To hear the Hasbro marketer tell it, the small Tyrannosaurus rex had it all. Placed on a table in a mini- auditorium at Hasbro’s headquarters complex, the little monster made deep roaring sounds. Its eyes burned red. It swung its tail.
The marketer enthused.
He’s all new, she told about a dozen toy buyers. He’ll be a featured character on a television program next year.
“And he doesn’t have arms,” one of the buyers observed. His associates chuckled.
Suzanne Schneider, director of marketing for boys toys, smiled patiently. “Well,” she said, “just not here.”
So concluded Hasbro’s first-ever, full-fledged toy show at headquarters, when thousands of never-before-seen toys some still just samples made their debut.
While the rest of us are banging our heads over which hot toy to buy this Christmas, Hasbro has been pitching its bets for next year’s bestsellers. For six weeks in October and November, it met with each of its toy retailers, from Wal-Mart to KB Toys, and showed them every single Tonka truck and Transformer, every doll and board game, in its 2003 line-up.
The nation’s second-largest toymaker has moved its entire selling process to its headquarters and to offices in Massachusetts. Traditionally, Hasbro completed most of its meetings with buyers in February at the American International Toy Fair, an elaborate event that lures thousands of toymakers, retailers and television crews to New York City each year.
But Toy Fair has become superfluous, said Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro’s chairman and chief executive officer, because the company meets with buyers at toy-buying events throughout the year. From now on, Hasbro’s display at Toy Fair will be sharply scaled down, staged strictly for the media.
The toy selling will occur in Pawtucket.
“What all of us cannot fear is change,” Hassenfeld said in a recent interview. “We have a definition for the word insanity and the definition for the word insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.”
Hasbro is not the first manufacturer trying to stop the insanity. Other toymakers, including Mattel and Lego, also moved their buying activities from Toy Fair, reducing their presence, and investment, in the show.
This is less a reflection of Toy Fair than it is of the toy industry. Influential mass-merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, are pushing their buying up on the calander. Some want their plans finalized 12 months in advance.
“More and more buyers want to lock up their orders earlier in the year,” said Diane Cardinale, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association Inc., which hosts the Toy Fair. “They don’t want to wait until February.”
In response, Toy Fair is planning to dismantle its show next year and hold two events, to meet the different demands of mass merchandisers and the smaller specialty chains.
THE INFLUENCE that retailers wield over the toy industry can be illustrated in one Hasbro story, courtesy of Hassenfeld. It is a tale of a lot of wining and dining, but not a lot of buying.
Toy fairs occur around the globe and around the calendar, and for each one, Hasbro is there. Its marketers entertain buyers in the spring, and the buyers say, “We’ll see you see in two weeks in Hong Kong, and place orders there.”
After their meals in Hong Kong, the buyers suggest meeting at the show in Canada. Then in New York.
“In New York, we show them the line, and wine and dine them,” Hassenfeld said. “And they say, ‘There’s nothing new!’ ”
A lot of work leads up to Toy Fair.
Hassenfeld declined to specify the expense, but it is estimated that Hasbro used to invest seven figures in the show annually wining and dining included.
The company would convert its entire showroom on 23rd Street into a multi-media bonanza, with moving displays, actors in costumes and large demonstration areas. Buyers reviewed thousands of toys, from every Han Solo action figure to entire lines of trading cards.
“It’s like the fashion industry, you know?” said Maria Weiskott, editor in chief of Playthings magazine.
The scaling down will save Hasbro a “substantial” amount of money, Hassenfeld said. But the shift also furthers the company’s selling strategy, which could help generate more money down the road.
“A long time ago Toy Fair was a real buying experience,” said Brian Goldner, president of U.S. Toys at Hasbro. “More recently, Toy Fair had become more of an entertainment environment, where there was a lot of sizzle and not that much steak. And Hasbro as well as the retailers felt the need to spend more time together.”
Before, buyers would spend a full day looking over Hasbro’s lines, while Hasbro tried to balance the media, the financial community and the licensors that came to see how their products were being promoted.
In Hasbro’s new format, buyers spend three days at headquarters, plus they visit the games business in East Longmeadow, Mass. The hoopla of the showrooms is replaced by bottles of water and Jolly Ranchers candies, but the time they spend, importantly, involves fewer distractions.
“It goes hand-in-hand with their focus on core brands,” said Terrence Mackay, an analyst covering Hasbro for Morningstar Inc. “Why not bring it back home?”
HASBRO’S CORE BRANDS include tried-and-true generational toys G.I. Joe and Monopoly, Tonka truck and Easy Bake. Two years ago the company launched a restructuring that in part shifted its reliance from mercurial licensed lines, such as Pokemon, to these reliable staples.
Buyers saw a lot of these toys at Hasbro’s headquarters last month. But instead of displaying them in loud, flashy showrooms that feel like the inside of a Bop It game, Hasbro shelved them in a more conservative “Gallery of Toys.”
Here, new products such as Easter Egg Play-Doh (out in the spring) were displayed in a toy-store setting. Further down stood a line based on the upcoming Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo (out in May), and across the aisle was Nak-Nak, a game that involves stacking movable square figures.
The spinning lights and sound effects were, for the most part, replaced by cardboard displays.
“For our customers, we can focus with them here and we can listen to them better than in the whole cacophony, the babble, of New York,” Hassenfeld said. “There are no bells and whistles. It’s just listening.”
Listening and suggesting. The vendors were brutally honest. In Hasbro’s auditorium, buyers for KB Toys grilled Hasbro’s marketers over product packaging. They wanted to know whether its Zoids motorized model sets had interchangeable parts. One buyer scoffed at an offer for a toy exclusive.
At the end of its six-week event, Hasbro yanked one girl-toy introduction because of the buyers’ cool response.
“I think you have to keep in mind the perspective of a toy retailer the size of KB Toys,” said John Reilly, a spokesman for KB who has attended Toy Fair the past three years. “Our buyers are seeing products from the major manufacturers well in advance of Toy Fair anyway. So Toy Fair is still very important to our buyers, but as far as the majors go, like Mattel and Hasbro, by the time we get to Toy Fair they’ve seen that product two or three times.”
Still, the rush to fill orders doesn’t always suit the fast- moving toy industry, said Jim Silver, publisher of the trade publication Toy Book.
“The toy industry is a fashion business that changes rapidly,” Silver said. “It almost needs to be a combination where you take care of staples and extensions early, and on the promotional, more faddish type of items, handle that later.”
Which is why the Toy Industry Association is changing its format next year.
The trade group is planning an early mass-market show, tentatively scheduled for October 2003. The American International Toy Fair will continue in February 2004, but will be marketed as a specialty-toy show.
“They need separate attention and that is what the industry is coming around to doing, to meet the needs of the different markets that have evolved,” Cardinale said.
In the meantime, Hasbro strives to create a little razzle-dazzle in Pawtucket.
At its headquarters last month, toy buyers fumbled with miniature Transformers toys, switching them from one character into another. By the end of the week, they’d seen Hasbro’s full line, three months ahead of Toy Fair.