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Cooler Toy Stores Hope to Lure 'Tweens'

Sales: After losing the 8-to-12 age group to electronic and video chains, traditional retailers are trying to cater to this groups' changing tastes.

October 29, 2000|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — For the past two years, 11-year-old Michael Pociask has been snubbing toy stores in favor of much cooler alternatives: electronics chains like Best Buy, packed with high-tech gadgets and video games.

"When I think of toy stores, I think of toy trains, little buses and stuffed animals," the Herndon, Va., boy said.

Michael isn't the only one who thinks that toy stores are too childish. He and his estimated 20 million peers in the 8-to-12 age group are spending more time at retailers ranging from fashion chains to electronics and video stores, all of which cater to these kids' increasingly sophisticated tastes.

Toy retailers are now jumping through hoops to bring them back in time for the holiday shopping season.

Over the past year, FAO Schwarz has ramped up its offerings, from messenger bags to electronic password journals, aimed at the group known as "tweens." This summer, the toy retailer opened separate boutiques for tweens at five of its biggest stores, and last month, it held a concert outside its Manhattan store featuring Dream Street, an up-and-coming pop music group.

Meanwhile, Toys R Us created a separate electronics area for these kids in 170 out of its 700 stores, and plans to include the concept in 425 more next year, according to Allison Weinberger, a buyer for the retailer.

K-B Toys, a chain of 1,300 stores, is dramatically expanding its offerings of sports products such as 20-inch BMX bikes and skateboard accessories. It is also adding more high-tech items like karaoke machines for the girls.


Toy retailers have long struggled with "age compression," which the industry defines as the lowering of the age when children stop playing with traditional toys. But over the past two years, the trend has accelerated, according to analysts.

Girls, for example, are now past the Barbie stage by age 8, instead of age 11 or 12, independent toy consultant Chris Byrne said. He attributed the trend to their increasing savviness with technology, like hand-held computers and cellphones. These kids, bombarded by fashion advertising and a slew of teen magazines, are also faced with new shopping options.

"Kids are spending less time at toy stores," said Byrne, adding that they are increasingly turning to retailers like CompUSA, which has expanded its video game area, or Claire's, an accessories chain. "The definition of a toy has changed. They have become lifestyle products, and kids are going wherever they can to find them."

"We are definitely losing the customer earlier, to other mall retailers," said Len Patnode, a buyer at K-B Toys. "In my opinion, kids don't want to walk away from toys, but toy makers just don't know how to keep them."

With this group having an estimated $20 billion of their own money to spend as they please, the toy industry can't afford to lose them. But courting them involves striking a delicate balance.

"The tween segment is definitely very slippery. It's beyond Barbie and before dating," said Eric Johnson, professor of management at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "You can't talk down to them, but then again, they are still kids."


Some parents of these tweens fear their kids are growing up too fast and applaud toy retailers' moves to bring them back.

"It's a tough age," said Susan Blumbenthal of Philadelphia, who was at the Dream Street concert with her 9-year-old daughter Katie. "It's before they get into clothes. They are in this in-between stage. Toy stores really do need to market to them."

Mary Pociask, Michael's mother, said, "I feel a little sad. Maybe they are growing up too fast. I was just driving past [the toy store] Zany Brainy, and I realized I hadn't been there in a while. My other son, who is 9, isn't that interested in toy stores either. I am finding I am taking them to computer stores for their video games. Even for their birthdays, my sons are getting gift certificates from Best Buy."

But toy retailers say their recent merchandising efforts have resulted in a pickup in spending among this set.

FAO Schwartz has received a "phenomenal" response from these consumers, since installing its boutiques--FAO Girl and University, for boys, according to Alan Marcus, vice president of public relations.


"There really has been a lack of items targeted toward this age group," he said. Among the best selling products are electronic password journals; HitClips; do-it-yourself necklace kits; messenger bags that double as arts and craft kits; and backpacks paired with basketballs.

Toys R Us' Weinberger believes the new electronics areas have helped boost spending among these tweens. "I'm seeing that they are spending more time in the stores," she said.

The 200-square-foot areas, located at the front of the stores, are packed with brightly colored boom boxes, from companies like Sony, hand-held gadgets and electronic password journals.

"We knew they were in our stores buying video games," Weinberger said. Now, she said, they are staying longer to buy other merchandise.

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