Will science fiction toys make a comeback in 1980?
The recent release of two new space movies, with a third on the way for the spring, means kids will again be looking into space toys in droves, say manufacturers.
But retailers are leery about space, since sales dropped off as much as 30% for some last year on licensed and nonlicensed space toys.
The retailer's attitude for 1980s a "wait and see" philosophy. Most are hoping that Star Trek, The Black Hole and the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, will rejuvenate sales.
Still, buyers say they plan to go slow in placing orders for sci-fi toys, depending upon the interest.
TH & C spoke with representatives from Heck's, Winns Stores, Singer and Co., Sprouse-Reitz Co.,Toy Fair, Kenner and Mego. This is what they had to say:
Slow sales on Star Wars and "Battlestar Galactica" toys have made retailers a bit gun-shy on any space items. Most plan to start off 1980 by taking on a few low-end SKU's first, before investing in high-end goods.
Manufacturers attribute last year's slump in sales to the fact that little new product was available.The mass of new toys, plus the heavy promtions planned for T.V. and comic books will give science fiction a shot in the arm they say.
Non-licensed space items, such as Mego's Micronauts, suffered a similiar fate to their licensed cousins last year. A renewed interest in these toys should follow from the movie promotions, said manufacturers.
The future of space toys after this year is uncertain. Some buyers believe it will become as staple in time as dolls or trucks - that it needs only to change with the times. Others think sci-fi is a fad that's wearing off, and some are even dropping some space items.
"Space has slowed up quite a bit," said Bob Kuhns of Heck's. "It's like every other fad. Every two to three years, something else comes out. I don't think the (new) movies will give us that much of a shot in the arm."
Yet Mego vice president marketing Larry Bernstein said, "In some form, space will be here for quite a while. As a concept, it will be around. The question is, what is to be done with it?" Moving ahead and coming up with new product is what is important right now" he said.
And this is something the industry didn't do last year. "I don't think space was as strong as most people expected," said Bernstein. "Basically, it's because of a Iack of product. Stor Wars was out for quite a while, and there was no new product. After the initial enthusiasm wore off, there was nothing new."
'Buck Rodgers'was shipped late in the fall by us, and we didn't ship Black Hole and Star Trek until a week before Christmas. So, these items basically can be considered 1980 products."
Of the space items that were available before Christmas, retailers agree the action figures were the best sellers. They are low-end items, usually ranging from about $1.99 to $4.99, and retailers say interest in high-end space items was not strong last year.
This may change with the marriage of space and electronics that will happen this year. Mego is introducing several electronic items for the Black Hole and "Buck Rodgers" lines, as well as Star Trek communicators. Entex's Space Invader and Mattel's Flash Gordon space game are other new entries.
But retailers tend to merchandise electronics together, so these may sell because they are electronic toys, not because they're science fiction. A Kenner spokesmans aid action
figure sales are stimulating space set sales, and this will continue.
"The action figures create the demand for the sets, because kids have the figures and want different environments for them."
Buyers plan to be more cautious in placing any toy orders for the year, especially those who have seen little interest in their areas for certain categories, including sci-fi. "Customers will be more selective, so I need to be a little more selective myself," explained Winns Stores' Don Fritsche, toy buyer. "I've seen some price increases for this year in several categories, and they're not small. So I have to watch my markups."
Some retailers are ordering a few SKU's of the new space toys, and will watch these sales before ordering others.
For instance, Singer & Co. will buy only afew Star Trek and Black HoIe items, since "space has kind of slowed up on us this year," said toy merchandise
And Sprouse-Reitz's buyer Leoncio Alonso only ordered Black HoLe coloring books so far. He said he is waiting to see how the other toys do before ordering more or planning a promotion. Toy Fair's Harry Berckes said sales were off so much that no new space toys will be ordered unless there is unusual interest.
" We won't continue it for this year," he said. "There's very little interest now. But normally we don't go very heavily with licenses, because the percentage that is good is unfortunately more than offset by the dogs."
While retailers can't be sure of any one license becoming a big hit this year, it's possible that the category as a whole will become what's significant.
"With the new licenses, there will be a lot of interchangeability," said Mego's Bernstein, "since everything is being planned in the same scale - vehicles, figures, playsets. There will be a more evenly balanced flow between categories because of this.
"When all you had was Star Wars, the kid collected all of them. Now he can choose Buck Rodgers or Spock. The leading figures in every area will now be snatched up quickly, rather than every figure in one category selling well. The lesser figures will have to compete and go on their own attractiveness. It's the same with the play sets - the most attractive ones will go first."
Buyers will have a lot to choose from at Toy Fair this year. Space will be seen in everything from board games, such as Ideal's Space Struck, to the Fisher-Price Black Hole Movie Viewer and Cartridge. A variety of Star Trek and Black HoIe figures, vehicles and playsets are coming from Mego, as well as some new Micronauts. Fisher-Price is also introducing the Aipha-Probe electronic spaceship and play figures. Manufacturers are betting on sci-fi to make that comeback this year. If TV and movie fans agree about the new shows and films, the dream of bringing space sales back to '78 levels may come true.
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