On New York's commercial lower West Side, a drum corps from Canada rapped the air with electronic drumsticks. Nearby, a muscle-bound warrior turtle climbed from a manhole and stood smack in the middle of 5th Avenue.
Welcome to the 1988 version of the American International Toy Fair. For the next two weeks, the nation's toy manufacturers will anxiously show thousands of new toys to retailers, amid hoopla worthy of a street carnival.
Despite the customary promotional stunts, Toy Fair opened on a sobering note.
Toy sales in 1987 were flat, at about $12.5 billion. Toy makers lost money and laid off workers as children turned their backs on fancy electronic toys and instead asked for old favorites, such as Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe. Consumers passed up chatty $100 dolls and laser guns for traditional games.
Now, it seems that the toy industry, too, has cooled toward electronic toys.
In its unending search for toys children want, the industry is shifting suddenly from pricey, electronic toys to simple, inexpensive playthings.
As Toy Fair opened here Monday, manufacturers said they are looking to such uncomplicated products as pretend cosmetics, action figures and board games to rescue the industry from one of its worst years. "Everyone is talking basics," says Stan Clutton, marketing vice president for Lewis Galoob Toys of South San Francisco.
Among the toys that consumers will see in stores later this year are cosmetics and accessories for little girls and their dolls. Tonka and Galoob have fashion accessories, with glittery jewelry, purses, furs, makeup and wigs. Hasbro's entry is Fazz, colorful jewelry with eye makeup and lipstick attached.
Mattel's Barbie doll has its own line of cosmetics; perfume, shampoo and makeup for little girls, and miniature cosmetics for Barbie. Mattel is also introducing a new doll, Little Miss Make-Up. When the doll's face is brushed with ice water, makeup appears. When Little Miss Make-Up's face is brushed with hot water, the temperature sensitive paint becomes invisible.
The doll retails for $20.
Fashion dolls are back in style despite a dismal year in 1987.
Coleco's Princess Magic Touch comes with a magnetic wand that causes its pet bird to sing. Hasbro is introducing Maxie, a "California teen-ager" and Barbie doll rival, who comes with her own school locker and boyfriend. Maxie steps into the shoes worn by Jem, the teen-age rock star Hasbro discontinued after two years of poor sales.
Not to be caught napping, Mattel is introducing a new "California Dream" Barbie, complete with her own roller skates, surf shop, hot dog stand, beach taxi and three new girlfriends. Candace Irving, a Mattel spokeswoman, said the appearance of the rival California Girls is "just a coincidence."
Perhaps the best example of the shift from high-tech toys is the case of Playmates Toys Inc., which sold three electronic dolls last year. Playmates has no new high-technology toys. Instead, the La Mirada company is promoting 4 1/2-inch plastic warrior turtles that are "fresh from the sewer."
"We're a small company," said Richard Sallis, marketing vice president for Playmates, explaining his firm's retreat from electronics. "We have to pick and choose our shots carefully."
Toy industry watchers say its too soon to predict whether basic toys will revive the sagging toy business. The industry is predicting a 5% sales gain this year, but industry watchers don't see much that excites them. "It looks like a very quiet year," says Rick Anguilla, editor of Toy & Hobby World, a trade publication.
Few Profited in '87
Board games and puzzles did especially well last year, showing a sales gain of 13% to $861 million. Plush toys and such toys as paints, crayons, model kits and building sets, also reported increased sales.
"Without anything to capture children's imagination last Christmas, they bought more traditional toys," says Paul Valentine, an analyst with Standard and Poor's.
Of the major firms, only Hasbro and Tyco Toys made money last year. Companies that toyed with high technology, including Mattel, are awash in red ink and have laid off hundreds of workers to reduce costs. One firm, Worlds of Wonder, is in bankruptcy proceedings.
Action figures for boys also did poorly last year for the nation's toy makers, largely due to a glut of older action figures and competition from video games, which boys apparently found more interesting.
Nevertheless, toy makers are introducing new action figures this year. Sales of action figures plunged to $702 million in 1987, from $1.06 billion a year earlier.
But at least one industry watcher thinks action figures will do well this year. "I think that this category hasn't had a hit for a long time and its ready for one," said David Leibowitz, an analyst with American Securities in New York.
The toy that has generated the most interest so far appears to be Kenner's Starting Lineup. Each major league baseball, football and basketball team is represented by plastic figures of star players, including Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
Some retailers are impressed. Richard Brady, co-owner of Play Co. stores in San Diego, said the toy is appealing because it is both a toy and a collectible. "Boys can play with them and collect them like baseball cards."
Starting Lineup is competing against at least four other new action figures. Hasbro's Cops, 5 1/2-inch policemen and robbers, come with miniature cap guns. Playmates has the Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles. Mattel is reviving its Masters of the Universe line with six new super heroes, and is giving away star characters He Man and evil Skeletor to retailers who order the new ones.
Consumers will also see plenty of line extensions. Coleco's Cabbage Patch Kids are back with hair that grows, and Coleco's Alf is running for president. Hasbro's My Little Pony has hair that grows, tails that wag and toe-nail polish.
Toy makers are reviving old favorites, too. Mattel is bringing back its Lie Detector game, a whodunit that was first sold in the early 1970s. Hasbro's Playskool unit is bringing back Counting Eggs, and Mighty Mac trucks.
Toy manufacturers say simple toys offer a number of advantages over high-technology toys.
Since simple toys are inexpensive, parents buy them all year round. Generally, expensive toys do well only at Christmas.
Also, the fashion dolls and plastic action figures are easy to design and manufacture, so toy companies don't have to worry so much about costly development or production delays. Last year, technical problems with electronic toys caused late shipments to retailers, resulting in lower sales.
Many toys this year stress simple themes, such as cops and robbers, or are licensed from popular characters, such as Kenner's Ghost Busters, or Galoob's Star Trek toys. Toy firms can save on promotional costs for these toys because children already know what they are. "They don't require a great deal of explanation, unlike some high-tech toys," says Anguilla. Electronic toys haven't disappeared. Mattel continues to promote its Captain Power, its laser-shooting spaceship and action figure set, despite lower-than-expected sales. Mattel is adding four new interactive space machines to Captain Power, including a $70 Power Tower that contains a satellite that shoots "laser" beams.
Mattel is also introducing an interactive version of Wheel of Fortune, the popular television game show. The evening Wheel of Fortune program will be specially encoded so that a viewer can play along with the television. It retails for about $60.
Other companies, including Hasbro and Galoob, have new toys powered by silicon chips. But these toys are significantly less complicated than last year's high-tech playthings, and also less expensive.
One of the hottest prospects for this year, industry watchers say, are orange electronic drumsticks, called Hit Stix. The drumsticks, by Nasta Industries, make a drum-like sound, even if waved in the air, and retail for around $20.
Another musical electronic toy comes from Hasbro. Called Body Rap, the toy has eight musical sensors, which can be clipped to clothing. When touched, the sensors imitate a snare drum at varying pitches. It retails for $40.
And Galoob has Flash Ball, an electronic ping-pong game played with beams of light. At $80, it is one of the year's most expensive new toys. Still, it costs considerably less than Galoob's unsuccessful Mr. Game Show, which sold for as much as $125 last Christmas.
"For electronics to work, the toy has got to make sense," says Stephen Schwartz, marketing vice president for Hasbro who thinks Body Rap will do well "because of the sound, not because it has a microchip."