It's official: the toy industry has gone techno.
The new crop of toys unveiled during this week's annual American International Toy Fair shows that the big toymakers have decided their best friend is the computer. If it doesn't boot up or have a conversation with you, it's a poor excuse for a toy.
The proof, of course, will be in the profits or lack of them. Despite the Furby frenzy and other occasional "must-haves," times have been less than booming for the toy industry. Sales last year were stagnant at $15.2 billion, down .3 percent from 1997. Sales of traditional toys plummeted action figure sales were especially hard hit, dropping 13 percent in '98, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America.
"Action figures have been hurt," said Eugene Gilligan, executive editor of Playthings, a monthly publication for toy retailers. They are "predominately a boy's category and (boys) seem to be spending more and more time on the computer."
"Playing has changed a lot and technology has really done that," Chris Byrne, a toy consultant and contributor to Toy Book magazine said. "As play is evolving and children are playing differently, [toymakers] are not really toymakers anymore, they're really entertainment companies."
|'Hollywood' Hulk Hogan (right) and a wrestling buddy made an appearance at this year's Toy Fair to hawk WCW action figures
Many of the 1,700 companies from around the world sharing their products with retailers this week exemplify this new reality. Mattel has joined with computer chip manufacturer Intel to create a PC-based microscope and digital camera. Hasbro Interactive is introducing a CD-ROM line of classic games played via e-mail. Tiger Electronics, a Hasbro division, has been busy breeding new techno-advanced Furbys and Microsoft is fitting Teletubbies with a chip that will allow them to talk, sing and display pictures on their bellies.
"Toy makers want to really get in on the computer craze," Gilligan said. "I think the computer has become such a way of life ... the industry kind of has to reflect that."
But if by chance the far-out virtual contraptions fail to make kids scream with desire, the toy industry can probably count on a little help from "The Force."
Anticipation of the May release of Star Wars: Episode 1 has infected the toy industry just as it has the culture-at-large. The movie franchise that revolutionized the toy world in the late '70s and early '80s is expected to work its magic once again.
"I think they are banking on Star Wars toys," Gilligan said. "A lot of companies have spent a lot of money on it, so it is going to be very important."
Hasbro, which will release the new Jedis, droids and other wondrous creatures under the Kenner label, is keeping wraps on the treasures until the movie comes out Memorial Day weekend. Retailers were allowed a glimpse of the merchandise at Hasbro's showcase, in its Manhattan headquarters, but ultra-tight security kept members of the media at bay, burly guards and friendly escorts frustrating even the most determined attempts at access.
Also not yet showing off its Lucasfilm loot was Lego, which will release eight sets based on Episode One and also will put out a build-your-own Star Wars robot through its Mindstorm robotics line.
Of course, the licensing of movie characters can be hit and miss. Last year's Godzilla and Lost in Space were merchandising flops. But if Star Wars bombs, all bets are off.
"I don't really see that there's any way the movie's going to fail," said Sharon Korbeck, editor of Toy Shop magazine.
Even so, that doesn't mean the George Lucas film will spawn this year's Furby. The fickleness of the toy-buying public is a legend even more powerful than that of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. "I don't think (a Star Wars toy) will be the toy to get for Christmas. Usually it's been kind of something that's come out of nowhere," Korbeck said.
The Toy Fair is where companies try to put the spin on their products and create the kind of buzz that will carry through to December a tough chore 10 months ahead of time. "Last year we were all real hot on Bounce-Around Tigger," Korbeck said of the toy that went on to sell well but lost handily to Furby in excitement-factor.
|Tiger Electronics is hoping Furby Babies are as popular as their parents.
Tiger Electronics is hoping this year's Furby is Furby.
And their hopes are well-founded. Thanks to Furby, Beanie Babies, Teletubbies and Bounce-Around-Tigger, plush toy sales were a bright spot last year, increasing 19 percent to $1.6 billion, according to Toy Manufacturers of America.
The kids wanted even more. "There were some disappointments, some kids didn't get (Furby) at Christmas," Gilligan said.
So expect a Furby flood soon.
Current model Furbies will be retired at the end of February to make way for Furbies with new "animal world" fur patterns, Furby Babies that gurgle and coo and Gizmo Furbies, a concession to Spielberg & Co.'s concerns that the toy looked too much like the furballs from Gremlins. The next generation will also include a "deep sleep option" to keep the rambunctious devils quiet. Tiger is also looking for a piece of the Beanie Baby market with a Happy Meal toy in March and Furby Buddies, a small $5 stuffed Furby that does nothing at all.
Meanhile other companies are looking to achieve Furbydom this year. Mattel is offering Chat Pals, slated for the fall. One Pal, Winnie the Pooh, turns his head albeit a bit stiffly when he hears a voice and makes comments like "hello friend, time for fun."
These days, it seems, no stuffed animal is safe from interaction. Even Mattel's "Cuddle-Up Pups" have a function. The cute little dogs suckle their mother's underside, which is, a spokesman noted, "something that's never been done before in a plush toy."