February 6, 2006

Toys set to go on parade at New York’s annual fair

By Nicole Maestri

NEW YORK (Reuters) - While many people still haven't paid their 2005 bills yet, it'll look very much like Christmas 2006 this weekend in New York as hordes of brand new dolls, action figures, toy cars and stuffed animals are set to make their debut at the annual American International Toy Fair.

The fair, which takes place at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and various showrooms in New York's Toy District, attracts toy makers and inventors from around the world who are looking to wow retail buyers and the media with their latest products.

According to the Toy Industry Association, the trade group that organizes the fair, 14,000 buyers from more than 6,500 retail outlets are slated to attend, including buyers from toy stores, department stores, home furnishings retailers, consumer electronics stores, grocery stores and convenience stores.

But the amount of business that gets done at the February show has changed in the past few years.

With the U.S. toy industry now dominated on the retail front by national chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., buyers for many of the large stores are finalizing their orders for the upcoming year in October, at the American International Fall Toy Show, instead of waiting until February.

The autumn show, also held in New York, is largely closed to the press and buyers often make their decisions based on toy prototypes.

"The February show has really transformed over the last three years," said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of Toy Wishes magazine, adding that the October show is where most of the buying gets done.

But there is still plenty of work to be done at the upcoming February show, as toy makers meet with small or independent retailers, inventors show off their latest creations and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the 2006 crop of products is lifted.

For instance, Mattel Inc. is set to reveal its makeover of the Ken doll as it works to boost sales of its iconic Barbie doll. MGA Entertainment, which makes rival Bratz fashion dolls, will also unveil its 2006 line.

Toy makers often keep their plans secret as long as possible to deter copycats from beating them to market.

"This is the first time that we can really talk about what we're going to do," said Julia Fitzgerald, vice president of marketing for VTech Electronics North America.

VTech will be showcasing its new V.Smile Baby Development System and V.Flash Home "Edutainment" System, which build on the company's V.Smile educational video game system that teaches children math, phonics, problem solving and comprehension.

The V.Smile Baby is aimed at infants aged 9 months to 36 months, while the V.Flash is a new video game console for kids between 6 and 10.

VTech is hoping the V.Flash, with its line of nonviolent, educational video games, will resonate with parents who want to control which video games their children play and do not yet want to buy an Xbox or a PlayStation.

VTech's products illustrate the convergence of electronics and toys as toy makers fight to regain sales they have lost to flashy consumer electronics.

"Toy makers are trying to figure out: How do we get back the kids that we've lost?" Fitzgerald said.

Highlighting the increasing importance of electronics in the toy industry, the Toy Industry Association is planning a new section at the fair this year that will be called "[email protected]" It will feature educational toys, handheld games, educational software, DVDs, video games and accessories.

The TIA said it created the section after 49 percent of Toy Fair buyers said they were looking to purchase electronic, "edutainment" and educational products at the show.