Etch A Sketch draws on some updated looks

Associated Press

BRYAN, Ohio – The maker of one of America’s classic baby boomer toys isn’t afraid of shaking up its look to keep it on store shelves and parents’ shopping lists.

Etch A Sketch still comes in its familiar red rectangle plastic box, but now there are pink, blue and lime-green versions. And a new shape hit the market this fall – a red, heart-shaped Etch A Sketch being sold by Avon Products Inc., the cosmetics company.

Ohio Art Co. began adding colors to the frames about 10 years ago. Since then, there has been a new color, shape or gimmick nearly each year. The current line of “jelly colors” will be updated next year.

Varying Etch A Sketch’s look while trying to retain its simplistic appeal has been a successful move for Ohio Art; the new versions and a growing demand for traditional toys have helped increase sales and return the company to profitability. Free advertising from its appearances in movies and during the recent MTV Video Music Awards have been another boon for the toy.

But while Etch A Sketch is one of the simplest of playthings, it hasn’t always been easy for Ohio Art to keep it looking fresh.

“A lot of times we come up with what we think are improvements, but they’re really not fun,” said company president Larry Killgallon said.

Still, the new products have helped Ohio Art turn around after struggling financially for two years and posting losses of $1.4 million a year ago. This year it has made money for two straight quarters.

A decision to move production to China a year ago and other cost-cutting moves have contributed to the turnaround, Killgallon said.

Inside the company’s modest headquarters in rural northwest Ohio, all types of Etch A Sketches are displayed on desks and in the hallways. More than 100 million of the toys have been sold worldwide since it was invented in 1960.

“In the toy industry, if you get a product that lasts three years you’ve got a good item,” Killgallon said. “There’s not a lot of toys that last this long.”

While the splashy new colors combined to boost sales by 30 percent in past years, the classic red Etch A Sketch still sells best. Research has shown that it’s mothers who played with the original red models who buy Etch A Sketch, Killgallon said.

Some of the attraction is emotional, but Etch A Sketch also has an appeal as an activity toy.

“That creativity part is still something they like,” Killgallon said of consumers. “Mothers find it educational.”

Lauretta Jeffries, shopping recently for Christmas presents in Toledo, Ohio, said she’d rather see her 10-year-old son with an Etch A Sketch in his hands than a video game controller.

“They can do so much with it. I think they learn more,” she said. “I like it because it doesn’t take batteries.”

Other strong selling points with parents is that Etch A Sketches are portable, quiet and inexpensive, ranging from $5.99 to $12.99.

Still, Killgallon concedes that the toy that lets youngsters scrawl artwork or messages, then erase with a quick shake, can’t compare with video games. And that means his company has to keep trying.

“It’s just not that exciting,” he said. “But it has a wonderful place. It’s just not going to be No. 1 on kids’ wish list for this Christmas.”

Selling toys usually is “all about the latest and greatest, and it’s all about creating a huge buzz,” said Dave Gerardi, senior editor at Playthings, a New York-based magazine that covers the toy industry.

Right now, he said, there is a trend growing for nostalgic and traditional toys that should help Etch A Sketch sales.

Ohio Art has been smart to make subtle adjustments to Etch A Sketch and resist anything too radical, Gerardi said, adding, “You can make changes but you’ve got to keep it recognizable.”

That recognizability helped Etch A Sketch get millions of dollars worth of free advertising in movies and televisions.

It’s not unusual for script writers to ask to include the toy in a background shot. A car commercial now running that shows a boy doodling with an Etch A Sketch would be worth an estimated $5 million in free advertising.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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