Toys Go Tech...and Green

One step inside New York City's Javits Center this weekend should give you a clue as to why so many of our kids have attention problems. All that blinking, whirring, blipping and beeping can mean only one thing: the American International Toy Fair is back in town. More than 1,500 toymakers and distributors will be on hand through Wednesday, Feb. 20, showcasing their wares to some 35,000 attendees.

They'll also be putting on a brave face after a difficult year of industry recalls: U.S. retail sales of toys generated $22.1 billion in 2007, a 2 percent decline from the previous year, according to NPD Group. Industry watchers are shrugging off the dip, however. "It's an insignificant decline," says Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist with the Toy Industry Association (TIA). "It continues to be a very big and diverse industry." (By contrast, overall consumer spending grew 5.5 percent in 2007, the weakest growth since a 4.8 percent increase in 2003, according to the Commerce Department.)

To be fair, the two biggest trends to emerge in the months leading up to the Toy Fair do underscore just how diverse the industry is-and seem almost likely to cross each other out. In one corner you have toys that feature increasingly sophisticated technology. In the other is a booming subset of the industry that is going green. "Toys are really splitting off into two camps," says Claire Green, president of the Parents Choice Foundation. "It's always fun for us to see new stuff at Toy Fair. It's interesting to watch and see what appeals to the kids and what appeals to the parents."

It's logical that all things Webby would appeal to kids. We are raising a generation that has never known life without the Internet. So every year expect to see more toys that feature online components-like the wildly successful Webkinz brand, the stuffed animals that kids care for in a virtual world. "You're seeing an explosion of these business models," says TIA's Rice. Pokemon and Hot Wheels will both be touting new, more interactive Web sites. Disney is unveiling the Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow virtual world, where Disney Fairies fans can chat with fairy friends and play games. Mattel is flogging its Barbie Design Studio: with a USB-enabled scanner, kids scan fashion cards-which consist of hairstyles, clothes, shoes and accessories. From there, they channel their inner Tim Gunn and gussy up a virtual Barbie however they see fit.

Parents who want an online space where their children are a little less aggressively marketed to should check out PBS Kids Play. Children get their own "home rooms" from which they can explore several worlds, play educational games and watch entire episodes of public broadcasting shows. Parents get updates on their kids' learning progress on their own pages-and can help tailor the child's experience accordingly. But as with Disney, Mattel and the others, "It's all about property immersion," says Chris Byrne, an independent industry analyst. "There's not going to be any property that doesn't have that hard sell online."

Even offline, technology is creeping into toys in ways both gimmicky and genuinely innovative. "I always look for things that make the child feel like it's in the driver's seat of a really powerful thing," says Children's Technology Review editor Warren Buckleitner. "That's why we get excited about technology." Buckleitner likes the new line of Fridge Phonics that will be released by LeapFrog. VTech will be unveiling its V-Motion educational gaming system this week, which uses a motion-detection device similar to Nintendo's Wii console. Hasbro will show off Kota the Triceratops, a cuddly $300 animatronic baby dinosaur that kids 3 and older can ride. And parents who live in fear of Elmo (you know who you are) will be horrified to learn about Fisher Price's "Elmo Live," which may or may not be Elmo TMX on human growth hormone.

At the other end of the tech spectrum is the greening of the romper room. Toy Quest is using a new medium for manufacturing toys that's sawdust-based rather than polymer-based. Planet Toys makes stuffed animals that are filled with recycled soda bottles. Just about everything that Blue Orange Gamesmakes is wood-and the company has pledged to plant two trees for every tree used to create its games. With concerns over tainted toys grabbing headlines last year, it's little wonder that many manufacturers have decided to go eco. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us each separately announced guidelinesthat, among other things, require manufacturers to cut the amount of lead used in toys sold in their stores.

So going green-and, for that matter, going online-isn't just good for the planet, it's good business in a stagnant industry. "It's going to be a competitive year," says Byrne, who also maintains the Toy GuyWeb site. "It's going to come down to good brands, good play and good marketing." Sounds like good fun to us.

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