Techno toys dominate sales

The interests of the young and the shape of retailing change, putting pressure on the serious business of child's play.

December 12, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Edwin Adams Jr. has his share of board games and books, but when he's not doing his homework or chores, the 13-year-old can usually be found wired to the television, scoring touchdowns or fighting bad guys on his PlayStation 2 video game system.

"It's either the computer or those games," said his father, Edwin Adams Sr., as they took a break from shopping at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn one recent evening. "You can't get him off. His mother buys him that stuff. If it was up to me, he wouldn't have any of it."

With the holiday season half over, the traditional toy industry faces another grim year of sales brought on by the changing tastes of kids practically born with a mouse or joystick in their hands. KB Toys Inc. and FAO Schwarz were pushed into bankruptcy, and the Toys "R" Us chain is considering leaving the business that made its name.

Children are still riding bikes, sipping from play tea sets and enjoying some of the very toys their parents did, such as Care Bears and My Little Pony. But the pressures bearing down on traditional toys are many.

Kids are growing up faster and putting down Barbies and action figures at an earlier age, increasingly smitten by the grownup images of young celebrities such as basketball player LeBron James and actresses Hilary Duff and Raven Symone.

The prime audience for toys has shrunk as the children of the immense baby boom generation have grown into teenhood and beyond. And as in other industries, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has taken share from toy chains and squeezed some of the incentive to devise the next great toy.

The shift from toys to electronics was evident at Security Square Mall. A KB Toy store was all but empty of kids, while Game Stop, a video game store, was filled with children, some elementary-school age. They huddled in front of PlayStation 2, Nintendo and Xbox consoles with the wide-eyed wonder of museum-goers marveling at the Hope Diamond.

"It's not that they're rejecting traditional toys, but there's a cultural shift," said Chris Byrne, a toy consultant in New York. "If you talk to kids, they want things like iPods. The role models they're looking up to are not sitting around playing Chutes and Ladders."

Overall sales dropping

While computer and video game sales have risen to nearly 240 million units last year from 85 million in 1996, toys are likely to have their third straight year of decline. Toy sales dropped 3 percent last year from 2002, when they dropped 1 percent from 2001.

This year is shaping up to be worse yet: Toy sales were down 5 percent for the first 10 months of the year, compared with the same period in 2003, said research firm NPD Group.

Even the most storied playthings aren't immune. Sales of Barbie, the California girl who dumped boyfriend Ken to keep up with the times, plummeted 13 percent in the third quarter, compared with a year earlier.

Hot Wheels, the miniature cars that kids are trading in for high-powered kid-sized cars they can drive themselves, fell 4 percent for the quarter.

Meanwhile, sales in the video-game industry, counting games and systems, are expected to rise to $12 billion this year.

Parents have aided the shift even as some of them wistfully recall enjoying playing with Barbies or Lincoln Logs. Consumers have cut back on traditional toy purchases to afford the pricier electronic games and systems, analysts said.

Hinder imagination

It's only natural that children growing up in a digital age would gravitate toward technological toys. But many child development experts caution that some electronic games hinder imaginative play and cognitive and social development. Aggressive games over time might foster impulsive behavior and a short attention span, they said.

"If they want to play their computer games for an hour, that's fine," said Melanie Killen, associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland. "They also need time outdoors. It's a matter of mix and a matter of supplement. Technology is going to have to be a part of a kid's experience. We're all wired now."

Children under 12, the target group for more than three-quarters of all toys, made up about 21 percent of the population in 2000. That was the lowest percentage in 20 years, according to Harris Nesbitt, a New York investment and banking firm. Growth in that age group is expected to remain flat this decade and decline for ages 5 to 9.

But the slide in toy sales isn't solely a demographic phenomenon. Video games soared even as the growth of the teen population slowed, and the Fisher-Price line of toddler toys struggled despite the bulge of "echo boom" babies, born to baby boomers between 1977 and 1994, said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst with Harris Nesbitt.

"If you don't have the products the kids want," he said, "it doesn't matter."

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