Creating a Rainbow of Toys

Multicultural playthings move onto the shelves of mainstream stores

RACIAL integration has finally reached a critical area of young Americans' lives - the shelves of big toy retailers. This has not been a simple matter of bringing together dolls and other toys that represent different ethnic groups: Until fairly recently, such dolls were in short supply, often available only through mail order.

That's changing quickly now, as the multibillion-dollar toy industry responds to an under-served part of its customer base. Black Americans alone are estimated to spend nearly $800 million a year on toys.

One person hastening that change is Jacob Miles, who spent 20 years working for such toy manufacturing giants as Tonka and Kenner and who recently formed his own company, Cultural Toys, based in Minneapolis.

For years, Mr. Miles tried to get his former bosses interested in producing a black doll. He says he was told, among other things, that black consumers wouldn't buy such products because ``they don't like how they look.''

``That offended me a little,'' says the toymaker, with more than a little understatement. He remembers his mother cutting faces from Ebony and other black magazines when he was a child and pasting them on dolls. She knew, he says, that children use toys to envision themselves in certain roles, and it doesn't help when the toys don't look anything like the children.

MILES now produces a line of stuffed animals called ``Hollywood Hounds'' that cover the ethnic spectrum, as well as other dolls, games, books, and videos that make a point of representing black, yellow, brown, red, and white kids. The object, he says, is to foster nonviolent play and ethnic tolerance. ``Our social agenda is as big as our economic one,'' he repeatedly says.

But the economic picture isn't bad, either. Last year, in its first year of business, the company had $600,000 in orders. Prospective sales for this year are in the millions. Christmas orders are coming in now, he says. Big retailers like Toys * Us and Target Stores were open to his products from the start, Miles says, and very helpful in suggesting more effective marketing approaches, such as packaging designs. He says both Wal-Mart and Kmart will soon carry his toys, too.

Miles is not alone in addressing the market for multicultural toys. Another black entrepreneur with a longer record of success in the field is Yla Eason, founder of Olmec Toys, based in New York. Ms. Eason, a Harvard Business School graduate, started her company in 1985 after realizing her son's superhero toys were all white.

She expanded her product lines from black action figures like ``Sun-Man'' and the ``Bronze Bombers'' - patterned after actual black combat units - to various dolls with African and Hispanic ethnic characteristics. Olmec products, too, are sold in major toy and discount outlets.

The effort to design toys representing black and other ethnic groups has a very long history, according to Diana Huss Green, founder and editor of Parents' Choice Magazine, which regularly reviews toys and other products for children. She names a number of companies, such as ABC School Supplies and Kaplan's, that have traditionally offered detailed ethnic dolls, primarily through mail order, to the education market. Many are quite expensive. There have also been card games and puzzles aimed at black buyers.

But, for the most part, these have been ``boutique'' items, Ms. Green says. The departure made by companies like Cultural Toys and Olmec is their presence in national chains. ``You used to go into these stores in black and Hispanic areas and see blond dolls,'' Green says.

She has examined one of Cultural Toys's Hollywood Hounds. Aesthetically, she says, it was ``absolutely not my taste.'' But the toy's ``tactile'' qualities - hair texture, the features, the feel of the clothes - are likely to grab kids' attention, she adds. ``Parents with taste may think they're ugly, but the kids may really go for them'' - a phenomenon very familiar in the world of toys.

Another longtime observer of the toy scene, Joanne Oppenheim, has been on the lookout for new products with an ethnic theme. She has added a section on such toys to her annual review of toys, books, and videos for children. She gives high marks to the ``really exemplary'' black and Hispanic dolls produced by Olmec.

MS. OPPENHEIM points out that both start-up companies and larger firms, such as Hasbro and Tyco, are addressing the demand for toys that reflect ethnic diversity. ``There's a very big change here,'' she says. Just look at the pictures on the boxes that toys come in, says Green. ``There are many more black kids, as well as white kids.''

Miles, discussing his company's goals during a recent visit to Boston, says he's trying to blend two key elements - ``what moms want and what kids like.'' He is determined to reach the broadest market possible with his products. Price is part of that strategy. ``We try to make sure that everything we do, so far, retails for under $20,'' he says, ``and that there's always something under $10.''

Miles thinks his toys - such as a line of little dolls called ``Dinkytown Daycare Kids'' - are a natural for the child-care market, where ethnic diversity is often a daily reality. He adds that his ``most pleasant surprise'' has been the interest shown by white consumers. ``I couldn't tell you how many letters we've had from moms saying we're glad to be able to buy our daughter, or son, an African-American doll.''

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