The future of toys Mattel's downer: Can traditional playthings continue to entertain children raised on technology?

December 18, 1998

A BARBIE DOLL is sold every half-second somewhere in the world. More than a billion Hot Wheels cars have been made in the past 30 years. Play-Doh was supposed to be a wallpaper cleaner, before the manufacturer realized it might sell better as modeling clay for kids. And Lincoln Logs, developed by John Lloyd Wright, son of the famed architect, just celebrated their 82nd birthday.

It is premature to sound the death knell for such beloved traditional playthings. But the news that Mattel Inc. is acquiring a software-based toy company while reporting flat sales for its traditional line could be a sign of things to come.

The stock price of the top toy maker tumbled to a two-year low. But investors may not have been half as incredulous at the downturn as parents, who are busily restocking their children's toy bins.

Many adults would assume, correctly, that kids have more stuff than ever. Retail sales nearly doubled in the past decade to $23 billion. The baby boomlet, two-income households, even the increase in divorce, causing children to split their time between households, have fueled an era of lots of toys and money chasing lots of kids -- and vice versa.

The hottest ones are the smart toys, with chips in their bellies, such as the elusive Furby. (Also -- no small irony -- public television, with its noncommercial mission, continues to spawn characters that sell, such as Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine.)

Technological toys will become more sophisticated, squeezing out the tried and true. But we're hard-pressed to imagine a world where kids wouldn't play with miniature cars, building blocks or simple dolls. Of course, if the end is ever in sight, manufacturers can simply number and market each one, a la Beanie Babies, as limited collectors' items.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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