Toymakers’ muse: The app

November 11, 2011

Toymakers are tapping into the popularity of mobile applications for some of this holiday season’s hottest toys.

Pairing tablets and smartphones with playthings creates something called “appcessories,” hybrid toys such as the $50 Helo TC helicopter that’s remote-controlled by an iPhone. There are even board games and gadgets inspired by popular apps, like the $17 Angry Birds Knock on Wood Game or the $40 I Am T-Pain microphone.

Apps have been a ubiquitous part of the digital landscape for the past three years, but this is the first holiday season where their influence is so obvious in toy aisles.

Analysts say the proliferation speaks to manufacturers’ renewed interest in high-tech toys. Prior to the recession, there was a steady stream of techno toys, usually knockoffs of adult electronics. The collapse of the economy spurred a slew of low- to no-tech toys, such as Zhu Zhu pets, that were easy on the wallets of cash-strapped shoppers.

“The economy has put limits on what prices can be charged, but the toy companies know that kids want and expect interactivity and relevant digital expressions of play,” said analyst Sean McGowen of Needham & Co.

Toymakers are known for taking cues from popular culture, from “Lord of the Rings” Lego sets to Justin Bieber dolls, but digital doodads can be tricky. If they are too sophisticated and too pricey, companies run the risk of alienating kids, not to mention parents. So many makers are focusing on giving new life to toybox staples, using apps to add a little zing without too much extra cost.

Take the Disney-Pixar Cars 2 AppMates. The $19.99 kit, which comes with two miniature cars, is essentially designed to transform Mom and Dad’s iPad into a classic raceway. Each little roadster is automatically detected when placed on the tablet and can be revved up with car sounds, after downloading the free app from Disney.

Crayola also put a high-tech spin on a traditional plaything by teaming up with Griffin Technology to create the iMarker Digital Stylus and Crayola ColorStudio HD app. This $29.99 combo can simulate a coloring book with Crayola crayons, markers and paints when it touches an iPad.

“Kids are digital natives,” said Vicky Lozano, vice president of marketing at Crayola. “The biggest challenge is making sure we pace ourselves and not get distracted by the next shiny object.”

Latching onto the latest trend can keep toymakers relevant in an ever-changing marketplace, but when the “it” thing involves costly research and development, the risks of failure or fad come at a higher price.

“Toys are much like fashion — most items don’t stay in the line year after year,” observed analyst Lynne Vantassel of Kantar Retail. “Toy manufacturers have costs that need to be recouped and there is just no guarantee that an item will even meet its forecast expectations.”

Whether appcessories fly off the shelves this season, Adrienne Appell, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, anticipates they will have longevity in the market.

“Every kid wants to play with the iPad or mom and dad’s iPhone, and that’s not going away,” she said. “When toymakers are able to be out in the market with characters kids love and interactive technology, it’s a win-win situation.”

Technology is one area of retail that has thrived despite the economy’s sluggish recovery, and toymakers can’t ignore the fact that more and more adult tech is seeping into children’s playtime.

“Toymakers have less and less time to get the attention of the child before they move onto video games, iPods, iPads and cellphones,” Vantassel said. “To counteract some of that, manufacturers have made a concerted effort to integrate technology into toys on some levels.”

Quite a few electronic toys show up on hot lists in trade magazines and among toy sellers this year. Mattel, for instance, is turning heads with its $59.99 Hot Wheels Video Racer, a traditional roadster strapped with a mini-camera that records racing footage. Children can see the world from the perspective of their car.

“We live in an age where technology plays a significant role in our daily lives, so it’s imperative we incorporate it into our product line,” said Tim Kilpin, executive vice president of Mattel Brands.

Related:

Cool tech gift recommendations for everyone

Black Friday 2011: A guide to the holiday shopping season’s unofficial kickoff

Black Friday becomes ‘Black Midnight’

Holidays call for extra security vigilance

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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