunday. "We think the macroeconomic environment is not strong, but it is getting better."

"The retail support we are getting for the whole category is the strongest ever," Laursen said. "All the indicators on the dashboard are in green right now."

Lego is betting big on a new toyline called Ninjago, which features ninjas who use an ancient martial art to battle an evil lord. The line combines construction blocks with online and trading card games.

The Danish toymaker, which has done consistently well even during the recession, is betting on many movie-themed toys as well.

Many others are also counting on Hollywood to give them a much-needed sales boost in the summer, when there are fewer occasions for parents to spend on toys.

Toy retailer Toys R Us Inc unveiled its first-ever collection of wood vehicles, track and playsets based on the Disney Pixar movie "Cars". Mattel, Lego, Spin Master all hold licenses for the "Cars 2" toy line. Hasbro's entertainment lineup includes toys based on "Transformers — Dark of the Moon".

"Those are givens." Silver said, citing the strength of the Cars and Transformers movie franchises. "You can go to Vegas and bet on those two."

Hasbro is also making toys tied to "Thor" and "Star Wars", while Jakks Pacific is betting on upcoming movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Real Steel". Mattel will carry toys tied to Warner Bros' "Green Lantern".

The 2011 toy lineup also showed how manufacturers are increasingly drawing inspiration from newer technology and even iPhone apps while designing new toys.

For example, one of Mattel's bets for 2011 is the "Angry Birds Knock On Wood" game, a tabletop version of the current No. 1 paid game app for Apple Inc 's iPhone.

Inspired by 2010's top-selling music iPhone app, Jakks touted a microphone that auto-tunes what you sing into it, making you sound like rapper T-Pain. Wowwee, which won praise for its electric guitar made of cardboard called "Paper Jamz" last year, also launched a microphone with similar technology.

Redakai, a trading card game by Spinmaster, sports 3-D graphics and animation effects on the cards, while a stunt car by Canada's Thinkway Toys is powered by light.

Even classic brands are getting a facelift in the form of a hi-tech attachment or a social network avatar or an iPhone app as manufacturers try to win tech-savvy kids, who like to play on their parents' smartphones or spend more time online.

"They realize that they are competing against all forms of entertainment," Jim Silver said.

Celebrating Ken's 50th anniversary, Mattel launched the $20 "Sweet Talkin' Ken" doll with a built-in microphone that lets kids record whatever they want Ken to say. Hasbro's $25 Jigazo puzzle is powered with advanced software, while the new Hot Wheels Videoracer cars sport video cameras.

Even preschoolers can have their dose of technology with a battery-powered "Let's Rock Elmo," featuring a microphone, a tambourine and a drum set.