Struggles In Toyland

February 15, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- With toy sales nearly flat last year, 1,500 toy makers descended on Manhattan yesterday to drum up interest in their evergreen offerings of games, dolls, bicycles and video games.

But before they opened the doors of the 91st American International Toy Fair, the manufacturers released some sobering statistics for 1993.

Shipments of toys increased just 1.6 percent to $11.73 billion last year, although video games continued to corner more of the market, with shipments to stores jumping 18.1 percent to $3.97 billion.

"Like so many other industries, it was a difficult growth year for toys," said Chairman John W. Amerman of the Toy Manufacturers of America. "The economy did not make it easy, but there are still good opportunities."

Although the economy improved last year, that did not translate into higher toy sales, TMA President David A. Miller said. Consumers still lacked confidence in the recovery and did not open their wallets as much as manufacturers had hoped, he said.

This time last year, toy makers were gloating over a surprisingly strong 1992. Toy deliveries increased 12.2 percent, while video games surged 46.7 percent.

Toy manufacturers had expected that deliveries to stores would increase in 1993 by at least 5 percent -- triple the actual rate.

This year, the TMA hopes the industry grows by about 6 percent.

"This is a fashion industry, and children will determine what's sold. That doesn't happen until the end of the year," Mr. Miller said.

The lack of a fad last year hurt the industry, said Karen Raugust of the Licensing Letter, a trade publication. The Barney epidemic was already subsiding slightly and some new toys didn't catch on as strongly as hoped, she said.

As in previous years, the biggest sellers last year were licensed products -- toys spun off from movies or television shows -- which account for an estimated 45 percent of toy sales.

"Jurassic Park" action figures, helped the category of male action toys increase 25.9 percent last year. Conversely, a dearth new girls' dolls helped push down the dolls category by 17.7 percent from 1992.

Hasbro Inc. is riding the licensing trend by offering a line of toys based on Disney's new movie, "The Lion King." Small manufacturers also are jumping on the "Lion King" bandwagon. Embrace Inc. is selling lion dolls called "The Crowned Lion."

"We have to be careful how we word it, otherwise we could get in trouble for copyright violations," Embrace district sales manager Denise M. Gaebel said.

Old favorites also are being dusted off: Mattel Inc. is celebrating Barbie's 35th birthday by selling a new line of collectible dolls, while Hasbro warrior G.I. Joe is to be feted at the fair for his 30th birthday.

The fight between Hasbro and Mattel -- the two superpowers that control 40 percent of the industry's sales -- has been heating up in recent years as each gobbles up more of the small competitors. Most recently, Mattel merged with Fisher-Price so that it would be less reliant on its Barbie dolls, which accounted for half the company's revenues of $2 billion.

According to figures released last week, the merger has helped Mattel's revenues grow from $2 billion to $2.7 billion and earn $117 million. Hasbro's revenues grew 8.3 percent last year to $2.54 billion, with profits of $200 million.

One of the trends apparent at the fair is toward less-violent games. Despite the G.I. Joe celebration, toy manufacturers are finding that war games and violent videos are generating more controversy than they may be worth, said Tory Bers, director of product development for TeamConcepts Inc.

TeamConcepts, a Hong Kong-based company with $50 million in sales worldwide and $13 million in sales in the United States, has attracted notice for selling small, durable lap-top computers to children aged 4 and up.

Its computers, which vary in sophistication, typically offer spelling, vocabulary, math, geography and trivia games. A new game based on the popular children's series "Carmen Sandiego," which airs on Fox and the Public Broadcasting Service, teaches geography and logic.

"What we hear is that parents are tired of their kids playing Sega and Nintendo," Mrs. Bers said. "They want more than a game that just teaches you how to rip someone's heart out."

Toy manufacturers, though, have resisted efforts to rate video games. Mr. Miller, the TMA president, said any ratings should be voluntary. He also dismissed congressional hearings into the issue as election-year grandstanding.

"When wars are no more, then children will play with toys not related to war," Mr. Miller said. "We don't drive the issue."

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