The Javits Center, Manhattan's huge convention and exhibition space on the Hudson River, overflowed with toys, toy makers, toy sellers, and journalists last month when the annual Toy Fair brought 20,000 attendees to town. On display were 100,000 products (over 7,000 never before seen in the world) from 1,200 exhibitors. Barbie, Corolle, Erector sets, Lego, Madame Alexander, Lincoln Logs, Playmobil, Ugli Doll-all there.
The displays filled two floors, with long aisles dividing one row from the next. Dashes of pink and purple brightened booths featuring dolls and dress-up clothes. Primary colors and neon splashed across other booths, with lots of natural wood and pastels to balance it out. Toy demonstrators invaded the aisles with boomerangs, super bubbles, yo-yos, puppets, and marshmallow guns.
With all the sensory stimuli it's easy to understand why children under age 18 are not admitted to Toy Fair. But in a sense they were a crucial missing piece. Everyone-toy manufacturers, retailers, inventors-had a lot invested in figuring out the fickle fancies of kids and their parents and grandparents.
Is this the year that parents and grandparents will pay a premium for Green toys? Some toymakers were counting on it. Aminals touted its company's use of organic cotton, natural vegetable dye, and fair labor practices in the production of plush critters shaped like children's drawings. Plan Toys had an ambitious display filled with natural rubberwood dollhouses, vehicles, eco-towns, and blocks. Its promotional material boasted that solar and bio-mass power runs its wood-drying kilns.
Several companies offered forts and playhouses made out of heavy eco-friendly cardboard. Kidsonroof toys from Holland offered My Mobile Home, a dollhouse out of cardboard that kids can tote around and fold up when not in use. Cardboardesignkids offered teepees and a rocket ship (large enough for kids to get in) made of unbleached cardboard ripe for decorating. Wild Creations offered small EcoAquariums that come packaged with a live bamboo plant, a snail, and two live frogs. The unique selling proposition: You only have to change the water twice a year and feed the frogs twice a week-so it's an easy first pet for a child.
Could this is be the year that toy safety is uppermost in shoppers' minds? A new law limiting permissible levels of lead and phthalates (which soften plastic) meant headlines before Toy Fair and workshops during it. Toy safety labs were well represented at the Fair. Dano2 promoted its line of baby teethers and toys made out of medical grade plastic "free from harmful substances." Toy reps were quick to mention their companies' testing and to boast-if they could-that their products are American-made.
Many companies are hoping that bad economic times make old familiar toys even more dear. That could be good news for plush toys based on favorite storybook characters, sold by companies like Merry Makers (Olivia and The Snowy Day doll) or Yottoy (Harry the Dirty Dog, Knuffle Bunny, and Paddington). It could be good news for doll companies like Madame Alexander (Fancy Nancy and Eloise) or Charisma Brand, owned by Marie Osmond, which now owns the license for the Kewpie doll, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Etch-a-Sketch and Carrom could benefit if consumers turn to old standbys.
Makers of traditional board games, wooden games, strategy games, and card games were betting that families will be spending more time at home together. They advertised multi-generational appeal. Many were clever adaptations of oldies: Bananagrams packs scrabble-type letter tiles into a banana-shaped pouch. Birdcage Press offers lotto and card games featuring art from some of America's great museums. MadCave Bird Games turned Sudoku-the pen and paper, number and logic game-into a beautiful wooden board game called Colorku that replaces numbers with brightly colored balls. Educational Outdoors developed the Camp game, a board game (with four levels of trivia questions about nature, geography, and the outdoors) that sells at places like REI and Yellowstone National Park.
One company is hoping that "when the economy is down, people go to faith." One2Believe sells 12-inch talking dolls of Jesus and play sets featuring David and Goliath, Moses and Pharoah, and other Bible characters. And if kids had been allowed into Toy Fair, many of them would have been attracted to the Marshmallow Fun Company booth, where they could shoot each other with mini marshmallows from guns and bows.
Retailer Wendy Taylor was visiting Toy Fair for the first time. She bought her store on Main Street in Chatham, N.Y., last August, right before the economy took its sharp dive south. She had worked at the store, now named Clocktower Toys and Gifts, under the two previous owners, so she wasn't a complete newcomer to the retail toy business.
Despite the economy, Taylor did good business at Christmas. She's hoping this signals that parents will continue to find in their budgets money for toys. Recently Chatham has experienced some local layoffs, but she's still making enough to pay her bills (although that doesn't include a salary for her).
Her store is a small one, without a lot of storage or shelf space, so she tries to stock it with items her customers-mostly local, but some weekenders from NYC-won't find at Wal-Mart. Her customers shop for birthday and baby gifts, so she tries to have a good selection of items under $20. She also tries to buy American because her customers care about that, although they aren't always willing to pay the premium price that American products demand. For the most part, licensed products are out, and she carries just enough Lego to satisfy the occasional birthday shopper.
Taylor prepared for Toy Fair before coming. She knew she was looking for summer outdoor toys and to fill in some gaps in her current inventory. She brought a friend, Taitia Shelow, as a sounding board and budget enforcer. Shelow pulled a small roller bag that gradually filled with catalogs and a few toy samples. I asked if I could tag along while they shopped.
First question Taylor asked at every booth: "What's your minimum?" Next was, "Do you have a Toy Fair special?" The answers were important. As she shopped she found that exhibitors offered special deals for orders placed at the show, but to qualify a retailer had to spend $500-an amount that put the discounts or free shipping out of Taylor's reach. Last year she found that shipping prices took an increasing bite out of her profits, so qualifying for free shipping is an important perk.
Exhibitors also had minimum sales, usually $100 or $150. She went to one exhibitor who sold stickers and had a $250 minimum, which he refused to lower. Taylor was amazed: "Who needs $250 worth of stickers? That's a lot of stickers. Can you believe in this recession time they can turn down $100?"
Taylor knows that Groovy Girls from Manhattan Toy Company sells in her store. So do the Whoozit soft rattles for babies. She bought some beading and bracelet kits at Bead Bazaar but walked away from the Spygear display at Wild Planet saying, "Too crowded. We're not going to waste our time. We have the catalog at home."
Clocktower Toys and Gifts may struggle to break even, but as long as Wendy Taylor can pay her bills, she'll be in business. "You have to like it," her friend Taitia Shelow said.