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Favorite toys undergo change to stay popular

Leonardo, from left, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael appear in a scene from the animated motion picture "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Leonardo, from left, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael appear in a scene from the animated motion picture "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Local and national toy experts say an increasing number of toy-buying consumers are searching for something extra in a crumbling economy. That means it’s more important than ever for aging toy brands to keep reinventing themselves.

Barbie, Pinocchio, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are among the toys celebrating major anniversaries this year. All are expected to undergo makeovers, new marketing campaigns or other gimmicks aimed at seizing the attention of another generation of fans. Mattel officials earlier this year likewise launched plans for a new version of Dora the Explorer – a slightly older, slightly more feminine Dora that’s intended to appeal to pre-teen Hannah Montana fans.

It’s called “age compression,” said Zack Oksendahl, assistant manager of the Toys “R” Us in Des Moines, Iowa. What it means is children who are bombarded by more cartoon television than their parents ever dreamed of are simply growing up faster and outgrowing their toys more quickly.

“Kids are changing,” Oksendahl said. “I think it’s a lot harder for brands to compete for their attention.”

Gareb Shamus, publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, said retailers loath to take chances in a troubled economy naturally are drawn to established brands like Barbie, who turns 50 this year, and SpongeBob, who turns 10.

Barbie kicked off a yearlong celebration earlier this month with a new commemorative version that briefly sold for the 1950s price of $3. SpongeBob will celebrate his birthday with commemorative Play-Doh set and by moving to special promotional space on the shelves at Wal-Mart.

“In order for these brands to stay relevant, they constantly have to keep generating products that make them stay relevant,” Shamus said.

“In this world, everybody is thinking of every possible way that they can leverage their franchise or their brand or their product in a way that makes a great product for kids,” Shamus said. “The more visibility a product has (through a known franchise), the more comfort people have knowing that their child is going to enjoy it, the more likely that product is going to be purchased.”

That’s also why Mattel this fall will launch a second version of Dora the Explorer via a series of interactive dolls that slightly age the preschool icon to make her more appropriate for girls ages 5 to 8. The move initially backfired when a silhouette of the new character released this spring – with shorter skirt and longer hair – sparked concerns among parents that Dora was being “trampified.”

Nickelodeon officials last week defended the new Dora, which they said will be tamer than anticipated and will exist alongside the younger version.

“The idea is Dora for more girls,” Leigh Anne Brodsky, president of Nickelodeon Viacom Consumer Products, told the Associated Press. “The whole point was this was created because moms said, ‘Help us.”‘

While toymakers are looking for ways to hang on to customers, parents seem to be looking for ways to hang on to the same toys.

Oksendahl said his Toys “R” Us store has plans to expand its selection of books and construction toys, plus, “we do carry a lot more arts and crafts for girls than we ever did in the past.”

Sales of Legos and related toys also are booming, he said. The Danish manufacturer of toy building blocks saw an 18.7 percent increase in revenues in 2008 – partly by tie-ins to “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movies.

But the trend toward value is not universal.

Shaun Bequeaith, a manager at a West Des Moines Target, said Barbies and Legos seem to be selling fine without regard to the economy: “If people want something, they come and buy it, it seems to me.”

Some consumers are making their own judgments about value.

Shawn Soli of Johnston, Iowa, said her two young sons prefer handheld videogames and tiny, portable “Star Wars” action figures that come two in a box for $6.99. Soli said she is confident that the both are going to remain popular in her home for the foreseeable future.

“They last forever,” she said. “It’s an investment.”

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