Bored With Her Toys

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

It's hard to walk into a toy store and not be struck by the utter excitement of children facing such a vast array of games, building sets, race cars, dolls, action figures, arts and crafts, infant toys and stuffed animals.

But the giggles these products create hide the underlying problems facing the toy industry: declining sales, competition from electronics and, in a word, girls.

The business is tough, and even tougher when it comes to making toys for girls. Some of the industry's most creative companies have had high-profile girl-toy disappointments recently, such as last year's "Girlfitti" line of playful desk and stationery items from Crayola. At the International Toy Fair in New York in February, it was hard not to notice the clear dominance of boy toys throughout the massive Javits Convention Center.

It's always been a bit trickier to make successful girl toys than it has been to make knockout boy toys, in part because the industry is still largely run by male executives, which makes it harder for companies to get inside the head of 10-year-old Tiffany.

"When I tour different company showrooms and look at what they're doing, many times it's a bunch of guys making decisions about what girls would like, and they miss the mark," said Nancy Zwiers, president of industry consulting firm Funosophy and former head of worldwide marketing for the Barbie doll line at Mattel Inc.

But this inherent difficulty has been exacerbated by the "age compression" that has been affecting all kids and putting huge pressure on the toy industry. Children are moving through play stages faster now, always wanting to go quickly to the next level of toys and encouraged by their parents to do so.

This change is especially pronounced in girls. The result is that Barbie, which used to be a doll that 7- and 8-year-olds would play with for hours, is now the domain of 3-year-olds. Never mind that 3-year-olds don't have the fine motor skills needed to dress the 10-inch bombshell in her tiny outfits and teensy accessories. Playrooms across the country are littered with naked Barbies with missing arms and matted hair.

By age 8, girls are gravitating away from Toys R Us to fast-growing chains like Club Libby Lu, which lets them dress up like rock stars, get glitter on their faces, put on fake ponytails and buy itty-bitty accessories to put in teeny-weeny purses.

But boys, bless their little hearts, stick with toys longer, thanks to their unwavering interest in building things and wrecking things, in things that move fast and things that fight. That simply makes them a bigger, easier target for toymakers.

"Boys stay with toys till they're 12," said Daniel Grossman, chief executive of Wild Planet Toys Inc. "But girls, on the other hand, by that time, they're starting to buy things that are not traditional toys. That means we have boys for 12 years and girls for eight. So that's 50 percent more time."

Toy executives say they want more girl toys and are trying to get them in several ways: hiring more female toy designers, doing more kid-focused market research, breaking down traditional barriers between a company's "boy toy" executives and "girl toy" executives and, perhaps most of all, embracing technology.

Toy companies are banking on tech for a lot of things, most of all a better competitive advantage against the consumer electronics that have become a new form of entertainment for kids. But the toy industry also loves that technology seems to more easily produce gender-neutral toys. Products such as LeapFrog's Fly Pentop Computer and Zizzle's iZ (pronounced "is") speaker system for iPods were huge, much-needed successes last holiday season -- for boys and girls. The industry is looking for more.

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