- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

NEW YORK

Girls like 8-year-old Kelsie Templin are a challenge for the toy industry.Unlike boys in the 8-12 age group, who seem easy to please with video games and action toys, Kelsie and her peers are in a fuzzy, in-between stage. Kelsie, for example, likes to collect stuffed animals, but she also enjoys more grown-up activities such as shopping at Claire’s Stores, creating picture frames for her room and listening to music stars Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

“I don’t like action figure toys and babyish dolls,” said Kelsie, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

This holiday season, toy makers and retailers are mounting a big effort to capture the hearts of girls like Kelsie, known in the industry as “tweens.”

“Everyone is trying to figure out how they can get her away from Limited Too and Claire’s and get her into the toy stores,” said Chris Bryne, an independent toy analyst, noting girls’ ever-growing interest in clothes.

With the tween in mind, K-B Toys is expanding beyond toys and selling room decor like lava lamps and room beads. Toys R Us Inc., whose “R” Zone featuring video games has become a magnet for boys, is trying out a store-within-a-store that has the popular pouty-lipped Bratz dolls at its Times Square location in New York.

“We’re experimenting in uncharted [areas],” said Fred Hurley, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of K-B.

Toy makers, meanwhile, have come up with more funky-looking dolls, arts and crafts kits and products such as fur-trimmed CD players and flashy bikes to appeal to tweens.

“There’s more out there for the tween girl to put in our stores,” said Susan McLaughlin, a Toys R Us spokeswoman.

One strategy for manufacturers is to try to lure tweens back to dolls. The fashion doll market has become particularly competitive, with MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, battling Mattel Inc., which manufactures Barbie.

Mattel is trying to keep girls from giving up their Barbies and defecting to Bratz. Last year, Mattel introduced My Scene Barbie, which has an edgier style than Barbie. This summer, the company introduced hip-hop-inspired Flavas. The dolls have been selling slowly, according to Margaret Whitfield, senior vice president at investment firm Brean Murray.

The tween market accounts for a significant 20 percent of total traditional toy sales, which reached $21.3 billion last year, according to NPD Group, a market information company in Port Washington, N.Y.

Many of the products aimed at tweens have done well since arriving in stores during the past few months, analysts said. Hasbro Inc. has had success with Video Now, a portable personal video player, and Thintronics, a new line of phones and radios.

New arts and crafts kits such as Mattel’s Ello and Lego’s Clikits also have been popular with tweens.

One problem manufacturers and retailers have is developing more sophisticated toys for tweens — but not so sophisticated that they’re inappropriate for young girls.

Some analysts believe the lukewarm response to Mattel’s Flavas is due to the popularity of Bratz, but others think Flavas may be just too edgy.

The Flava dolls, which wear such urban fashions as low-slung wide leg pants, come with their own graffiti wall.

“Their clothes are torn. They shouldn’t be for preteen girls,” said Elissa Tennant, 9, from Wicklisse, Ohio, who prefers Bratz.

“It took me awhile to warm up to the Bratz dolls,” said Kristi Templin, the mother of Kelsie, who hasn’t seen Flavas yet. She said she doesn’t like the idea of graffiti.

In fact, Mrs. Templin said, she has steered her daughter away from the Bratz dolls in leopard print and other sultry fashions, and more toward those in rugged wear like denim.

MGA recently started a line of what it calls Bratz lifestyle products, including a $29.99 working phone shaped like a lip, a $130 bike that has extra spikes on the wheels and a $69.99 fur-lined CD and FM/AM radio boom box that has a makeup mirror.

The Bratz products, as well as the other new toys aimed at tweens, have helped bring back girls to the toy store.

“I like what I see,” said Kelsie, who has three Bratz dolls and a My Scene Barbie.

MacKenzie Schroeder, 8, from Westbury, N.Y., said she is spending more time at toy stores. She has arts and craft kits, several My Scene Barbies and Bratz dolls and wants a Flava doll.

“They have more stuff for us,” she said.

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