King-sized disappointment Marketing: Once again, fast-food chain's plastic superheroes are beyond arm's reach for many Maryland children.

November 19, 1996|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

Casey Price's eyes were wide behind his Coke bottle-thick glasses as he stared at the cardboard display twice his size. Inside a Bel Air Burger King this weekend, he stood mesmerized by his little plastic heroes from the mega-movie turned mega-video "Toy Story."

But Casey, 5, couldn't yet read the black and white stickers over the Buzz Lightyear and Woody toys. They read "Sold Out."

Like other children, and their haggard families, across the state, Casey left Burger King disappointed. In a repeat of last year's scramble, the Walt Disney Co.'s second "Toy Story" promotion with Burger King has launched a search for the movie premiums that, in most cases, ends with the sort of promise Kelly Price had to make to her son. "Don't worry, Casey, we'll come back another time and get one."

Three weeks ago, "Toy Story," the animated romp that entranced kids across the country last year, was released on video. Not surprisingly, the video shot to No. 1 in sales and rental in its first full week, and has remained on top since.

In a cross-promotion similar to the one that marked the movie's debut last year, Burger King is selling tiny dolls of "Toy Story" characters with its Kids Club meals, and larger versions of the movies' three heroes, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and R.C. Racer, with other purchases.

The larger dolls, two of which can speak, are what parents are offering their right arms for, but they are getting tough to find.

Last year, riding the phenomenal success of "Toy Story," the dolls' popularity stunned franchise owners, selling out nationwide. So far this year, Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller said, there are only "spot outages," because franchise owners expected lines to form once the characters went on sale.

Unfortunately for Casey and his peers, Maryland seems to be an outage spot.

"It's getting out of hand," said Tiffany Hoag, who divides her time between tracking inventories for a franchise of 12 Baltimore-area Burger Kings, shifting toys between stores and fielding calls from frantic parents. "There are a lot of people who are really mad at us."

Burger King employs analysts to anticipate demand for its promotions, and many of the individually owned franchises have trackers like Hoag. Still, the "Toy Story" characters' popularity has taken executives in the area by surprise for a second time.

Each franchise, which may be one or several restaurants, must order promotional toys long before a movie is released; in the case of "Toy Story," orders had to be placed six months before the video was released as well.

Hoag said that even with the industry formulas, previous experience and buying pattern data, stocking promotional items always "a guessing game."

Burger King isn't the only chain to face this cross-promotion dilemma. McDonald's is now offering characters from the heavily hyped Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny movie, "Space Jam." McDonald's spokeswoman Julie Cleary said: "We want to order enough for every customer. We have marketing experts and we work with suppliers, but there is really no way to tell if we'll run out, or if we'll be left with toys sitting in boxes."

In playing the guessing game, Hoag seems to have done better than most -- half the stores she orders for still have the toys in stock. That's more than restaurants in Glen Burnie, Bel Air, Patapsco, Hanover, Elkton and Brooklyn, among several others, can say. But while the promotion is scheduled to run through Dec. 22, Hoag thinks all of her stores will be completely sold out by Dec. 1.

"Some franchises get nervous (and order low) because we lose money if the toys are left over," she said. But there are also financial consequences when stores under-order, she noted. Like customers taking their business elsewhere.

"Bottom line is service in this business," she said. "We want to please the customer. We don't want customers to be upset."

But for all the trouble they can cause, no one is looking to discontinue cross-promotions. For each toy bought, Miller of Burger King estimates, there's another $10 sale.

"When a family comes in for a toy, you have to consider that Mom, Dad and little brother and sister are eating too," he said. "This certainly brings an increase in overall sales."

Neither Burger King nor McDonald's officials would reveal how many toys were stocked nationwide, but Miller said that this season's "Toy Story" promotion is expected to sell as many or more than last year's. Burger King sold 55 million Kid's Club meals with "Toy Story" figurines, and 10 million bigger toys, in 1995.

The success of "Toy Story" certainly has fueled demand for the toys, but relentless marketing from two commercial giants like Disney and Burger King may also have something to do with it.

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