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Toy fair will be a test of Mattel

New executives will unveil higher-tech Barbies, hoping they'll help revive the doll line.

February 05, 2007|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Playtime is over for Barbie's boss.

Fifteen months ago, when Neil Friedman was promoted to president of Mattel Inc.'s boys and girls brands, he cautioned that reversing the sagging fortunes of the world's most famous doll would take time.

With the opening this weekend of the American International Toy Fair in New York, when companies from around the world show their wares to thousands of buyers and reporters, time's up.

"It was a rehearsal before; now the curtain is up and it's real -- it's time to perform," said toy industry analyst Sean McGowan of Wedbush Morgan Securities in New York. "It's very important for the 2007 product line to show some improvement or new direction."

That's not to say that Wall Street is expecting all of Barbie's problems of the last several years to vanish, McGowan said. Mattel and its analysts say that years of declining market share won't be reversed overnight.

And Barbie continues to face tough competition in MGA Entertainment's puffy-lipped Bratz dolls and still struggles with a customer base that is growing up -- and out of the toy market -- faster than ever.

Mattel's 2007 toys, the first full product line from Friedman and girls division head Chuck Scothon, offer a window into the new leaders' plans.

One large gallery in the company's Toy Fair showroom will be dedicated to boys: more racing sets, new toys involving speed and competition and remote-controlled airplanes, monsters, trucks and cars.

Other areas will be set aside for Mattel's Fisher-Price infant and preschool division, jammed with an Elmo who sings about making pizza, a toddler arts and crafts computer system and every kind of little-kid-size animal, truck and action figure imaginable.

There will be a space for the company's Radica electronic toys, one for Mattel games, one for movie toys and another for girls' toys, including a Polly Pocket racing set with glittery cars and a pink-and-purple track.

But the most elaborate room will be set aside for Barbie, the company's biggest and most troublesome brand, with jazzed-up Barbie basics and showpiece dolls with new features.

And none of that will include Scothon's top-secret Barbie idea, which won't come until spring, when Mattel unveils what it calls Barbie Girl, "the next generation of fashion doll."

Scothon would say only that the toy melds traditional fashion-doll play with technology and the Internet. Along with the other higher-tech dolls, the new concept is a bid for girls older than 8, who have long considered themselves too cool for Barbie.

"I'm really excited to see what they're going to do," said Stephanie Oppenheim, co-founder of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio guide for parents. "They need to do something, and I've been curious about what new direction Barbie would take and whether it will capture the imagination of girls."

Technology will be a bigger part of even moderately priced dolls.

Chat Divas, $30 talking and singing Barbies, come with a working speaker. The doll appears to lip-sync to the three built-in songs. Barbie takes calls on her cellphone, and her speaker can broadcast music from an iPod or other player.

Another new Barbie tech toy: DVD game Rainbow Adventure Alina, which includes a Barbie doll that doubles as a remote control for the on-screen adventures. "Fly" the doll to the right and the character on the screen follows along.

And Fairyoke Wings -- a combination Barbie dress-up toy and karaoke machine -- is a $30 wearable set of wings that come with a microphone/mirror so the wearer can see the lights on the "wings" flash along to the music.

In an attempt to add new features to more traditional fashion dolls, two Pom Pom Divas' Fly Girls will sell for $20. The pair connect with a clear plastic rod that flips one cheerleader onto the other's shoulders.

Just as important as the line's latest wow toys, however, are the classic, inexpensive Barbie toys, Scothon said.

"If Diva does really well for us but my basics fall apart, I'm no better off, " Scothon said. "We would be worse off because we've lost the core, everyday purchases. We can't be all high-tech big purchases."

So the team also has spent the last year refining evergreen items such as the $15 Barbie Bride, who now sports a light-up ring, and the $10 Barbie Baby Horse, which nibbles at sugar cubes stored in its saddlebag.

If Friedman is nervous about the 2007 debut, it doesn't show.

"I'm excited," he said last week, leaning back in his chair at the conference table of his El Segundo office. "You never want to predict the future in the volatile toy business, but I think we're doing the right things."

Children and their parents have started to agree.

Mattel last week reported Barbie's fourth consecutive quarter of domestic sales growth, the doll's first annual gain in the United States since 2003. After two years of declining Barbie revenue worldwide, sales of the doll inched up to flat in 2006.

"It's not one hit that's carrying the whole line," said Jim Silver, editor of Toy Wishes magazine.

"You're seeing a large transition in terms of what they're offering kids."

Mattel is hoping to use cool partners to help Barbie get her groove back with older girls, making deals with companies such as Apple Inc. and MAC cosmetics.

Friedman has a reputation for reviving tired brands. In his previous post, leading Mattel's Fisher-Price infant and preschool line, he more than doubled the brand's $1-billion revenue in 10 years with the hit Tickle Me Elmo dolls and grown-up toys for toddlers, such as extra-rugged MP3 players and digital cameras.

Barbie isn't the only item on Friedman's list of challenges, but he's not worried about the others.

"We're not dealing with rocket science, we're talking about toys," Friedman said. "We should all have fun."

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