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Toy Maker Seeks Bridge 'Tween Kids and Adults

Toy Quest has succeeded with 8- to 12-year-olds, a fickle age group that few in the industry target.

June 07, 2006|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

It's a sad if inevitable truth of the hyper-competitive $21-billion-a-year U.S. toy industry: Today's must-have plaything eventually finds its way to the bottom of the pile or a dusty corner of the closet.

Toy Quest, a West Los Angeles company that has made its name selling toys for children 8 and older, is working to make sure that it doesn't find itself similarly relegated to the sidelines. A key to its plans is a new line of kid-friendly music and video players due this fall.

Whether selling robotic pets, giant water slides or child-size motorcycles -- its previous bestsellers -- Toy Quest has built its business on an underappreciated fact: Children are not miniature adults, even if their toys are sometimes miniature versions of what adults get to "play" with.

"The way they interface with the real world and the way adults do is different," founder and President Brian Dubinsky said of the tween audience.

Toy Quest's approach with its new Rip Roar line for ages 8 to 12 is to offer preteens a bridge between traditional toys and the more grown-up electronics they will soon aspire to own, said Dubinsky, 36, himself the father of four.

The company's past successes don't guarantee loyalty from the most fickle of consumers.

"If somebody comes up with a good idea, like Razor scooters, it doesn't mean that the next thing they think of is going to be anywhere near as successful," said Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst with Harris Nesbitt in New York. "That's the elusive part, coming up with a formula or systematizing what they do that is different than everybody else."

But as a small, privately held company, Toy Quest is able to move quickly and take the kinds of risks bigger companies don't.

"They've done a real good job the last few years, and they've also filled voids," said Jim Silver, editor of consumer magazine Toy Wishes.

"In today's world, you have to take a risk if you want to make strides."

Because they are designed with preteens in mind, the Rip Roar offerings don't require credit cards or use of the family computer.

The toy line's MP3 Free, for $99, is a player the size of a cigarette lighter that docks onto a CD player to record music, no downloading required.

Video Free, which will set parents back $179, is what you might get if a 10-year-old crossed a digital video recorder with Apple Computer Inc.'s video iPod. The shiny red-and-silver rectangle records five hours of television -- captured from the TV itself -- for free, portable viewing. "TiVo to go," Dubinsky calls it.

The company also is producing two high-tech musical instruments licensed by multimedia troupe Blue Man Group. The keyboard and percussion toys, which will sell for about $75, operate as standard electronic instruments.

But they also allow children to play along with music from MP3 players or other sources and to add instruments or tempo changes by waving their hands in front of the tubes that adorn the product for a part disc jockey, part magician, part dancer experience.

Toy Quest first reached older children with Tekno the Robotic Dog, which walked and talked its way into being one of the hottest gift items of 2001. Before Tekno, Toy Quest's revenue was about $40 million a year; with Tekno, sales hit $180 million.

In the years that followed, Toy Quest knew it wanted to go after the age group that other companies wrote off or couldn't figure out.

There were plenty of failures: Banks and flashlights based on the movie "Small Soldiers" tanked. A radio-controlled car with a water-jet "turbo" function failed to make a splash. And interactive TV games with an embedded camera that put the child on the screen never garnered a following.

Things started to turn around in 2003, when the company introduced its Bonzai Falls water slides, the centerpiece of which is a 12-foot-tall, 19-foot-long inflatable slide that is to the old 1970s Slip n' Slide what a Razor scooter is to a wooden plank and wheels. The line last year had nearly $500 million in retail sales, Dubinsky said.

Still, it took Toy Quest until 2004 to strike upon its next runaway hit.

Although most children, particularly boys, like cars, toy makers pretty much abandon them after they outgrow ride-on toddler vehicles.

So Toy Quest thought about ways that child-size cars could grow up.

"We felt that there were kids who still loved riding on vehicles but wanted more power, more speed, more realism and more parts," said Bob Del Principe, vice president of research and development. "No fake screws or bolts, everything honest and real. This group doesn't think they're kids anymore, and they don't want to be embarrassed by kid toys."

Those ideas led Toy Quest to the Minimoto Sport Racer, a $200 electric motorcycle for children 8 and older. The company expanded the line with bigger and more expensive bicycles, go-carts, dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles.

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