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Business is good at '08 Toy Fair

Adventurer Indiana Jones takes on a role he's never tried before -- Mr. Potato Head. Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

NEW YORK, NEW YORK Despite reports the country might be heading into a recession, representatives of local companies exhibiting at the 105th Annual American International Toy Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center all had about the same thing to say: attendance was good and buyers were placing orders.

The annual event draws over 1,200 exhibitors who show their products and services to over 21,000 toy industry professionals from 94 countries. The show was presented Feb. 17 - 20 by the Toy Industry Association Inc. (TIA).

According to a release from the TIA, domestic retail sales of toys generated $22.1 billion in 2007 compared to $22.6 billion in 2006, a decline of only two percent, despite what the release described as "difficult economic conditions that plagued the industry in 2007."

What was also seen by the TIA as a negative factor was the publicity from the recalls of toys manufactured in China.

According to the TIA report prepared by The NPD Group, there was an increase in sales of connected Web play toys, such as "Webkinz."

"Connected Web play toys, which marry a physical toy with ongoing digital play opportunities via the Internet, is a relatively new phenomenon that we've seen emerge within the toy industry," said Anita Frazier, industry analyst with The NPD Group. "Thanks in large part to the popular 'Webkinz' brand, this type of play is expanding into new categories and across many properties."

The local companies exhibiting at the show were Hasbro from East Longmeadow, Janlynn Corporation of Chicopee, Omniglow LLC of Indian Orchard and LEGO Systems Inc. of Enfield, Conn.

According to the TIA, licensed products accounted for about 27 percent of total toy sales last year. If there was a queen of this year's Toy Fair it was the Disney television star "Hannah Montana." One could barely walk down the aisles of the Javits Center without encountering "Hannah Montana" products at every turn.

It was clear that even though some properties might be quite popular as books, comic books, movies or television series, toy manufacturers are still cautious about adding the cost of a license to the production expenses of a toy. The only "Harry Potter" item this reporter saw was Hasbro's new "Harry Potter" version of "Clue," set in the Hogwarts School and using characters from the book.

While the new "Batman" and "Speed Racer" films were represented in some toys, there was a surprising absence of products from the new Pixar film "Wall-E," but there was some interest in the new animated film "Kung Fu Panda." The new "Hulk" movie, as well as the upcoming adaptation of the "Iron Man" comic book, were also the inspiration for several toy lines.

If "Hannah Montana" was the queen of the show, then Indiana Jones was the king. With the release of the new film later this year there were toy lines for the former films as well as the new film.

Another trend at the show was going green. In the pressroom there was more and more information offered on CDs rather than paper, and both the TIA and Hasbro offered its information on reusable zip drives.

"Green" was all over the show. PlanToys Inc., a firm that makes wooden toys from Thailand, uses aging rubberwood trees that otherwise would have been burnt as charcoal. The wood is harvested, kiln-dried and then made into toys using non-toxic glues and paint.

ImagiPLAY is a Colorado-based company that is doing the same as PlanToys -- using aged rubberwood trees as the source for wooden toys.

Kapla Toys has a line of wooden construction sets that are made from renewable marine pine trees from the Bourdeaux region of France. The glueless, snapless sets take the place of traditional blocks.

Aurora World Inc. introduced what was described as the world's first green plush toy at the show. The fabric used for the furry exterior is made from soybeans while the stuffing is from seedpods of the kapok tree, a sustainable rainforest tree.

Interestingly, there was only one toy manufacturer that this reporter found capitalizing on the recalls of toys made in China with hazardous materials. Channel Craft of Chareroi, Penn., makes a variety of games and puzzles all in the United States and was marketing them as American-made.

The world's largest toy manufacturer, Hasbro, was promoting the anniversaries and new versions of a number of its products. In the busy and colourful showroom near the Javits Center, Hasbro Associate Manager of Public Relations Helen Van Tassel guided this reporter through a maze of Nerf, My Little Pony and G.I. Joes.

The first toy seen in the showroom was the one that made perhaps the largest impression: a computer-controlled triceratops called Kota big enough for a toddler to sit on.

Van Tassel noted there are a number of anniversaries being celebrated by the company. The Playskool line is turning 80 this year, "Trivial Pursuit" and My Little Pony are 25 years old and "Scrabble" is now 60 years old.

The "Scrabble" anniversary edition features a game board with storage for the game pieces as well as curved tile holders to discourage cheating. The entire unit folds up in a convenient carrying case.

Other changes in their established game line include a hush-hush revamping of "Clue" and a new world edition of "Monopoly" in which fans are asked to vote for the cities that will be included on the famous board. There are details on the voting process at and the online voting ends Feb. 28. Voters are allowed to nominate a city of their own and in the luxuriously appointed "Monopoly" bus that was a rolling polling site, this reporter nominated Springfield, the home of Milton Bradley.

A new game called "Pictureka!" is designed for play by the whole family. It has a deceptively simple premise of finding illustrations on the game board.

Hasbro has a full new line of "Star Wars" toys including an incredibly detailed lightsaber. With the release of the new "Indiana Jones" movies, Hasbro has a new line of toys from that movie that include a Mr. Potato Head in Jonesian gear and a soft whip children can play with to emulate the adventurer's own bullwhip.

The new "Incredible Hulk" movie as well as the upcoming "Iron Man" film also inspired new toys from the company. The relatively unseen monster from the hit film "Cloverfield" will be seen in gruesome detail in an action figure that will be available only at

LEGO is also celebrating anniversaries this year. The LEGO brick is now 50 years old and the LEGO mini-figure is now 30 years old. Publicist Marssie Versola said the company was continuing its efforts to return to its construction toy roots.

She added that increasing the play value of the LEGO products was important. The LEGO Agents sets not only have a vehicle to build, but there is also a hero versus villain storyline outlined in a comic strip for "instant role play action and fun."

The LEGO Creator line also carries this theme of additional play value as each kit can be used to build three different models, she explained.

LEGO has a limited number of licensed kits this year. It no longer has a "Harry Potter" license, but has several "Indiana Jones" kits for the first time, a "Speed Racer" line to tie into the live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese cartoon, a "Spongebob Squarepants" line and "Batman" kits that are not based on the new film as its storyline was "too dark," Versola said.

Versola said the company is continuing with its "Star Wars" line that was LEGO's "first and strongest" licensed line. Sales of "Star Wars" kits increased last year although there wasn't a current movie to boost sales.

Licensed items have proven to be profitable for Chicopee's Janlynn Corporation, according to the company's National Sales Manager, Catherine Dyjak. The company is well known in the crafting industry for its cross stitch and other adult craft kits and has made a significant mark in the crafts area for children with its line of Disney-inspired products. Products based the Pixar film "Cars" have proven to be popular, but the kits with images from "Hannah Montana" have sold very well, she said.

One kit that has proven to be quite popular is a "Hannah Montana" pillowcase kit in which children color a line drawing with special crayons. An adult then can set the colors with an iron. The pillowcases come in party packs designed for parties and sleepovers and Dyjak said the advantage is there is no paint to spill.

"The Disney licenses have worked well for us," she said.

Overall, the company is seeing an increase in sales of their craft kits for children.

"It's skyrocketed," Dyjak said, and noted the children want to participate in crafts the same as their mothers.

Ira Leeman, the president and CEO of Omniglow LLC, the Indian Orchard-based company specializing in chemiluminescent consumer products, said business has been very good.

The company makes a wide variety of novelty items from necklaces and earrings to Halloween items to light sticks to beverage cups.

Except for some Asian companies, Leeman said Omniglow is the sole manufacturer of this kind of item. Leeman's company also makes glow technology products for the medical field.

The company expanded several years ago by buying a party supply company and Omniparty is also doing well, Leeman said, thanks to the company's relationship with Amscan Inc., a firm that owns party stores across the nation.

Speaking on the possibility of a recession, Leeman said his company hasn't felt it and the nation's economic problems are more of a banking issue.

He said his company specializes in products for children and children "don't feel a recession."