At Toy Fair, 'tweens' are the target

THE BALTIMORE 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.

Dimitri Czupylo, a Mattel spokesperson, bristled at any suggestion that My Scene dolls appear too vampy. "Girls in the tween years have bodies and personalities that are in flux," he said, watching his words carefully. So, the dolls' extremely made-up eyes and lips are simply "animated" and "exaggerated," he explained. Still, a moment later, Czupylo hinted that My Scene dolls are a "platform for cosmetics," and may soon spawn a variety of apparel lines and even consumer electronics.

If so, Mattel will be again following in MGA's wake. For MGA is now introducing lamps, phones, and bed linens, all of which are emblazoned with either a Bratz doll's huge eyes or bulbous lips. Dave Malacrida, who calls himself MGA's "Buzzmaster," proudly showed off playset items like the new Nighttime Funk Limousine ("you'll see the bar only has sparkling water") in which Bratz can ride. He then nearly hyperventilated with excitement while demonstrating that three dolls can be made to walk simultaneously on the Nighttime Funk Cat Walk, before heading back to their tiny makeup room backstage.

"A runway show represents the zenith of fashion. For girls to be able to grasp this is good for the future of their lives," Malacrida said. "It could inspire them to be fashion designers, or in their teen years, to experiment with different hairstyles."

Hearing this "buzz" on the lofty ambitions that MGA Entertainment envisions for tween girls, one hopes someone will soon invent the Gloria Steinem superhero doll.

You're never too old

The world of childhood games is not without its own case of post-9 / 11 jitters.

"Kids are nervous these days, and we want to give them a safe space in which to play," said Geoffrey Walker, director of entertainment marketing for Mattel, while showing a new line of toys called Rescue Heroes. They all have "mission select" backpacks; spin the dial to Earthquake, Fire or Flood, and a Rescue Hero will save the day. Walker explained these toys are called "aspirational non-violent action heroes."

Regular old superheroes, though, are also enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the Cartoon Network's highly-popular Justice League, which combines Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and others. Surprisingly, up to 30 percent of these toys will sell not to young boys, but to male collectors between the ages of 18 and 34. Toys are created especially with this older customer in mind; they usually want figures that are "super-articulated," meaning with lots of detail on costumes and in the musculature.

"Collectors are 'completionists,' " said Walker. "They can't relax until they've got the whole set."

Over at the ERTL Company, a suburban Chicago manufacturer of die-cast metal and plastic toys, there is also plenty to entice the collector. ERTL specializes in "1 / 24 of actual size" versions of 2003 NASCAR contenders, the newest Harley Davidson Motorcycles, even John Deere tractors and bulldozers. All have working handlebars, steering wheels, and kickstands -- things far too fragile for most children to be entrusted with. Most collectors don't trust themselves, either, as they know that even to open the box diminishes the toy's potential investment value. "So, the hard-core collector buys two of every thing," explained Jennifer Wulfekuhle, an ERTL sales representative. "One to display and touch, one to hoard in pristine condition."

This was a familiar strategy for the nearly 200 people who lined up early on Toy Fair's opening day to meet Ty Warner, inventor of Beanie Babies. The 10th anniversary of Beanie Babies will be consecrated with the launch of "Decade," a teddy bear with pale blue fur that's embellished with silver squiggles.

At the Ty booth, the original nine Beanie Babies made in 1993 were displayed under a thick plexiglass shield, as if they were holy relics, which may well be how some collectors think of them. "There's probably $28,000 worth of goods there," said Scott Wehrs, a Ty spokesperson, who also noted that Beanie Babies are still being sold at the original price of $5. That a $45 purchase made ten years ago could now be worth nearly thirty thousand is a thought never far from the mind of Leah Dorfman, owner of Leahland, a toy store in West Hempstead, N.Y.

Dorfman waited four hours to be first in line for Mr. Warner to sign her Decade teddy bear. "I went into this business because of Ty," she said. "He's made me a lot of money, enough for me to travel all over the world. Meeting him is like meeting George Clooney."

So, after visiting Toy Fair 2003, one draws some startling conclusions. It seems little girls only aspire to be fashion models. And middle-aged women pine for the autograph of teddy bear designers. Now, that's edu-tainment.

Best in Show

1. LaMaze Sing & Spin Bugs: A put-in / pull-out toy rewards hand-eye coordination for ages 6 months and up. Bug characters spin on a plastic flower base while "Ring Around the Rosie" plays. $24.99

2. Hokey Pokey Elmo from Fisher-Price: Hyped as the first plush toy capable of doing a 360-degree turn, when kids squeeze Elmo's hand, he will start to "shake it all about." $29.99.

3. TogetherTime LeapPad Learning System: Incorporates early learning activities into an interactive story-time that parent and child will both enjoy. $39.99.

4. Block Party Bracelet Kit from The Bead Shop: Girls slide letters onto colorful, wristband bracelets to spell out their names or other words. $15.

5. Lego Inventor Sets: Building with Lego bricks now takes on a whole new dimension of fun. Kids are challenged to create motor-powered, wire-scaling creatures. $59.99

Worst in Show

1. The Fast & The Furious 2 Nitrous Race Track Set: Inspired by the coming movie sequel, this miniature car racetrack set packs into what appears to be a nitrous oxide canister. Buy this for your boy only if you want to encourage him to drive illegally fast, and to idolize Vin Diesel. Price not available.

2. Pizza Fraction Fun Game: Thirteen cardboard pizzas are split in a variety of ways. Kids supposedly learn "fraction addition and subtraction by playing with their favorite food." Mathematics was never this cheesy. $17.95

3. Bratz Fashion Passion Pen: It's lip gloss, a necklace and a writing pen, all rolled into one. As such, it suggests that literacy and make-up are equally important for "tween" girls. $4.99

4. Teaching Cash Register: Allegedly teaches children how to add, subtract and do division. However, as it's equipped with a built-in scanner and credit card swipe slot, a child learns nothing more about mathematics than an adult does at 7-Eleven. $44.95

5. Stink Blasters: Twenty-four collectible characters including Dog Breath Danny, B.O. Brian, and Barfin' Ben. Each Stink Blaster figure has a soft, "squeezable" head which emits the character's namesake odor when pressed. $4.99 each.

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