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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Tired toys try a retro relaunch

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Mr Little Pony
My Little Pony: Still in the pink
At 20 years old, My Little Pony is getting a bit long in the tooth.

But instead of sending the simpering little steed off to the knacker's yard, makers Hasbro are getting it ready for a seasonal outing.

Twelve new ponies - each with its hairbrush and charm bracelet - have been launched, and Hasbro has lined up a torrent of spin-offs and shiny interactive extras in an attempt to recapture the brand's legendary hold on little girls' imaginations.

It's not alone: this Christmas sees the rebirth of a host of pensionable favourites, including Action Man, Barbie, the Care Bears, Transformers and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But while toy makers are keen to spin this as an adorably nostalgic trend, it may also be the sign of an industry that has lost its way.

Old wine, new bottles

Retro is the big trend this Christmas, according to the British Association of Toy Retailers (BATR).

The good, the bad and the downright extortionate: This year's tips for the top 10 Christmas toys.

Certainly, the association's annual predictions for top seasonal sellers, unveiled at the Dream Toys trade show in London, have a familiar look.

It's not just old brands like Barbie and and those turtles, it's old kinds of playing - making badges, spinning tops, even a board game of all things.

That's mainly because parents ultimately hold the purse-strings, says Roland Earl of the British Toy and Hobby Association.

"We don't talk about 'pester power' any more," he says.

"Toys have to appeal to parents, and this type of retro product certainly does."

Careful Christmas

Seismic shifts in the British toy market help explain the retro trend.

First, blowing the cobwebs off old toys is cheap - good news when times are tough.

According to some estimates, UK toy demand grew by almost 6% last year to almost 2bn, but almost no-one admits to doing well - and this Christmas is tipped to be a relatively lean one.

Val Stedham, a toyshop owner and chair of the BATR, reckons parents may not necessarily be spending less this year, but they certainly will be far more careful about their purchases.

"No one wants to be wasting their money this year," she says.

It's significant, perhaps, that among the top 10, the priciest toy sells for just 30 - a measly sum by recent lavish standards.

Kidults call the shots

Second, the structure of demand is shifting.

Children play with Lego Clickits
Forget children - this is a grown-up's market
Children are turning to toys younger - Barbie buyers used to be about eight years; now they start at three.

This means that the same toys can be marketed to new audiences - and tired franchises can be given a new lease of life by selling into a different age-group.

Meanwhile, ever more adults are buying toys, and not just as gifts: Simon Kohler of Hornby, which has ridden the retro wave for all it's worth, reckons 60% of his trainsets go to grown-ups.

Betting on the box

But while it's refreshing to take a new look at familiar brands, the retro strategy is scarcely sizzling with inspiration.

Indeed, there is a perceptible shortage of ideas among this year's offerings.

Symptomatic of the malaise is the near-ubiquity of television or movie tie-ins, in most cases toy ideas that have spun out of shows with a proven track record.

"Good programming can make or break a toy," says Val Stedham.

"When Beyblades [the hit toy of last Christmas] first came out, we were selling them at two for the price of one just to shift them. Then the TV programmes started, and demand went wild."

According to Alan Burgess of Tomy, a Japanese toy maker, traditional advertising, although important, no longer really drives demand.

Instead, the key is to get the product seen in the right places on air - especially during the crucial autumn back-to-school period.

"Once it gets into the kids' minds, playground word of mouth usually does the rest."

Fresh ideas

Not all TV tie-ins are ploddingly predictable.

Mattel Flava dolls
Barbie's cousins, with added bling
The toy spin-off of TV's Pop Idol, by game designers Re:Creation, lets players sing their songs into their computer, upload them to a dedicated website, and submit to the votes of the web-surfing public.

"Too many firms think that licensing a TV show is an automatic route to riches," says Re:Creation boss Seth Bishop.

"In fact, you need to put in a lot of work to create a game that's worth playing."

And some firms have forged original ideas without relying on the telly.

Lego, for instance, has launched a clever new range of do-it-yourself jewellery aimed at little girls; Mattel, makers of the all-conquering Barbie, have a surprising new line in hip-hop dolls.

Who's happy?

But according to most toy firms, we don't want to be surprised or challenged this year.

The retro movement is underpinned by a great deal of psychobabble about "heritage", "tradition", "comfort" and "playability".

The little boys and girls of today, they say, want to be heroes and princesses; adults want to retreat into a cocoon of nostalgia.

"Believe me - we'd love to stock new toys," says one big retailer.

"The market just doesn't seem to want them all that much."

But regardless of what we want, the only certain winners from the retro trend are the toy makers and retailers themselves.

If the industry can get us to shell out for the same stuff twice, it will have a happy Christmas indeed.

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