The invitations have been mailed. The date is set – for this Friday, one day before the start of the North American International Toy Fair in New York.
Now, all that needs to happen is for Google and Mattel to reveal what all the hype is about.
“Mattel invites you to view what’s possible with exclusive announcement and product debut,” the teasing red invitation reads, under the image of a View-Master image reel.
So what is this mystery product? Speculation has been flying. Many have seized on the View-Master clue. Maybe a mash-up between Mattel’s old-school plastic View-Master and the new Google Cardboard, the tech giant’s DIY virtual-reality glasses that can be paired with a smartphone. Maybe a stripped-down Google Glass for kids. Some kind of virtual reality or augmented reality toy is the leading contender.
But one thing is clear, said toy industry analyst Sean McGowan with Needham & Co.
“This is a much bigger deal for Mattel than Google.”
Mattel has been in a major slump, its stock down 30 percent since January 2014. And, like many toy companies, Mattel has struggled to incorporate technology into its products, industry observers say. Some consider the radio-controlled car to be the last great technological leap for toy companies, who today compete with mobile devices and video games for children’s attention. (Voice-responsive toys like Baby Alive and Furby are seen as smaller advances.)
Mattel is coming off a rough year. Sales of its prized Barbie fell 12 percent in the final quarter of 2014. Fisher-Price sales were down 11 percent. And Mattel will surrender its Disney marketing license – including the coveted Frozen line – to rival Hasbro in 2016. That’s 5 percent of overall revenue gone in a flash – creating what Mattel executives have acknowledged is a massive “princess gap” to fill.
The company’s CEO, Bryan Stockton, resigned suddenly last month. He was replaced by interim CEO Christopher Sinclair, a Mattel board member. And Mattel even lost the title of world’s biggest toymaker halfway through 2014. That belongs to Lego now.
The situation for Mattel is so dire “it’s almost to the point of nothing to lose,” said Steph Wissink, a research analyst with Piper Jaffray. “Anything is better than what’s happening.”
So Mattel could use a little Google magic. U.S. toy sales have been close to flat for 15 years, according to industry figures. Sales last year actually jumped 4 percent, but analysts noted that this was largely spurred by strong sales of entertainment-backed properties — tie-ins with “Star Wars,” “Frozen” and the like. It hasn’t come from true innovation.
But figuring out how to use technology in toys has been a long-standing sore spot for the giant toymakers.
“These companies have had unpleasant experiences that’s colored their view,” McGowan said.
For Mattel, that was the disastrous decision in 1998 to buy educational software maker The Learning Company for $3.6 billion. Mattel struggled to make the deal work and unloaded its acquisition two years later, costing the Mattel CEO at the time, Jill Barad, her job.
Hasbro has only nudged its way into tech. In 2013, it bought a majority stake in Backflip Studios, a mobile game developer best known for “Paper Toss” and “Dragonvale”
In 2011, Hasbro hit the market with MY3D – a handheld viewer to use with IPhones. In fact, Hasbro’s plastic viewer operates a lot like Google Cardboard. But MY3D was a flop, McGowan said. The device, $24.99 retail, has been essentially shelved, although you can find it on Amazon, where it’s 76 percent off.
Toymakers are at a disadvantage with technology because of toy price points, Wissink said. The average toy price is $9. So toymakers often have to wait for component prices to fall substantially, making it difficult to be early adopters.
That’s what makes Friday’s announcement so interesting, Wissink said.
“This is going to be a fairly substantial departure for Mattel,” Wissink said. “This could be game-changing.”
Many believe the new product will involve virtual or augmented reality – a children-like and bare-bones version of Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens. But neither has been proven as even an adult product yet. (“So far, virtual reality is a zero-billion-dollar business,” McGowan noted.) It’s hard to see how Mattel, which did not reply to a request for comment, and Google, which declined to comment, will change that. After all, Google Glass failed to take off.
Wissink said she expected a product to be unveiled that still might be three years from market and unlikely to boost Mattel’s short-term revenue. But it could send a strong signal about Mattel’s future intentions.
The mystery product “could reverse the perception of Mattel’s lack of disruptive innovation,” Wissink wrote in a research note published Wednesday.
But disappointment is possible, too.
Mattel also teased a mysterious new product at last year’s toy fair. Media and analysts gathered around. Anticipation had been stoked: What could it be? And then Mattel executives revealed … BOOMco blasters, toy guns that fired soft darts. It looked exactly like a NERF blaster, an established product that owned the category – and is made by Hasbro.
“The whole room went silent,” recalled Wissink. “It was like, ‘This is your new product? That can’t be it.’ ”
Mattel wants to avoid a similar reaction Friday.