Toymakers are geared up to showcase tween tech

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The "Toys `R' Us kid" is growing up.

That's the message a visitor to the 98th annual American Toy Fair could pick up from new products being targeted to tweens. Toys aimed at 9-to-12-year-olds are strongly aspirational and imitative of popular adult merchandise.

"When it comes to the kids market, we're looking at a real emphasis on tweens this year," says Chris Byrne, editor of industry newsletter Toy Report. "I think you'll see a real polarization between traditional toys, which are mostly preschool, and the emphasis and growth in lifestyle, electronics, makeup and fashion products aimed at tweens. Nowadays, kids are out of the traditional toy market by the time they're 8. There's an age compression ... kids are buying like their older counterparts but at an earlier age."

LIFESTYLE SEGMENT

Where this will manifest itself, Mr. Byrne says, is in the lifestyle segment of toys. "The nature of play is to imitate adults. Like last year, there is a lot more technology in kids toys, reflecting the tech in the adult world," he explains. "It's very natural that this idea will show up as a personal digital assistant, a Palm Pilot-type [organizer] or a robot. You're going to see more electronic animals ... a lot of people in the industry have told me that robots are where it's going in the future."

For at least one venerable toy marketer, the future apparently includes a radically reduced presence at Toy Fair. Mattel is completely absent from the Jacob Javits Convention Center part of the show this week in New York and will only be showcasing new products in the Toy Building.

FEBRUARY IS TOO LATE

"The percentage of the toy business being done by mass merchants that are not toy-focused-Kmart Corp., Wal-Mart Stores, Target Stores-now represents a bigger part of the business overall," says Matt Bousquette, president of Mattel's boys entertainment and games division. "Their toy-buying cycle is different from the traditional toy industry cycle. All ... are making their decisions before February, so it makes sense for us to eliminate our New York Toy Fair presence after this year."

Mattel's major product presentation this year will be a closed show in Tucson, Ariz., next week.

Though Mattel has scaled back in traditional Toy Fair square footage, it's forging ahead with its 2001 product line. The company is rolling out the Extreme Sports extension of its Hot Wheels brand, targeting tweens with products such as BMX bikes and skateboards. Debuting in July is the Xtreme Tony Hawk radio-controlled skateboard ($59.99); the vehicle performs stunts simulating the skateboard champion's best moves.

harry potter licensing

Aspirational characters are big this year, even in fiction. Snape's Potion Lab ($24.99) headlines Mattel's hot Harry Potter toy license; kids can mix drinkable potions and edible treats. The Hogwart's 3-D game ($29.99) is based on "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone," the first volume in J.K. Rowling's book series.

Mattel has teamed up with Viacom's Nickelodeon again to promote additions to the successful Rugrats line of toys. New products include Angelica's Radio-Controlled Chatmobile ($39.99), an interactive talking car with an Angelica doll behind the wheel.

"This product talks to a whole new interest in more technologically cued toys toward girls," says Anne Brodsky, senior VP-consumer products at Nickelodeon. "It's especially relevant because there are empowered tween-age girls starring in these shows."

Nickelodeon's next big franchise is Jimmy Neutron, a 10-year-old boy genius with a robot dog. Jimmy Neutron marks the first time that Nickelodeon is pre-promoting a film and its licenses before the TV show even launches; Viacom's Paramount Pictures will debut a Jimmy Neutron film for Christmas, while the TV series kicks off the following fall. Mattel's Jimmy Neutron products will include the Deluxe Remote Controlled Goddard ($39.99), yet another robotic dog that delivers emotion and personality reactions on demand.

Mattel handles advertising in-house and also uses True North Communications' FCB World-wide, Los Angeles.

SHOEZIES A SHOO-IN

Mattel rival Hasbro has pre-teen fashionistas in mind with Shoezies, a collectible line featuring miniature versions of popular shoes offered today.

"When you get down to it, girls of all ages love shoes. They're a fashion statement ... Shoezies take advantage of that. They're the first time a little girl can collect shoes for herself," says Ira Hernowitz, senior VP-marketing for Hasbro's First Fun unit. Advertising by Omnicom Group's DDB World-wide, New York, will focus on TV and radio. Hasbro recently consolidated media buying and planning at Grey Global Group's MediaCom.

"We're seeing a growing market to reach that [tween] age group, because they're spending a lot of dollars, lots of discretionary income," Mr. Hernowitz says. "The tween is a very influential consumer even to our younger market, as there's lots of aspiration to it."

Hasbro's Tiger Electronics is expanding its Robo-Chi family, which debuted last year with Poo-Chi; the mechanical dog was the No. 1 selling toy for 2000, according to the NPD TRSTS toys tracking service. For 2001, Tiger delivers Robo-Baby ($29.99), a robotic baby that evolves from making baby sounds to speaking coherent phrases. Robo-Baby interacts with other new Robo-Chis, including Meow-Chi and Robot-Chi.

Tiger will partner with McDon-ald's Corp. for a Robo-Chi Happy Meal promotion launching Feb. 22.

Furby's interactive pet pal Shelby, a talking clam originally set to launch last year, also makes its first appearance. At the high end of animatronics is i-Cybie ($199.99), a cyberdog that matures from puppy to loyal friend. I-Cybie knows to recharge itself when its batteries are running low and uses advanced voice-recognition technology to respond to the owner's commands.

"Most important to these kids is the ability to communicate with them and other characters-true interactivity," says Marc Rosenberg, VP-public relations and promotions for Tiger Electronics. "You're looking at a diverse group of products: animatronics, `smart toys,' microchip miniplayers."

Tiger has the Harry Potter electronics game licenses. Book of Spells, an electronic organizer, stores character bios, images and other Hogwart's information. Tiger's 4-foot-long Quidditch Broom, an electronic game in the form of Harry's Nimbus 2000 flying broomstick, is expected to be a hit. Posnick & Kolker, New York, handles Tiger creative; MediaCom has media.

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