- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Somewhere, in a bunker strewn with electronic parts, bright colors, giggling Muppets, glamorous Barbies and googly eyes, toy experts are working on the cool toy for Christmas. Christmas 2007.

This year’s “hot toy” sometimes turns out to be next year’s bargain-bin resident, but it is not for lack of trying. Manufacturers spend considerable time and money coming up with what they hope will be a big holiday seller, but sometimes they miss the mark on what children want.

For 2006, they may have hit their target perfectly. With TMX Elmo flying off the shelves and consumers resorting to fisticuffs for a chance at a PlayStation 3, 2006 is shaping up to be a successful season.

Some toy industry watchers say there has not been a true holiday toy craze since Furby popped up in 1998. Other winner’s circle residents: Cabbage Patch Kids dolls in 1983 and Tickle Me Elmo in 1996.

A toy’s popularity begs the classic chicken-and-egg question. Is a toy popular because companies generated PR hype and manufactured a select amount to create a shortage? Or does one well-timed product capture the imaginations of little ones and the wallets of their parents?

A bit of both, says M. Eric Johnson, professor of operations management at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

“It is an inexact science to create a fad,” Mr. Johnson says. “Shortage is certainly part of creating a ‘hot’ toy. This is one industry where shortage is a good thing. Nothing can be cool if it is readily available.

“It is easy to be cynical and say that is the only reason for a hot toy,” he says, “but it is more difficult than that. Every company would love to hype its product, but most of the time, that does not work.”

Past hot holiday toys have had several things in common, Mr. Johnson says. They were innovative and captured the imagination. They were at a price point that was not so cheap that the market was saturated but not so expensive that they were out of reach.

“When you look at Cabbage Patch dolls, Furby or Tickle Me Elmo, they each had an element of imagination,” he says.

Jim Silver, publisher of the periodical Toy Wishes, the Ultimate Guide to Family Entertainment, says another factor fuels a toy’s popularity: Is it fun?

“What kind of play value does it have?” Mr. Silver says. The key to a good toy is the interaction between the child and the toy, he says.

Mr. Johnson says this year’s TMX Elmo is a perfect blend of marketing and innovation. What’s more, Mattel is doing this with a retread of its popular Tickle Me Elmo of a decade ago — something even harder to pull off.

For those who haven’t shopped yet — or who don’t have a preschooler in the house — TMX Elmo ($39) writhes and giggles, ultimately falling on the floor in hysterics.

To turn TMX Elmo into a hot seller, Mattel introduced it with much hype in September, and the momentum has been building since, Mr. Johnson says.

“It’s a little unusual,” he says. “Most of the time, you just can’t capture anyone’s imagination in September. Many times, when things have been cool in the past, it is hard to reinvent them, but this Elmo is interesting. The laughing really is kind of infectious.”

Hot toys, cool children

Gary Cross, professor of modern history at Pennsylvania State University and author of “Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood,” says toy makers should have their marketing to a science — after all, they have been at it for 100 years. The first hot holiday toy mass-marketed in the United States was the teddy bear — a big seller crafted in 1906 in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Cross says.

The success of the teddy bear was followed closely by a big failure. The Billy Possum stuffed animal, made in the image of Mr. Roosevelt’s successor, William H. Taft, was a flop, Mr. Cross says.

“Taft was an eater, not a hunter like Roosevelt,” Mr. Cross says. “So Billy Possum was not as endearing as the teddy bear. Actually, lots of toys are failures. The public just doesn’t hear about them.”

The advent of television dramatically changed the way toys were sold, he says. Instead of marketing to parents, advertisers could market directly to children. This created a disconnection between what parents traditionally gave their children (such as dollhouses and electric trains) and what children wanted (more TV- and movie-character-driven toys such as Disney figurines and Power Rangers).

After 50 years of commercials aimed at children, the gap remains, Mr. Cross says.

“Parents — and increasingly, grandparents — don’t really know what toys to give,” he says. “So they are open to suggestions, and that creates anxiety. If you can’t give your 7-year-old what you played with at 7, then what should you give them? Parents look around to see what is the must-have toy.

“People have an artificial need to be up-to-date,” Mr. Cross says. “The holidays are no longer about sharing memories with your child. Disney takes care of that for you.”

Families today are more fragmented because of divorce and mobility, which only increases the pressure to get the “right” gift, Mr. Cross says.

“In our culture, Christmas is the time in which you affirm relationships,” he says. “It is about buying and showing off, by buying the toys to show your child you care about them. So many relationships have grown thin, so Christmas has become a very important time for you to look good as a parent.”

Mr. Silver says parents should do a little research before turning the holidays into a free-for-all. He recommends that children make a long list of “wants” rather than a short list of “must-haves.”

“If kids make a holiday list of 20 things but know they might get five, that teaches them not to be disappointed,” Mr. Silver says. “If they ask for eight and get eight, then they expect everything.”

New ‘old’ favorites

Some day, Elmo may pull an imaginary muscle from laughing too hard and join Furby in the attic, but Monopoly still will be around. So will Hot Wheels and Legos.

The secret to a long toy-box life is in updating the original idea, Mr. Silver says. Some old favorites will always sell because they are offered up with twist. For instance, on the Fab Five list in Toy Wishes this season is Play-Doh’s Creativity Center, a $29.95 offering of new cutters and pumps to use with Play-Doh, a standby for about half a century.

Mr. Silver says Lego has totally changed its building sets — some sets have motors so projects can move after a child builds them. Standards such as Monopoly come in a “Star Wars” version, “SpongeBob SquarePants” edition and “Here and Now” edition.

“Kids play Monopoly and say, ‘What is St. James Place?’ ” Mr. Silver says. ” ‘Here and Now’ has Times Square and Las Vegas, places kids have heard of, so they can relate to the game better. You see classics being updated all the time. Even stacking rings for little ones; they now have electronics in them so the rings will light up when stacked in the right order.”

Board games such as Monopoly tend to have staying power because, updated with Darth Vader or not, they reach across generations, Mr. Cross says. Parents generally remember playing Trouble or Chutes and Ladders as children.

The toy companies realize this and continue to make old favorites — even though it goes against their ultimate marketing strategy to sell the latest and greatest, Mr. Cross says.

“Toy companies realize that traditional toys are what parents want to buy even though the toy companies have done everything to reverse that.”

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