Lack of Hot Toys Challenges Retailers

You may be a mean one, Mr. Grinch, but you’re no Pokémon.

Jim Carrey’s turn as the furry, green, would-be Christmas stealer may be a big box office draw, but it’s not likely to generate much buzz in toy aisles — at least not enough to provide retailers with a blockbuster season. There’s simply a lack of the sort of hot items that, in the past, have sparked shopping center brawls among full-grown adults, and that makes this year a challenging one for toy retailers — both offline and online.

“It’s a pretty dull year in the toy business,” said Tom Alfonsi, executive vice president of merchandising at KB Toys.

Outgrowing the Toy Store

It’s not as simple as a lack of Furby-worthy ideas. First, the manufacturers have had a tough couple of years. Mattel has been distracted by its disastrous purchase and sale of the Learning Co. Hasbro, meantime, has seen once-hot demand for Star Wars and Pokémon merchandise decline. In October it warned of lower-than-expected earnings and said it would close three production facilities. That kind of turmoil has likely led to caution, said Alfonsi.

Moreover, Alfonsi said the phenomenon of age compression-or kids growing up faster — is real. “They’re playing sports at a younger age, and they’re into music and fashion much earlier than they ever were,” he said. “Fifteen years ago a 10-year-old girl was interested in a toy store. Not anymore.”

The result: There just aren’t too many hot items out there. The year’s great electronic hope, Sony’s Playstation 2, isn’t going to be widely available due to shortages. “If there was substantial product, we’d be talking about Playstation 2 as a major growth engine,” said Toys R Us CEO John Eyler. Pokémon and Star Wars are passé, and there aren’t any other big toy licenses that are expected to drive sales.

“We had the opportunity to do stuff with the Grinch, but we didn’t buy any merchandise at all,” said Alfonsi. “Once Dec. 26 comes around, it’s all markdowns.”

Scooters, Robotic Dogs Sell Well

So what are toy retailers doing about it?

First, though there’s nothing on the level of a Cabbage Patch Kid, there are some items that are expected to sell well. Although scooters have already been wreaking havoc on the sidewalks in some areas, there’s still some demand out there for Razors and their knockoffs. Robotic dogs like Fisher-Price’s Rocket the Wonder Dog and Manley’s Tekno the Robotic Puppy will also likely sell well, particularly after Sony’s pricey version got some air time on the latest installment of the MTV series The Real World.

Toys R Us, which last year suffered when it ran out of key products, this year says its goal is to stay in stock on the 1,500 top items in the hopes of having a broad-based holiday sales success. “It’s tougher to generate the volume without hot items,” conceded Eyler. “But it bodes well for the future if we can do it.” That includes emphasizing traditional items like dolls and games. “Basic areas are fundamentally strong,” said Gregg Steinhafel, president of Target’s namesake discount division.

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