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The Real Toy Story

In the World of Pretend, the Pressure to Invent the Next Cabbage Patch Kid Is All Too Real

November 22, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIALO TO THE TIMES

Plastic dinosaurs that "bleed" in green, red or purple when pierced. "Barfnoids"--moving, mutant, half exploded latex junk-food globs with multiple eye stalks. Retro-fit teeth for your favorite doll or teddy bear.

Such is the stuff that lurks in the subterranean minds of toy inventors. The name of the game may be "fun," but dreaming up the next intergalactic smash hit is anything but child's play.

Inventors must be whimsical yet precise, childlike yet calculating, playful yet fiercely disciplined.

And that's hard work, made more difficult by industry pressures: a toy's brief life span, dominance of movie- or TV-spinoff toys, a wave of consolidations shrinking the number of toy companies and a tendency by the biggest toy retailers and parents--often against their better instincts--to buy familiar brands or retreads over more creative, market-risky toys.

Then there are the really tough customers: children, who dictate a plaything's popularity like little Napoleons.

"The ultimate determiner is the will of the child to play with a toy constructively," says David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, a trade association. "And will they play with it more than once? Hours of playtime are the ultimate measure."

As moms and dads trek to the malls for perfect playthings, industry consultants predict there will be no single blockbuster this season, but a variety of familiar brands, variations on old themes and movie tie-ins such as figurines and plush toys.

Such consumer habits give a Super-Soaker blast to potential new creative toys, industry consultants and inventors say, shrinking the market for novel ideas. Still, the trendy nature of toys and the market's promise of continued growth demands a steady stream of innovative ideas, even if most never make it into the hands of a child.

"We just pray to the toy gods that our inventions will make it," says inventor Richard C. Levy, whose "aha!" moment struck while he was exploring scratch-and-sniff applications in a chemistry lab. (His idea, no weirder than many already popular with kids, is hemophiliac toys. The girl version: Boo Boo Bettie with bloodied knees.)

"It is just persistence," Levy says. "The people who survive are those who keep at it. Rejection is just what happens before the big event. So far, no toy company has gone for the [bleeder toys] but, hey, timing is everything."

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Each February, some 6,000 toys debut for retail buyers at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Only half survive through Christmas; fewer than five are likely to become mega-hits (defined as selling more than $100 million in one year), following in the reptilian footsteps of that irritating purple dinosaur who loved too much or those sewer-dwelling, pizza-eating teenage turtles.

Of the 20 best-selling toys, Toy Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Diane Cardinale expects barely three to be from independent inventors. The rest are created in the research labs of major toy companies, saving royalty costs.

But such bleak odds don't daunt inventors, who know that while their shot is a long one, the rewards are rich. Retail toy sales racked up $18.7 billion last year, compared to $17.5 billion in 1993. Add $4 billion more for video and computer games. The average American family forks over about $350 a year on playthings per child, two-thirds between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And if U.S. Census Bureau figures are any indication, demands will grow. There were 19 million children under 14 in 1995, a number that's expected to jump to 21 million by 2005.

Such predictions helped spur the creation of a new bachelor's degree program in toy design at Los Angeles' Otis College of Art and Design. The program, which began in September with about 20 students, is the second of its kind in the country, behind a 1989 program established at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

"Toys don't just generate spontaneously; they need to be created," says Mark Salmon, vice president of the college's academic affairs, who designed the program in collaboration with Mattel. "There were no toy design programs west of New York City . . . and there was the opportunity to create a meaningful educational relationship with Mattel."

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Mattel and other industry Goliaths dwarf companies that supply specialty toy stores, such as Imaginariam, KUSC Learning-smith, KCET Store of Knowledge and Lakeshore Learning. But the specialty store is where consumers with Barbie burnout seek refuge, perusing more stimulating playthings. Most of these toys are not advertised on TV, which is an enormous disadvantage.

"Half the toys on the market are licensed from TV and movies," says Frank Reysen, editor of the trade magazine Playthings. "Specialty toys are the non-promoted, nonlicensed side of the market and they are up against the big boys. It has forced these smaller companies to become more creative."

For better or worse, industry and parents tend to buy brands they bought before.

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