Has the toy industry screeched to a halt?

There weren't a whole lot of "new" toys at the American International Toy Fair. Is it a sign of stability or stagnation?

NEW YORK--If you were a kid 15 years ago, or even 20 years ago, you likely would have found the current selection of products at the American International Toy Fair to be far more familiar than you might have expected.

Some of the biggest attractions at the Toy Fair, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, were Legos, action figures, Nerf guns, Barbie dolls, Klutz books, K-Nex building sets, and Transformers--all things that most twentysomethings and thirtysomethings would undoubtedly recognize from their younger years. Sure, some of the plastic pistols now have laser-sight features, and most of the action figures can talk, but these toys would still be far more recognizable to a child of the 1980s or '90s (or even '70s) than a Wii would be to a gamer who knew only the Super Nintendo system, or an iPod would be to a Walkman listener.

"If we were to constantly change the base, which is our figure, we would lose recognition."
--Michelle Winfrey, marketing manager, Playmobil USA

In short, the toy world seems to be evolving at a noticeably slower pace than the rest of this rapidly changing 21st-century world. And it raised the question for this reporter: is this a sign of healthy stability in the toy industry, or a sign that it may be losing ground to video games and the Internet?

Video and computer game manufacturers were entirely absent from the show floor at the Toy Fair, and the companies that were dabbling in tech-savvy toys tended to be major corporations with their own electronics branches. Hasbro, for example, was featuring a new online version of the Magic: The Gathering card game, the kid-oriented NetJet gaming system from its Tiger Electronics brand, and I-List, a party game for teens and grown-ups that involves searching for songs on MP3 players' playlists. But Hasbro's gadgetry, along with Lego's programmable MindStorms robots and a handful of toys with online tie-ins, were the exception to the rule.

Some toy brands, it seems, have adopted a strategy of churning out branded or modified versions of essentially the same product--themed variations of the Monopoly board game, Sea-Monkey aquarium kits with pirate or spy decorations--rather than innovating. To this reporter, it seemed like a sign of stagnation and perhaps an indicator that the toy industry has passed the innovation torch on to its oft-rivals in the video game and Web realms. Toy manufacturers, however, were quick to insist that their approach is intentional: continuity in a product line is a how they create and maintain brand loyalty. Playmobil, for example, has been making the same 3-inch-tall smiling figurines for decades and has no plans to alter the formula.

"If we were to constantly change the base, which is our figure, we would lose recognition," said Michelle Winfrey, marketing and public relations manager for Playmobil USA.

Winfrey indicated that Playmobil, with a base demographic of 4- and 5-year-olds, is not concerned about the possibility of video games encroaching upon its market share. That age group simply isn't old enough for high technology, she said, explaining that Playmobil is "based on imaginative play. Before any child gets to electronics, they have to pass through pretend play." And Winfrey added that she thinks even a precocious 4-year-old who's eager to master Wii Sports will still find time for Playmobils. "I think it's shared," she said. "Having watched my son grow up, he liked both."

But what happens when kids reach the "tween" ages of 8 to 12 years old, when video games and the Internet start to draw them away from toys? The growing popularity of gaming consoles and online activities is indeed a concern for companies that cater to that age group, including Klutz, which has made a name for itself over the past three decades by creating spruced-up activity book sets for everything from face-painting to magnetism. Sheryl Brunell, executive director of sales for Klutz, acknowledged that high-tech games and the Web are indeed "a distraction" to the toy industry.

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