Bilingual toys spark retail trend

Your Money

February 18, 2007|By Ashley Surdin | Ashley Surdin,Los Angeles Times

Odra Heitmann hauled the heavy package labeled "Dora's Talking Kitchen" off a Toys `R' Us shelf and set it on the floor for a better look.

Splashed on the box was a promo: "Says Phrases in English and Spanish!"

That sealed the deal for Heitmann, who scooped up the gift for her 1-year-old niece Ashley.

"I made a big mistake by not teaching my kids Spanish," said Heitmann, 37, recently at the Burbank, Calif., store. "I'm not going to make the same mistake with my niece."

Say hello and hola to the latest fad - bilingual toys. Spurred by a growing immigrant population in the United States and a push to teach children foreign languages at an earlier age, toymakers and consumers are going bilingual.

Spanish-English bilingual toys have become especially popular in the past few years, thanks in part to Fisher-Price's wildly successful Dora the Explorer product line, based on the Nickelodeon cartoon about Dora Marquez, a 7-year-old bilingual Hispanic girl.

During last year's holiday season, Toys `R' Us Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. highlighted bilingual toys as one of the biggest shopping trends, listing products by Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price division, LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. and VTech Holdings among the most popular. This year, bilingual toys are poised to be even hotter.

"There's been a shift in the culture, where speaking two languages is more popular," said Reyne Rice, a trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association.

For the first time, Hispanic people - the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country at 42.7 million - will flex more spending power than any other minority group in the United States, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.

Hispanic disposable income will swell to $863.1 billion this year, up 8.1 percent from 2006, the Center estimates.

"You couple that with the fact that the average Latino household has four kids per household - compared to the average household, which has 2.3 - and you're looking at a huge opportunity," said Carlos Conejo, president of Multicultural Associates, which specializes in helping companies sell to multicultural markets in the United States. "It's a huge, untapped market."

In the $22 billion-a-year toy industry, multicultural markets are not new, but improving technology has allowed playthings to chatter in any number of languages, giving shoppers more to choose from than ever before. Toy manufacturers are unveiling bilingual phones, globes, dolls, books and laptops.

In some cases, they are giving mainstream characters multilingual makeovers.

Fisher-Price's Bilingual Elmo belts out both "Sunny Day" and "Dia Soleado."

Play Along's Tele-Friend Amigo Bear, the newest member of the Care Bears clan, teaches numbers, colors and phrases in English and Spanish.

Toymakers and retailers won't divulge sales numbers, but some say the bilingual products have exceeded expectations. Fisher-Price said its Dora's Talking Dollhouse was the best-selling dollhouse in company history.

At KB Toys Inc., sales of these dual-language products have accelerated over the last few years, said Chief Marketing Officer Ernie Speranza, who expects to see more headed to the company's 600 stores.

"This category of merchandise is growing much faster than the toy industry as a whole," he said. "In the near future, it could be 8 percent to 10 percent of our sales."

While large companies cater to mainstream multicultural consumers, smaller manufacturers are mining niche markets, sometimes striking a consumer gold mine.

Geri Grobman, president of New York-based Language Littles, attracted the attention of the foreign-adoption community seven years ago when she introduced a line of four bilingual plush dolls, including "Ling," a rosy-cheeked, Mandarin Chinese-speaking girl. Adoption agencies and parents carried the doll to China when they picked up children as a way to bridge the gap between the two countries.

"The adoptive community was a surprise for us," said Grobman, who added Russian and Korean to the Littles entourage. "We weren't aiming for that community, and when we found it, it was wonderful."

Grobman now sells 12 different bilingual dolls in 10 languages, including German-speaking Emma, Hebrew-speaking David, and Alexa, a girl who gabs about gymnastics in Greek. They are sold online and in specialty shops.

Five years ago, Martha Barrios began selling bilingual books and stuffed toys, called "Frijolitos," at book fairs and small shops in Southern California. Each time, she said, Albondiga the Mariachi Dog and Picadillo the Armadillo sold out. The company also receives orders through its Web site, www.frijolitosinc.com.

The tiny, family-owned company broke even last year, and Barrios said that fiscal rewards were sure to follow as long as there was a need for bilingual books and toys.

Some companies have hit bumps on the multicultural road.

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