Toymakers focus on tech-based products

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While Tiger Electronics lands a strike force of Robo-Chis in New York this week for Toy Fair (toyfair.org), other players in the toy business also are thinking techy.

Lego Systems' headliner at Toy Fair is Bionicle, a collection of six futuristic action figures. Also among the company's 170 new-product offerings is the Arrow Tube hangar ($89.99), part of Lego's Life on Mars line; with more than 706 pieces, kids can build futuristic space stations and send aliens shooting into space ships. Lego also will have Harry Potter and Jurassic Park 3 licensed sets, which will launch before the movies' release.

Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Lintas & Partners, New York, handles creative for Lego, and Bcom3 Group's Starcom MediaVest handles media buying.

Computer-chip giant Intel Corp. is unveiling Intel Play Digital Movie Creator ($99) as its front-runner for 2001. It allows kids to capture up to four minutes of digital video and audio and take more than 1,000 snapshots away from the PC.

"Socializing is an important piece of play for tweens," says Jeff Abbate, director of Intel Corp.'s Smart Toy Lab. "You can point and shoot, and then bring it back to the PC to see what you did, or you can play Steven Spielberg and add in animation or play with your images."

Intel will continue to market to a mix of toy and consumer electronics retail outlets, including Best Buy, Comp USA, Sharper Image and Target Stores. This year, Intel has parted ways with marketing partner Mattel. Ad plans for Intel include hybrid campaigns tailored to different retail outlets.

Also pitted against the toy giants are specialized companies being founded specifically to cater to the tween market. Founded in 1995, Radica Games' GirlTech markets electronics games designed to appeal to tween girls, their "play patterns and their desire for privacy and control."

"We did focus groups on what tween girls are interested in--what they think is cool, what they like that adults have," says Patti Saitow, VP-marketing for GirlTech. "Girls lose some of their fear and inhibitions when they hit 10 years. For instance, with a karaoke product we're testing, they show more independence and more interest in electronics and technology. The girls who are getting ready to go into their teens notice fashion and music, and are more dependent on friends. It's a really tough transitional market, because their opinions change so much in those years."

New products from GirlTech include Password Control Center, which uses voice recognition to control electronic appliances, such as computer and lights, in the bedroom. Last year's Password Journal used voice recognition technology to lock girls' private journals, and was a top-selling youth electronics product for 2000, according to surveys conducted by NPD TRSTS. GirlTech handles advertising in-house. Flashy technology notwithstanding, there's plenty of room for newcomers.

Smaller companies such as Endless Games are moving aggressively at Toy Fair 2001. Such companies will make the leap now that Hasbro and Mattel are reportedly having financial difficulties, says Matthew Nuccio, art director at toy design company DesignEdge, Merrick, N.Y.

Capitalizing on the game-show revival and collaborating with the writers of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Endless Games will introduce PopSmarts ($29.99), a pop trivia board game aimed at the upper end of the tween spectrum ("designed for players ages 12 to 110"). The company handles advertising in-house. "Endless Games has made a solid business out of classics games," says Chris Byrne, editor of industry newsletter Toy Report. "At the end of the day, you need stable lines when your one hit has run out. Toys are a business of longevity."

"There's generally one or two [hot products] that come out the of blue each year," Mr. Byrne says. "You can't predict what this year's Razor scooter will be." "At this point, it's hard to predict a hot toy--the Harry Potter license has potential considering that Pokemon has softened so much," Mr. Nuccio says. "Razor scooters are out, but BMX seems to be getting hot again--maybe as this season's new trend. The tween market has traditionally focused on handheld electronics, but with the exception of PlayStation 2, the stress has definitely slipped off, leaving a huge gap. Crafts, however, are a mainstay; companies like Natural Science Industry are starting to focus more on tweens, and finding a strong marketplace. Focusing on Mattel and Hasbro--two megaliths with a lot of problems--doesn't give the industry a look of the diversity it deserves."

Copyright February 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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