Feb. 20--It was an image sure to strike terror in the hearts of the toy executives gathered Monday in a room at the Javits Center in New York City for the 111th American Toy Fair _ a picture of a toddler standing on top of her doll to reach an iPad at an Apple store.
The picture, shown at a Mattel press conference, illustrates the question that keeps toy makers and sellers awake at night: How do you get kids interested in traditional toys once they've played with an iPad, or Kindle, or a smartphone or any other device with a touch screen?
For four days this week, toy sellers, manufacturers, suppliers and related businesses are gathered in search of answers to that question, and for something that will give a lift to an industry where overall sales have been basically stagnant for the past decade.
The traditional toy manufacturers, which put out a bunch of tablet toys and tie-ins over the last two years but have cut back considerably on those, are hoping that tactile, hands-on toys will wean kids away from screens. Among the new products they are placing their bets on are Doh-Vinci, a new type of Play-Doh created by Hasbro that can be used like paint but that dries three-dimensional, like molding clay. Mattel is expanding its line of premium wooden Thomas the Tank Engine model train toys and is launching a website to sell them directly to consumers.
Toys are still a big business, with about $22 billion in sales last year, according to research firm The NPD Group. But there has been little new industry growth in years, with companies battling over market share rather than expanding the size of the market.
Last year, U.S. toy sales declined 1 percent in 2013, a year when overall retail sales rose 3.9 percent. The two largest U.S. toy makers, Mattel and Hasbro, and the largest retail chain specializing in toys, Wayne-based Toys "R" Us all had disappointing holiday sales.
The 1,146 exhibitors showing toys at the fair fall into two camps _ low-tech and high-tech, with the low-tech, traditional toys predominating.
In the high-tech category, Canada-based WowWee Toys is betting on Mip, a small desktop robot that can respond to hand gestures as well as directions from a remote control. The toy will debut at Best Buy, rather than in a traditional toy retailer.
I-Star Toys, based on Long Island, is combining high-tech with low-tech in a line of soft dolls and pillows called Ani-Mei that appear to come to life and talk, through lights and sounds controlled by an algorithm.
The search for hot toys is especially important for Toys "R" Us, which needs exciting new product to pull parents and children into its stores year round, unlike its top competitors, Walmart and Target, which do most of their toy sales during the last two months of the year, as holiday purchases.
Toys "R" Us, which last year dropped plans for an initial stock offering and replaced its chief executive, is rumored to be on the verge of major changes to help it address the $2.85 billion in debt that comes due in 2016. But manufacturers at the show said they are confident the chain will continue to be an important player in the industry even if it closes stores or takes other steps to pay down its debt.
Numerous manufacturers exhibiting this week are announcing deals to launch their products exclusively at Toys "R" Us. Toys "R" Us executives, who declined to be interviewed, are continuing their strategy of aggressively seeking exclusives that will give them an edge over competitors.
Hasbro is giving Toys exclusives on new GI Joe toys in spring and fall, and SpinMaster announced it will debut its revived construction toy, Meccano-Erector, at Toys "R" Us.
A quarter of the exhibitors this year are first-timers at Toy Fair, hoping to catch the eye of retail buyers who are constantly looking for the new and the novel.
One of them, Iris Shamus of Upper Saddle River, who is displaying her Allermates line of products featuring cartoon characters representing food allergies. Although this is Shamus' first Toy Fair, her 2-year-old company, Awearables LLC, has already placed its products _ including allergy identification wristbands for children and medicine pouches and lunch boxes with the Allermates characters _ in 10,000 retail stores.
Shamus said she took space at Toy Fair to explore other retail opportunities, and has been pleased with the response she is getting. She said Sunday that she had expected to be showing her line mostly to independent toy store owners, but was happily surprised to find buyers for chain stores visiting her booth as well.
Kenny Sarfin, looking to buy toy and gift items for his Northvale bookstore, Books and Greetings, said he was impressed with the selections at the fair. "There's a lot of new products out there," he said. "We've placed a lot of orders." He said the mood of most exhibitors seemed "upbeat and optimistic."
Sarfin said one reason for that optimism is that more types of retailers are adding toys to their stores, the way his bookstore sells puzzles, games and gifts.
"A lot of people are realizing they need sidelines to their main business, and toys are a great sideline," he said.
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