GAMBLING On TOY FAIR For both new and established toy makers, the New York trade show is pivotal.

February 10, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau

New York -- If Santa Claus lives, he will be in New York this morning along with 20,000 other more conventional retailers, shopping at Toy Fair for what will go under the tree next Christmas.

For the major buyers, it's this critical 10-day stretch that will largely determine what will be offered customers. For the manufacturers, particularly the smaller ones, the pivotal holiday season begins now.

Consider the importance of Toy Fair to United Enterprises, a husband-wife start-up (hence the "United") in Columbia, with a newly invented game to sell and a minuscule marketing budget. "It's make or break," said Chief Executive Mary Blaylock.

For older, more diversified companies, it's not quite as critical -- but almost. "In effect, everything we do is to prepare for Toy Fair," said a besieged Edward Weiss as he scurried around on a recent morning to finalize plans for Life-Like Products, a long-time manufacturer headquartered in an old Baltimore textile mill.

Mr. Weiss, the company's marketing manager, stopped briefly in his cluttered office and attempted to deal with myriad questions between rings from a constantly jangling phone.

"This is insanity," he uttered as he answered yet another call. "We're usually insane, but this is real insanity. This is the time my cholesterol shoots up and I'm sure I'm having a heart attack."

Conditions will get worse before they get better for Mr. Weiss and every other manufacturer as T-day approaches. And then, if history is any guide, for all but the most fortunate, it will get even worse.

Why? Because despite its ubiquitous presence, toy manufacturing remains a flat business. Sales have barely moved since 1984. In 1990, revenues for the entire industry were about $8.8 billion, or a little less than those of Patriot missile producer Raytheon, number 52 on the Fortune 500.

Price increases in the toy industry are minimal, consistently falling below inflation. Hits are rare, life spans brief, and failures common. For every Barbie, there are literally thousands of Bobbies, Freddies and Joanies introduced annually that would be quickly forgotten had they ever been remembered.

Worse still, any increase in one company's prospects almost inevitably means a decrease in anothers. For evidence, tour the 15-story Toy Building and the adjacent annex in lower Manhattan, main site of the Toy Fair and a bustling nerve center at this time of year. The offices remain as they have for decades, but the tenants come and go -- one, like Hasbro, to swank accommodations of its own across the street, but most, like Coleco, the fastest growing toy company in the early 1980s, to liquidation.

In its second week, the fair expands for four days to the city's vast Jacob Javits convention center, where more than 1,000 small-timers will crowd into temporary space. Most will end up hoarse -- and broke from negligible responses. A few, though, could walk away clutching arms full of orders for the next Cabbage Patch doll or Ninja Turtle. Typically, the biggest hits have been developed by the smallest players.

But in some ways, despite the extraordinary odds, the advent of the New York Toy Fair -- as well as two others -- one in Hong Kong and another in Nuremberg, Germany -- have given small players a better shot. The fairs replaced a network of traveling salesmen who hauled trunks of samples around the country, pitching them to small local stores.

Now the biggest retailers scour the world for products. Got a good idea? The chances were never better for it being found. Got a tough competitor? Chances were never better that its products will be bought.

Reflecting two dramatically different ways to approach the business are Mr. Weiss' Life-Like and Ms. Blaylock's United Enterprises Inc.

Life-Like

Despite Mr. Weiss' harried schedule, Life-Like is as close to a stable company as may exist in toyland. Its U.S. plants and Asian suppliers turn out a stream of hundreds of low-cost decorative products for model train enthusiasts, as well as a small version of the trains themselves and, through assorted acquisitions made over the years, tiny self-propelled cars and elegant wooden building blocks.

The overall market for most of these items may have peaked years, and in some cases, many many years, ago, but steady modest demand continues, and Life-Like manages to maintain, or expand, its share.

"Every year, we have to sell them again," Mr. Weiss said. "We have to reinvent our message and continue to tell the retailers that we deserve shelf space. Any other toy vying for that space is our competition."

A few years ago, it added a new line of meticulous replicas of old locomotives, precise down to the brake cylinders and exhaust grills. Sexy? Hardly. But successful.

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