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Online, the Toy Sellers Aren't Playing Around

Retailing: Big ad campaigns herald the vital holiday shopping season. At stake is a share of a multibillion-dollar market and long-term brand awareness.

November 21, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The online toy industry's ad blitz is part of an unprecedented wave of advertising from e-commerce, online and Internet companies. Spending in the category rose to $438.6 million during the second quarter, up from $123.5 million a year earlier, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

And now, with online toy retailers turning up the seasonal ad volume, it's getting harder for all competitors to be heard.

Online toy retailers haven't opted for a cookie-cutter approach to advertising, even though most ads are clearly aimed at mothers, the ones who buy most of the toys. A survey by Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group suggests that a strong majority of those planning to buy toys online this year are women.

Demographics clearly are driving advertising from such companies as EToys. The image being presented is of a company that cares about its customers--especially moms. In one spot, created by San Francisco-based Publicis & Hal Riney, a pregnant woman turns to EToys for a gift to calm the fears of a daughter who is worried about losing her place in the family. As the spot closes, mom cuddles with her daughter to read "Za-Za's Baby Brother."

"Last year, the advertising appropriately was focused on the concept of buying toys online," said Janine Bousquette, EToys' senior vice president of marketing. "Now that they understand that, it's important for us to take the next step and really establish what the EToys brand stands for."

Amazon.com's new ad campaign from FCB Worldwide in San Francisco, which appears on network TV and in such publications as Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal, clearly has mom in its sights. Amazon's Bisharat describes the ads, which use a '60s-era variety show format to sing the company's praises, as "family friendly."

"We want to break through the commercial clutter in a way that's comfortable and familiar to first-time online shoppers, to the soccer moms," Bisharat said.

Two of Amazon.com's five network television ads deal solely with toys--one measure of how important the company views the holiday season competition.

Amazon.com customers who have purchased books, compact discs and other items online are being sent coupons good for 10% discounts on toys purchased at Amazon.com. The company also is creating online contests, including one in which toys designed by kids will be manufactured and then sold online.

The brick-and-mortar toy companies aren't sitting idly by. Executives at the online operations of KB Toys and Toys R Us say they're not going to make the same mistakes that book retailers made as Amazon.com moved swiftly to dominate online sales. Both major toy chains are trumpeting the fact that they're active on the Internet as well as in the real world. Both claim they will use their superior buying power to drive prices down. And they are using commercials to let customers know that gifts purchased online can be returned at their thousands of stores nationwide.

KBkids.com clearly is the younger sibling in Columbus, Ohio-based Consolidated Stores Corp.'s toy business. But KBkids.com Marketing Vice President Cecilia Atkinson notes that, of the two toy retailing operations, her business "has the only significant TV presence this year."

"One reason we're pushing as hard as we are is because we're less likely to take market share away from KB toy stores than a big-box competitor," Atkinson said, alluding to Toys R Us and Wal-Mart. "If people are shopping in a mall, they'll be able to shop at KB. If they want to shop from the comfort of their own home, that's what we're here for."

Consolidated markets the KBkids.com site in its stores, and advertising for the Web site tells consumers that they can return or exchange toys at KB's stores--an advantage that traditional retailers believe they have over the purely online competitors.

KBkids.com's own ads play heavily upon the 60-year heritage of the 1,400-unit KB Toys chain. The ads also feature such familiar brands as Lego and Sega. And KBkids.com crows that its Web site offers exclusive toys with such brand names as Hot Wheels, Toy Story 2 and Teletubbies.

"We're trying to make a strong, emotional connection with our customers," Atkinson said. "To quickly communicate that amid all the clutter . . . we're showing that we offer all the hot toys, the great name brands that kids demand."

Familiar Names Have an Advantage

Toys R Us clearly stumbled earlier this year with its online efforts. An executive who had agreed to run Toysrus.com unexpectedly backed away earlier this year, and a venture capital firm pulled out of a planned joint venture. Earlier this month, Toysrus.com was overwhelmed after the company advertised the site in a "Big Toy Book" newspaper insert delivered to 62 million households.

Despite the toy giant's missteps, many newcomers to the Internet still are placing their trust in the retailer's familiar name.

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