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Toy makers look to tech, green materials for 2010

Thu, 02/11/2010 - 11:53am

(Reuters) - From Mattel's "Puppy Tweets" linking pets to a Twitter feed to biodegradable nursery toys, toy makers are focusing on fun technology and green materials to win sales in 2010.

The top U.S. toy fair kicks off in New York on Sunday, with an eye to selling retailers on the best playthings for the year. With the country slowly emerging from recession, toy makers will still focus on value, experts say.

"There isn't a sweet spot per se. The emphasis is on value more than price," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier.

"You will see the manufacturers emphasize how much play time or value the kid gets out of the toy and then talk about the amazing price associated with that play value," she said.

U.S. toy retail sales fell less than 1 percent in 2009 after a disastrous 2008, while the recent holiday quarter saw unit sales rise nearly 4 percent over the prior-year period, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Toy makers will pull out all the stops to keep that momentum going.

Industry leaders like Mattel are focusing on new links to technology, such as a sound and motion sensor called "Puppy Tweets" that attaches to a dog's collar and posts to a Twitter account in the pet's name.

Smaller rival Hasbro is putting a twist on the classics, like a new Scrabble word game that lets players shuffle electronic cubes rather than using wooden tiles on a game board.

Scrabble Flash Cubes contain "Smart Tile Technology" which recognizes words formed when the letters are placed side by side and keeps score of correctly spelled words.

Hasbro is also celebrating the 75th anniversary of Monopoly by relaunching the game with a round playing board and an electronic console that features sound effects and song clips including "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang and "Drive My Car" by the Beatles.

U.S.-based Wowwee will tout "Paper Jamz," an electric guitar made of cardboard that produces music from touch-sensitive electronic sensors hidden under its surface.

The tech-savvy emphasis is here to stay as toy makers benefit from linking an established brand name to newer technologies like social networking, already popular among children, said Elizabeth Komes, Associate Publisher of Playthings Magazine.

Customers are also often willing to pay higher prices for these toys, she noted.

GREEN IS IN

Toy Fair will also feature a "green" pavilion for environmentally friendly toys for the first time.

Reyne Rice, trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association, said about 25 percent of retail buyers at last year's event wanted to see more "eco-friendly" products.

Toys made from organic cotton, bamboo or other organic materials are safer for children and could eliminate or reduce huge testing costs associated with playthings, Komes said.

While bigger players like Mattel and Hasbro are not prominent in this space, they are becoming increasingly "green" in choosing their packaging material.

Toy maker WHAM-O Inc is working with Colorado-based Sprig Toys to make a line of preschool products out of biodegradable materials.

Plush toy maker Hosung, known for its miYim organic toy line, has partnered with famed anthropologist Jane Goodall to design an alternative to chemically treated toys.

Lesser-known game maker TDC Games even offers puzzles that have flower seeds embedded in each piece.

But being eco-friendly comes with a price as many of these raw materials are often more expensive.

More traditional toys will also be in the spotlight next week, with Hasbro marking the 50th anniversary of its "Play-Doh Fun Factory."

Mattel is betting big on its World Wrestling Entertainment line with figures like "Triple H" and "The Undertaker" already attracting buzz. The toys are priced between $10 and $25.

The world's biggest toy maker is also expected to unveil a new doll under its "I can be" Barbie range. It gave fans a chance to choose the 125th career of the iconic doll which made its debut 51 years ago.

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