As the area's toy manufacturers prepare to display their 2005 products next week at the American International Toy Fair in New York, many are betting that what's worked in the past will continue to sell.
For Mattel Inc., MGA Entertainment Inc. and Jakks Pacific Inc., tried-and-true products provided bright spots in what the overall industry deemed a disappointing 2004, with traditional toy sales estimated to have declined 5 percent from the year earlier.
That means Mattel's Barbie, which posted better than expected holiday sales, MGA's Bratz dolls and Jakks' plug-and-play line of TV games.
After struggling for two years against edgier rivals such as Bratz dolls, Barbie sales in the U.S. rose 3 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with the like period a year earlier. In the fourth quarter of 2003, sales were off 25 percent from a year earlier. "In 2005, I'd bet money on Barbie again," said Margaret Whitfield, an analyst with Ryan Beck & Co.
To build on tried-and-true brands, manufacturers are trying more product tie-ins and cross-promotional opportunities to keep merchandise in the sights of young buyers year round.
Mattel, for one, is pursuing a cross-promotional push for its stalwart toy lines, said spokeswoman Sara Rosales.
This year, Mattel is introducing an "American Idol" Barbie doll and play sets. As a follow-up to its December release of a doll based on its "Barbie Fairytopia," a direct-to-DVD movie, it plans a fall line of Fairytopia Jewel Dolls and play sets. In June, the El Segundo-based toymaker will also launch a line of themed dolls and accessories to accompany Walt Disney Co.'s release of the "Cinderella" DVD.
For boys, the company is launching figures, play sets and accessories linked to the March 11 release of the Twentieth Century Fox-animated film "Robots," as well as toys tied to the June 17 release of Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins." This includes a high-tech urban tank, and Gotham City Glider figure that can be launched up to 40 feet in the air.
Mattel also began shipping products from its Hot Wheels division last month tied to its four-part "AcceleRacers" animated TV series, which is running quarterly on the Cartoon Network.
MGA will try to take share from Barbie by making its Bratz line the biggest focus for 2005. Bratz Babyz, fashion-forward infants with little pets, are meant to be more of an impulse buy due to their lower price point and small size.
Other Bratz offerings include Pretty 'N' Punk dolls inspired by the London punk rock scene, glitzy Fabulous Bratz, swashbuckling-themed Bratz Treasures and, for spring and summer, a new line of Lil' Bratz called Beach Bash, which is supported by a party house and watercraft vehicles.
Jakks Pacific is continuing to expand its line of plug-and-play TV games that contain multiple games in a single joystick.
The Malibu-based company signed as many licensing deals as it could in 2003 for its TV games and is growing the line from 12 units in 2004 to more than 20 in 2005. New games are based on "Star Wars," "Mortal Kombat," "Jeopardy," "Wheel of Fortune" and Nickelodeon properties. Jakks is also going to introduce new technology that will be used in its next generation of TV games, said spokeswoman Genna Goldberg.
While this is the selling season for toy companies, many in the industry say that the February show is not as significant as it once was. That's because several years ago, the Toy Industry Association, which puts on Toy Fair, launched an October show. There is also a toy fair in January in Hong Kong.
"This was the main avenue used for selling to the trade; however, now with the introduction of the October show, a bit of the emphasis has shifted," said Goldberg.
But the media are not invited to the October show. The February event, by contrast, is covered heavily and provides a chance to generate buzz about new products.
The options at Toy Fair are slightly overwhelming for Jay Demircift, owner of Puzzle Zoo, a five-store chain as he tries to select what's most important for his 4,500-square-foot stores. "I'm always trying to gauge what's going to be hot, what's great, what's new, what's innovative," Demircift said. "It's hard to gauge because you're looking at stuff that's going to come out in November and December."
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