At Toy Fair, 'tweens' are the target

Manufacturers' aim is to capture dollars of babes -- and grownups -- in Toyland

March 02, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

Of the thousands of buyers and sellers who attended the 100th Annual Toy Fair in New York City recently, many are now fretfully second-guessing the deals they made. Was it smart to order so many Incredible Hulk telephones? Did I buy enough Hokey-Pokey Elmos? Are Big Wheels still a big deal? That these questions can't be answered until the fall or even Christmas only makes them more vexing.

Ka-ching! Toys may represent a $20 billion a year industry, but they are actually a lot like butterflies. Colorful and fantastic apparitions, they have shockingly brief lives. And, because no one knows what will be a hit or a flop, the Toy Fair offered a bewildering variety of theories on who modern children are: savages or civilians, demons or angels, slackers or studious. After pondering the maze of merchandise, however, it's possible to identify three trends for 2003.

* Toys that increase a child's ability to learn while at play, also known as "edu-tainment," will grow in popularity.

* Doll manufacturers are gambling that "tween" girls will buy precociously sexy toys and accessories. (This isn't your mother's Barbie.)

* And, sets of toys such as superhero figures or miniature cars will be sold in surprisingly high numbers -- not to children, but to adult collectors.

Learning is Fun

Today's parents want their children's education to begin at a younger age, yet with two-income families increasingly the norm, there's less time for direct parent-child interaction. Stepping into this breach, LeapFrog Enterprises of Emeryville, California, rocked the toy industry in 2000 with the introduction of LeapPad, an interactive learning system that teaches the fundamental skills of reading. Designed to resemble Mommy's laptop computer with a fold-open plastic case, LeapPad pioneered "reader assist" wireless technology. When a reading child touches an unfamiliar word, LeapPad speaks it aloud.

A library of 100 different books is now available, with an additional 40 due by September. Also launching this year are extensions of the LeapPad line. TogetherTime is aimed at the very youngest readers (six to thirty-six months, with an emphasis on recognizing colors, shapes, letters and numerals) and Quantum Leap is for older children who need advanced lessons in mathematics and penmanship.

"Five years ago, you couldn't even use the word 'edu-tainment,' as it was widely seen to be a money loser," said Brenda Lynch, a LeapFrog publicist. "Now everyone's jumped on the bandwagon." Indeed, Fisher-Price is hurrying out their PowerTouch Learning System, a copycat item.

Be warned, though, that this newly prevalent "we make kids smarter" product claim is often specious. For example, the Gears! Gears! Gears! line of toys manufactured by Learning Resources insists that "basic scientific principles" are taught by building trucks and robots from interlocking plastic pieces. Asked to explain, Lana Simon, a company spokesperson, said, "kids learn that all machines run on gears." This would be news to Bill Gates.

Not a girl, not a teen

Toy executives believe that a girl between the ages of eight and twelve has only one goal in life: to become a teen-ager. Until then, she is a "tween."

"They love sparkle, they love to be seen, and they want comments," said Jennifer Hemberger of The Bead Shop in Milwaukee, Wis., which produces bracelet- and necklace-making kits. "They also have the largest disposable income of any demographic in America."

This statistic is frequently cited by those trying to woo this customer, though styles of blandishment vary. Hemberger said The Bead Shop takes a "girly" approach: "Our customer is not about pretending she's 25. I think it's appalling that girls this age are wearing rub-on snake tattoos."

Such serpentine adornment might be less troubling to Mattel or MGA Entertainment, as these Southern California-based companies are brazenly tantalizing pre-pubescent girls with toys that encourage fantasies of being sultry, sexy fashion plates. Thanks to the success of its Bratz line of fashion dolls, MGA's business grew by an astonishing 115 percent in 2002. Since these sales encroached on Barbie's franchise, Mattel rushed a "My Scene" line of dolls into production.

Oddly, the rival dolls look nearly identical. Both styles have enormous heads, popped-out eyes and almost obscenely pouty lips. They wear immense quantities of makeup, and are dressed in outfits one might expect to see Jennifer Lopez wearing, but not, perhaps, a ten-year-old girl. Bratz's newest doll, Nevra, is nearly bursting out of her glittery, butterfly-shaped bustier. My Scene's Nolee is squeezed into a skintight, strapless dress.

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