Toy makers bet on retro, creative playthings

NEW YORK — A digital Barbie vanity mirror that allows makeup experimentation without the mess. Customizable figurines mounted on spinning tops that battle in a portable arena. New Play Doh Plus that’s fluffier and more malleable.

The hippest new toys showcased at the American International Toy Fair last week are interactive, adaptable and, often, more than a bit familiar.

“We’re reinventing older brands so that kids can rediscover them as if they were new,” said John Frascotti, chief marketing officer for Hasbro Inc., at the show in New York City. “A 5-year-old doesn’t know or care that a toy has actually been around for decades.”

More than 31,000 attendees, including 1,000 exhibitors, are congregating at the annual event, which is considered to be the start of a yearlong scramble to identify, market and occasionally copy the products expected to dominate the Christmas shopping season.

This year the hunt feels even more urgent. The U.S. toy industry had a lackluster 2012, with revenue falling slightly from the year before to $16.5 billion. Sales dropped even further compared with 2008, when they totaled $21.6 billion, according to research firm NPD Group.

Manufacturers, distributors, importers and buyers crowd the 366,000 square feet of space in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to display more than 150,000 products, including action figures, educational activities, bicycles, puppets, video and board games. The fair, the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, began Sunday and lasts through Wednesday.

Toy analysts are already taking bets on likely trends.

One major buzzword? Construction playthings, and not just in the form of boys’ building blocks.

Build-your-own robots and action figures and do-it-yourself doll backdrops helped the building sets sector grow 19.7 percent last year – the largest revenue gain of any toy category, according to NPD. Analysts expect another boost in 2013.

Parents want toys that their children can create themselves and customize instead of the “watch me” products that attempt to entertain kids with the push of a button, said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimeToPlayMag.com.

“Especially with the economy the way it is, they’re looking for toys that offer value through rebuilding, that kids can play with over and over again,” he said.

Hasbro showed off Transformers Construct-Bots, which kids can build out from a robot frame foundation using armor, weapons and accessory parts. The company’s new Iron Man Assemblers action figures can be compiled using a variety of arm, torso, leg and other body parts into hundreds of combinations.

Hot Wheels, owned by Mattel Inc., will soon enable children to construct their own track sets and create unique toy cars with special molds and accessory stickers.

“We live in a world of youth empowerment, where kids are used to an environment that they can control,” Hasbro’s Frascotti said. “They can already go to an iPad and design whatever they want, so why can’t they do that in an analog world too?”

Toys that cross gender barriers are also gaining traction.

At the New York show, Hasbro debuted a silver-and-black version of its usually pink-and-purple Easy-Bake oven. The company, which was recently petitioned by tens of thousands of people for a boy-friendly Easy-Bake, said it has worked for more than a year on a more gender-neutral version of its 50-year-old cooking toy.

Last year, Zing Toys debuted a pink-and-purple bow-and-arrow set called the Air Huntress. At the show, Hasbro demonstrated its Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker archery toy, a product packaged with darts covered in funky feminine patterns.

Lego used its small blocks to create life-sized models of girls in soccer uniforms and karate belts to exhibit its female-focused Lego Friends line. Spin Master adopted technology from its popular AirHogs flying toys in its new Flutterbye Fairy, a winged doll that launches off a charger modeled after a jewelry box and follows hand motions to stay aloft.

Mega Bloks stacked a pile of Barbie Build ‘n Style play set suites – including blocks made up like kitchens or bedrooms – in a corner of its booth. The girl-centric construction product line launched in December and also includes pool party, fashion boutique and pet shop options along with figurines with interchangeable hair.

The market also is headed toward an “abundance” of old-school products featuring nostalgic, vintage or classic elements – “like the equivalent of bell bottoms or neon colors for toys,” said Adrienne Appell, an analyst with fair organizer Toy Industry Association.

Brands such as Fraggle Rock, Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Pony are celebrating 30-year anniversaries with new launches, she said.

Enduring favorites such as Slinkys, pinwheels and kaleidoscopes are getting upgrades. A railroad set from Fisher-Price’s Thomas &Friends line, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, got sleeker wood tracks. In the Mattel showroom, geared to the upcoming “Man of Steel” film: a Superman figurine with jelly arms that can be launched from a slingshot-style contraption.

With Yomega’s products, players can create their ideal toy out of a mix of yo-yo halves and bearings.

“Kids Frankenstein these,” employee Brett “Ooch” Outchcunis said as a yo-yo gained dizzying speed in his hands. “If you allow them to customize and experiment, you can get a loyal customer base that’ll stick with you.”

Companies hope that the burst of toys inspired by the past will help grab parents, grandparents and other adults buying gifts for children, Appell said. Retro callbacks have other advantages too.

“Some of the price points may be a bit lower,” she said. “And although parents see the educational value of an iPad, there’s a time when you want to shut off the electronics.”

Even games that started out in digital form are getting a physical makeover to try to bring tweens and teens back into the toy fold, Appell said.

Mattel has already crafted the bestselling “Angry Birds” application into a tangible product involving slingshot-style launchers, cards and tokens shaped like the game’s birds and pigs. Hasbro reimagined PopCap’s online “Bejeweled” series as a board game and has an upcoming hard-copy version of Zynga’s “Draw Something” game.

So will the hot holiday toy be the cyber-hoop set that combines a physical basketball hoop with digital elements that can keep score, record a highlights reel and export stats to social media? Maybe the Monopoly Empire game, in which players buy major global brands instead of real estate?

“The toy fair is always about finding the next diamond in the rough, the next Tickle Me Elmo, the next Zhu Zhu Pets,” Silver said. “There’s a breakout every year.”

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