NEW YORK — 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.