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Caroline Kennedy

Direct from Market: Toy Fair 2012

Apps, pop culture and homemade play things flooded the Javits aisles

Toy Fair CrowdsCrowd of buyers lined up at Toy Fair
Business is good. It's looking up. At least that's what most manufacturers on the exhibit floor at this year's 109th American International Toy Fair said when reflecting back on 2011 and looking at the year ahead. Toy buyers came to the show with a confidence not seen in recent years, mirroring the positivity reflected at the recent gift markets. And even if toy sale figures for 2011 have not been computed yet, sales were already on an upswing as of 2010 with a two percent growth in the U.S. to $21.87 billion, according to the NPD Group.

Nothing's ever perfect, and despite the ubiquitous hurdles of this ever-changing toy world, future sales aren't expected to slow down, especially with the much-needed propulsion of a strong 2011 holiday season. Some of this year's vendors also weren't shy to admit that they've significantly dropped prices moving forward, because it's simply the only way to maneuver around the shifting economy - and ultimately survive.

Vendors also brought something for everyone. Plenty of games, accessories, plush, dolls, collectibles and play sets filled aisles 100 through 6,400, but one thing that was obvious to any attendee was the industry renaissance of more technology and interactive play. Manufacturers aren't ignoring the role that more interactivity and tech components play in overall interest level and sales these days, and Leapfrog set the bar for what's to come in the industry with their TOTY win.

Prior to Sunday's opening-day ribbon cutting to welcome buyers and hundreds of members of the media into Jacob Javits, the annual toy "Oscars," or Toy of the Year Awards, were held at Lincoln Center. Leapfrog took away the top honor with their LeapPad Explorer, a handheld learning tablet with hundreds of cartridge games and downloadable apps. Mattel pulled in two more wins with the tabletop version of the popular phone app game, Angry Birds Knock on Wood, as Game of the Year and picked best "Girl" Toy of the Year for the Fijit Friends Interactive Figures, talking robots that respond to more than 30 verbal demands with more than 150 phrases and jokes - both examples of how more interactivity, whether in the form of talky robots or apps to enhance play time, is guiding the industry forward.

Setting the tone for a fun and upbeat Toy Fair, Hasbro kicked off its Toy Fair activities with a birthday party, complete with birthday cake, hats and party games, to celebrate the 60th birthday of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Among the other birthdays and anniversaries celebrated during Toy Fair were: Klutz, 35th anniversary; Safari Ltd., 30th anniversary; and Where's Waldo, 25th anniversary.

RavensburgerRavensburger
Traditional vs. Tech

It's unavoidable, really. Technology is everywhere, and just as most retailers and manufacturers rely on social media to connect with patrons and clients, the products on their shelves are reflecting the times more so now than ever. It was hard not to pass one manufacturer who didn't have something interactive, app-driven or expanded into an online community to add another dimension to play time. For this generation of youngster growing up integrating an iPhone, iPad or iPod into their toys and games will be a given.

Perhaps the newest technological development making its way into toys and creating buzz is "augmented reality." Hasbro's new Lazer Tag Blaster incorporates the iPhone with a downloadable app for augmented reality play. Ravensburger brings puzzles to life with augmented reality through the camera function of an iPhone or iPad smart device. Jay@Play brings its MushABelly plush collectibles to life in a 3-D augmented-reality game, and technology company Digital Tech Frontier launched its new toy division, Popar Toys, to introduce a line of affordable augmented reality books and cards that combine animation and interactivity.

Smart-e-Bear makers, Intellitoys, introduced the latest addition to their educational tech toys, a voice-driven, interactive android (tentatively called Rockin' Robby), that connects to phones, tablets and other media players to give children language, math, history and other topical quizzes, stories and jokes with easy-to-download mobile phone expansions. "There's always a market for wooden blocks," says Michael Last, CEO, Intellitoys. "On the other hand, if the toy industry doesn't embody technology, it will go the way of the Polaroid camera."

TheOTheO
With all the concern about kids spending too much time at the computer, online or playing video games, game companies and toy makers have been much more pro-active in using technology to get kids up and moving rather than just sitting and moving their fingers across a keyboard or using a joystick. One such simple new device is TheO, bright orange special foam ball combines with smart devices and mobile apps for more active play.

Transitioning into the 21st century of toys is only natural for some while others are sticking to their traditional play things, because there's still a strong market. "The tech side plays more of a role as development takes place in society," says Daniel Bowen, president of Playroom Entertainment. Even though the company still produces traditional, or non-tech toys, Bowen recognizes the huge shift and connect to the electronic world of toys. After all, balance - like Mattel bringing Angry Birds to the family table - keeps the industry diverse enough and strong.

Playroom EntertainmentPlayroom Entertainment's Three Magicians
This year, Playroom is launching their first-ever toy line, targeted specifically for ages 12 through 24-months and up. The German-made wooden line includes the Three Little Magicians four- and 10-piece, puzzles with stacking blocks and a Stackdown Castle shape sorting box rounding out the new offerings. "At the end of the day, people still like to buy a child presents with more social interaction," says Bowern, "but there's something about playing around the table together, particularly in a tough economy."

Made in the USA

There is a growing trend toward more U.S.-made products, and vendors are responding, including a passionate Kip Weeks of eco-kids. The fruit- and plant-based manufacturers, Weeks says that there's no other place he'll produce his products than in the United States, specifically within his home state of Maine. Weeks and his wife started by selling their crafting supplies, including eco-dough, finger paints and crayons, at their local farmer's market and now supply to more than 400 retailers in the US. All the flowers, fruit and vegetables used for the production and color of the eco-kids line are purchased from local vendors.

Unfortunately some "made in the USA" product may not be a top choice for retailers because of the higher price tags. "You have to already have the mentality that if it's made in the U.S.A., it's going to cost more," says Amy Cannistraci, finance director at R. John Wright. For more than 36 years, the company has handmade each collectible doll in its Bennington, VT studio. Offering high-end (and priced) molded felt and plush limited-edition dolls, the company featured some new additions, including the Wizard of Oz with a Wicked Witch topping off the already, costly dolls at $1,750 price tag.

But the idea of U.S.-made toys and games goes far beyond the price tag or patriotism. It makes our economy strong. It's giving everything back, one community at a time. "Everything I earn goes back into making our products," says Weeks. "This business will stay in Maine until the day it dies."

Madame AlexanderMadame Alexander's Tin Man
While wooden blocks are not new or unusual, the made-in-the-U.S.A Un-block is just a little different. The starter set of 110 wooden building pieces, a system of interlocking blocks and connectors, come assembled in a compact 6"x6"x6" block.

Pop Culture & Retro

Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and Lion of Oz all popped up throughout Toy Fair at one booth or another, including legendary doll makers Madame Alexander, which featured new Oz additions as well as Puff the Magic Dragon (in honor of its 50th anniversary, the doll-maker is introducing a soft fabric 16" Puff and 5" Jackie Paper doll, modeled after the illustrations from the 2002 picture book), Fairy Tales (Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater), Alice in Wonderland and, just in time for the fall 2012 revival of the Broadway musical Annie, comes a limited edition 8" doll of the little orphan, complete with a miniature locket. Newer lines inspired by the original Moulin Rouge and Showtime's Borgias series.

Collectibles can bring anyone back to another time or place. From Thor and Tolkien (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) bobble heads at Funko, a replica of the Delorian-like "time machine" from the cult, 1985 film Back to the Future at Diamond Select Toys, or retro-style games dating back to the 19th century through the present, chances are Toy Fair was a blast from everyone's past.

"In bad times, people like to look to the past," says Dodd Harris, president of Perisphere & Trylon. The West Hills, CA.-based game maker previewed its entire vintage collection, including boxed games of Skittles, Egg & Spoon Race from the late 1800s, Abacus and the classic Chinese Checkers. "In good times people look to the future," says Harris. "People like retro. There's less cynicism when a kid comes up to you and wants to play with a retro toy. It's something you remember."

Diamond Select Toys showcased Universal Monsters, including This Island Earth's Metaluna Mutant and other collectibles from Dr. Who, MAD Magazine and Ghostbusters figures in addition to more gift-forward items like the Marvel (Captain America's Shield, Silver Surfer's Board) and Star Wars (Death Star and Millennium Falcon) designed bottle openers.

Lego Super HeroesLego Super Heroes

Lego showed the creative potential of its iconic building blocks. Its building artists created replica versions of a number of different super hero characters around Toy Fair which were a popular photo opp for attendees.

Gifted Lines

Leaving the licensed- and retro-heavy world behind, more wildlife themes were present in the gift offerings. Apple Park,  introduced a new line of critter blankies and teething toys that double in play value (when the ring is pulled, the critters crawl). Each toy is hand-sewn in natural silk leaf. Critters and the whimsical also filled the shelves of Danish toy makers based in Roswell, GA, Maileg, featured a new circus tent play set and new mice, clowns, pixies and other whimsical, hand-made characters, while Beatrix New York showcased their new animal-inspired and hand-embroidered nylon lunch boxes and Cuddly Critters backpack and stuffed dolls. Inspirational giftware company Demdaco introduced its new Nat & Jules childrens' gift and plush line to toy retailers.

True Hope BratzTrue Hope Bratz
Wry Baby, known in gift circles for its humorous products for children and their parents, also exhibited at Toy Fair for the first time. Co-owner David Sopp commented, "I displayed all our toy items at the front of the booth thinking that is what buyers would be most interested in, but they have been much more interested in our snapsuits and other children's apparel items."

Hot or cold-it doesn't matter when it comes to Aroma Home, which highlighted itsr gift range of microwaveable therapy products, including UGG-style feet warmers, Knitted Snuggle Hotties (knitted pillows filled with natural grain fragranced with pure essential oils of lavender and chamomile) and Hot Hugs versions for children (with lavender inserts).

Doll-licious!

MGA's Bratz are back with the launch of New Hope, a new line of hairless Bratz dolls created in response to a growing social media movement calling for toymakers to create hairless dolls to emotionally comfort young girls and boys who suffer from hair loss due to cancer treatments. The company also introduced a similar group in its Moxie Girlz line. MGA will donate $1 for every True Hope Bratz and Moxie Girlz doll, sold, to City of Hope for cancer research.

My Friend HugglesMy Friend Huggles

My Friend Huggles, a new line of character-building cloth dolls, made its debut. Each doll, measuring about the same size as the average 2-year-old and intended to be like a best friend, comes with a satin ribbon on its back that bears a word representing a positive quality, such as "honest" or "grateful" and thus providing a parent with a teachable moment. Dream Big Toy Company added to its line of positive role model soft dolls, Go! Go! Sports Dolls with Soccer Girl Cassie, Runner Girl Ellas and Swimmer Girl Suzi.

Madame Alexander was all dolled up with its new Ivy & Bean line of 12" cloth dolls, along with new additions to its Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy collections. And Aurora, known for it plush toys, especially its Yoo-hoo and Friends line, debuted a new licensed re-introduction of the classsics, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.

The Game's the Thing

Games of all kinds and for all ages were prevalent all over the Toy Fair floor. Educational Insights, known for delivering high-quality board games, it did not disappoint. Front and center was Tritective, a three-letter mystery word game for ages 10 and up, being demoed by none other than the game's inventor, Caitlin Hogan. Those who relish a good strategy game can try their hand at Nowhere to Go, which stood out with its sleek 007-esque design. Aimed at kids ages 8 and up, it offers short game play (typically 5 minutes) that can be played over and over. For the younger crowd comes The 7 Habits of Happy Kids - based on the book series by the same name - which hones in on kids' listening skills. Finally, BBQ Blitz is a well-conceived game whose box doubles as the game board. Players grab their spatulas to build and flip their burgers before others do - a feat that's easier said than done.

WhereWhere's Waldo? We found him at Toy Fair celebrating 25 years.

Cardinal Games had an unusual guest in its booth - and rather a likeness of one. A life-life cardboard cut-out of Sheldon Cooper from TV's wildly popular sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" was on hand to announce the new board game based on the show. While the Big Bang game debuted in time for Holiday 2011, Cardinal plans to follow up with a fan edition of the game this summer. Followers of The Diary of a Wimpy Kids series will greatly anticipate a related Box of Pranks game, also due out this summer. In the travel-friendly realm are Cardinal's Puzzles on the Go, featured in resealable bags and highlighting key licenses such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Jake and The Neverland Pirates and Hello Kitty.

Where's Waldo celebrates its 25th with a new Join the Search board game and accessories, including a Waldo passport holder covered in the classic comic's design-a perfect lay-over cure and search for Waldo - from Techno Source.

If you are looking for a party game, new from USAopoly is the Telestrations Game in a 12-player party pack. This twist on the "telephone game," instead of a whispered word is passed from person to person, each person makes a drawing representing their word, the next player writes what the drawing represents, followed by a drawing and so on into hilarity.

Smart/Tangoes introduced a collection of six single player brain teaser games that help to develop critical thinking. Each game has different difficulty levels making them as much fun for a youngster as young as 6 as for an adult. Bill & Betty Bricks has 60 challenges that develop fine motor skills and spatial relationships. Temple Trap is for the Indiana Jones adventurer who needs to think their way out of the labyrinth.

Joining the already popular Perplexus Original, Rookie and Epic models comes Perplexus Twist, the latest incarnation from PlaSmart. The marble maze game challenges players with a fourth dimension, prompting them to twist the dies in order to escape traps, decoys and other cliffhangers.

Another challenger for all ages is the Oblo puzzle sphere from Great Circle Works www.greatcircleworks.com The 3D spherical puzzle consists of four multicolored layers of pieced spheres within pieced spheres which when disassembled, must be re-assembled.

For the Little Ones

Learning Resources leads the preschool pack with its New Sprouts line, featuring 4 role-play items-Cure It, Fix It, Serve It and Munch It-that help kids master matching, counting and other brain-building skills. The expanded toddler line now includes Count ‘Em Up Popcorn, with easy-to-grasp, chunky pieces for sorting, and Alpha Pops, that lets kids snap together colorful ice pops with matching upper and lower case letters. Budding scientists will be able to experiment with the Mix and Measure Set for ages 4 and up, while little builders will have a blast assembling mouth-watering creations with then Candy Construction Building Set.

Battat's  B.toys line features a variety of new enhancements to its musical toy collection. Symphony in B. lets you select up to 6 different miniature instruments, place them in their corresponding spots in a tabletop-sized orchestra pit replica and create your own music-up to 15 different songs. Each instruments lights up as it plays, so kids can learn the different sections that make up an orchestra. Offering a unique spin on basic building blocks, aBc Block Party is made up of soft blocks with interchangeable inserts that squeak, rattle and roll.

Cloud b  is enhancing its perennial best-selling sleeping soother line with the addition of Tranquil Turtle. The first product in the new Tranquil Lagoon line, this infant toy produces an underwater light effect and plays two gentle songs.

Get Out and Play

Diggin Active bolsters its presence in the outdoor toy category with Go-Go Pogo, an electronic pogo stick with five different games, and Love My Street, a new line of pop-up play houses that combine role-playing with outdoor living. The company enters the licensing space with a collection of Thomas and Friends sleep accessories and ready-bed.

The outdoor is also where it's at with Insect Lore, which launched Extend a Net, a bug-catching accessory that extends up to three feet for hard-to-reach critters, and its Campfire Kids indoor camping gear line, featuring a log cabin tent, lantern with lights and sounds, bearskin rug and other roughin' it-style gear.

Wild Republic Sweet & SassyWild Republic Sweet & Sassy

Melissa & Doug, whose booth was noticeably bigger than last year's space (It's no wonder: the company needed all the room it could manage to showcase its 512 new products), made a splash in the outdoor toy arena, the company highlighted Pool Party, its Sunny Patch line extension of nearly 20 water toys and games in time for summer.

The Softer Side of Toys

Plush continues to be a huge category in the toy market - from realistic stuffed animals to wildly inventive and edgy robots (Brobo ), zombie critters (Zombie Zoo) and aliens (Olly Oogleberry). Ty's new Monsterz plush were a bit hit as the small ball-shaped monster characters greeted buyers as they entered the Fair.

Wild Republic is known for its realistic animal plush introduced alternative colorways into its line. In its Sweet & Sassy collection the owl, seahorse and turtle are trending up. Fanciful colorways and designs are also eye-catching at Mary Meyer  and Douglas Toys. Douglas is also focusing on expanding its custom business making much of its line available for personalization.

HoodiePet introduced its wearable plush, taking plush in a new direction as clothing. The plush puppet "friend" attaches to a fleece hoodie. It is available for ages 1 to 10.

Notables

Bloco's building sets are traffic stoppers. The kits of soft foam pieces are intended for kids as young as 4. Each kit has instructions to build at least two critters or figures , from dinosaurs to robots, but kids can use their own imaginations to invent new figure combinations. There's even a kit to build a castle.

Moshi Monsters Bobble BotsMoshi Monsters Bobble Bots

Capitalizing on its popular TOTY winning Hexbugs, Innovation First introduced BobbleBots, bobble headed mini monsters based on Mind Candy's popular Moshi Monsters. The battery-operated Moshlings use the HEXBUG Nano vibration technology to buzz around their configurable environment.

Standouts at Melissa & Doug's booth were Whittle World, a wooden transportation line that was touted as a must-have for specialty retailers; Press & Spin Games for preschoolers that teach counting, matching and other basic skills in a fun format; and Suspense, a game of balance that lets kids ages 8 and up show off their steady handiwork. Melissa & Doug also announced its foray into the bilingual market with its first Spanish-speaking letters and numbers wooden puzzles.

Playmobil is all about princesses, pirates and pets this year. Among its newest offerings are Princess Fantasy Castle, a well-stocked playset that also comes with life-size tiara, bracelet and ring, and a floating Pirates Ship that features working cannons. Officially entering the collectibles realm, the company is introducing themed collections of motorcycles that come with a rider and bike and horses that are packaged with a stable and figure. As a follow-up to last year's Mystery Figures success, Playmobil is releasing its Series 2 and Series 3 collections this month and in August, respectively. Among the surprise figures are athletes and cultural icons, including Elvis Presley. And in honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Playmobil will launch its PlaySport collection of sports figures.

ALEX presented over 100 new products for 2012. Expanding on its Dylan's Candy Bar line are five new craft offerings, including My Sweet Scrapbook. Tweens with an eye for style will relish the new All Duct Line that lets them fashion jewelry out of specially formulated duct tape. Younger crafters ages 5 and up can choose from among eight activity sets in the POPS Craft collection, while preschoolers also have among eight new puzzles and craft kits to sample in the updated Little Hands line. Eight continues to be the magic number, with a host of new additions to the Max ‘n Max developmental toy collection for infants and toddlers. Most notable was Alex Jr.'s Tots Art Start, an all-inclusive activity kit for 18 months and up. Enabling kids to see their artwork come to life, ALEX has partnered with the creator of the best-selling book Gallop! to produce ScaniMagic. Simply by opening the toys' cover, coloring the scrambled image and rolling the knobs back and forth, kids are able to make their selected picture move, from a horse galloping, to a dolphin diving.

International Playthings  has been named the official distributor of the Early Learning Centre (ELC) line, with over 22 products, while the iPlay brand has been re-named as Kidoozie. On display with the new Kidoozie collection was the 4 in 1 drum, with four pop-out, snap-in rattles that encourage multi-player interaction. New board games for preschoolers include Penguin Panic, focusing on balancing skills, and Honeycomb that requires players to carefully extract honey comb pieces without disturbing the queen bee. The company's science line now encompasses animal care with the addition of PetScience Dog School and Kitty College for ages 6 and up. The specialty retailer's perennial best-seller, Calico Critters, now includes a motorcycle and sidecar, two new abodes-Oakwood House and Rainbow Nursery-and new families of deer, cats and triplets.

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