The first thing I noticed about the American International Toy Fair is that it's very serious business. No one under 18 is allowed: They're banned, verboten, little personae non grata. Even infants can't cross the threshold to sample any of the 5,000 new cuddly bears, talking dolls, flying missiles, lifelike puppets, and action-packed video games overflowing New York's Javits Convention Center this week.
This is where "Play Meets Profit," say the brochures. So how could anyone get any work done with a bunch of kids running around?
The severity of this decree was brought home at the entrance when I heard an alert from a nearby gate crackling from the security guard's walkie-talkie: "We have an underage...."
I wondered if they'd send for King Kong, who was getting his picture taken with a middle-aged buyer at a nearby booth. Or would one of the Jedi Knights wandering the convention center, light saber in hand, come and whisk it away? I mean, what's one to do with an "underage," anyway?
But no more kidding around. This is serious. The $21 billion toy industry faces tough times. Sales have been declining for the past two year. Toys "R" Us is about to close 75 stores. FAO Schwarz is bankrupt. Kids are abandoning their toys at younger and younger ages, pleading for XBoxes instead of shiny red Flexible Flyers.
Toy analysts say it's not just technology's fault, but the industry's. In its race to integrate high tech into toys, it has in many cases forgotten a most fundamental thing: how to play.
"Play starts with a box, with the discovery of pots and pans. If everything has bells and whistles and does everything for them from the time a child is very young, [his] own imagination is not going to be very stimulated," says Stevanne Auerbach, a.k.a. Dr. Toy and author of "Smart Play, Smart Toys: How to raise a child with a high PQ." (PQ, by the way, is Play Quotient - kind of like your IQ, but with a smile.) "The more you play, the more playful you become."
Now, I want to be clear. I don't have any kids. And worse, when I was one, I was content to play with a Matchbox car in the sand by the side of the road. (I built little cities, complete with highways, bridges, and skyscrapers made of twigs.) But, for reasons beyond my control - two, in fact: nephews Owen and James, 9 and 5 - I have in my later years become a toy connoisseur. In fact, my family now affectionately refers to me as "Auntie Mame." There's not a corner of the FAO Schwarz store on Fifth Avenue that I haven't scoured for "just the right present."
So as I set out on this journalistic venture through the aisles of 1,500 toy manufacturers, inventors, and wholesalers from more than 30 countries, I was determined to understand what's working in the toy world, what's not and why. However, I was woefully aware I'd be hampered by the absence of the two best experts I know - Owen and James - who are "underage." Still, I managed to get an education on the importance of the classics - dolls, balls, yarn, and bubbles.
"The basic toys never go away because the basic ways in which children need to play - and will play - remain," says Joanne Oppenheim, of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent review of children's products."A lot of the high-tech toys have a lot of bells and whistles, but they sometimes lose their novelty. And the toy industry has made a lot of them that are too bossy, that tell kids what to do. Fortunately, we're seeing less of that now."
Here's an example: "Amazing Amy" - the electronic wonder-doll that says "over 10,000 adorable phrases" - may be the latest rage for little girls 3 and up (not to mention making the Chatty Cathy of my day seem like a monosyllabic cave girl). But it's traditional dolls that have been quietly raking in profits. Sales of the classic "vanilla-scented" - and quiet - baby doll made by the French company, Carolle, rose 50 percent in the past year. Which might be attributable to such Amazing Amy Internet parent reviews as "frustrating and demanding," "Amazing - or Annoying?" "Irritating Amy!"
Other companies that have focused on traditional basics like balls, bats, rackets, and bubbles are making record profits, too. Although, many specialize in the classics with a twist, like "Doinkits!" - balls made of space-age material so light and springy they ricochet with amazing speed.
"It's high-tech material with low-tech toys," says Mark Rappaport, president of Marky Sparky, Inc. and inventor of such breakthroughs as the Nerf Foam Missile Arrow. In the past year, their profits soared almost 160 percent.
"We play on the emotions and the feelings of kids," says Mr. Rappaport. "Our toys don't light up, and the only noise they make is the kids going, "Uuugh! ouughh!" (That's the sound of helpless lunging for the Doinkit!.)
And then there's Junk Ball, the plastic backyard baseball that guarantees anyone - even Auntie Mame - can throw a professional curve thanks to some strategic holes and ridges.
"The basics offer kids the chance to just get outside and play - a pretty basic idea," says Jim Engle, president of Little Kids, Inc., the maker of Junk Ball and other new age oldies like the No-Spill Bubble Tumbler (which is self-explanatory, I hope) and the Big Bad Booming Bugs Electronic Observatory. (Think of that jam jar with holes punched in the top that you used to use to collect lightning bugs - only this one has a magnifying glass on top and headphones to amplify the captives' buzz and chirp.) In its 17 years, Little Kids has seen profits steadily grow.
Now, this little tour of the Toy Fair may not be fair, I admit. I haven't been able to tell you about some amazing high tech toys I encountered. In truth, I couldn't figure out how to operate half of them. And as I mentioned before, my two experts in such technical fields are "underage," and banned from participating in the research.
I hear from sources that instead of helping out their old aunt, they were out using their PQ building forts in the snow after the blizzard, preparing for a major battle.