WHY CHRISTMAS DRIVES TOY BUYERS CRAZY
In an $80-million-a-year whirl, where dolls are bulls and sputniks are bears, even the calmest men get ulcers trying to stay one jump ahead of Junior
wo years ago Gordon Pace, head toy buyer for Toronto's Robert Simpson Company Ltd., began to worry more than usual. Sales clerks kept handing to him Want Slips, or forms that are filled out when a customer asks for something the department cannot supply. The slips indicated that a surprising number of women and girls were looking for an item they called "a big rag doll.”
Convinced that a nostalgic swing-back to the big rag doll was imminent. Pace ordered a Toronto manufacturer to make up for Simpson's what he describes as "a fabulous number" of them, to retail at $2.98. When they were delivered he made of the big rag dolls the biggest display in the toy department. ‘
But suddenly, and inexplicably, the hankering for big rag dolls vanished. Pace had difficulty in getting rid of them, at a heavy loss, for ninetyeight cents apiece. "It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” he says. "Nowadays, to me, a big rag doll is just a big red rag.”
The story illustrates the hazards of some of today's most harassed men — the men who buy toys for Canada’s retail stores. The nation’s toy buyers, far from being fat, jolly and expansive, as would befit the chief booking agents for Santa Claus, tend to be lean, anxious and taciturn men.
They spend all their time trying to guess what the children are going to want next, a responsibility that calls for the sacred vapor of a Delphic oracle.
The Hula-Hoop, which swept the Western world last fall, caught most toy buyers napping and precipitated a dog fight for supplies. Toronto's Jack White, who retired sixteen months ago from the post of head toy buyer for the T. Eaton Company Ltd., says: "In the Thirties that spool-andthread game, Yo-yo, and the card game Monopoly, sprang the same surprise on us. In the Twenties it was a sort of spring-fitted jumping stilt called the pogo stick. In 1906, of course, it was Diabolo, a juggling trick with a double-headed top, a bit of string and two sticks."
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Why Christmas drives toy buyers crazy continued from page 24
Although he survived thirty hectic years as Eaton's head toy buyer, White often was near his Waterloo. Once he had a hunch that a construction kit named J uñero, which consisted of metal
plates and strips that could be drilled and riveted like real engineering steel, would eclipse that famous boys' building toy Meccano. He was wrong, and his department's iosscs that year were considerable. Another time White was dumbfounded by a sudden mania for jigsaw puzzles. He ran out of stocks early
and only saved his face by employing a man to work in the store with a fretsaw and cut up the customer's own pictures into hundreds of tiny pieces.
While White faces this Christmas from the serenity of retirement the toy buyers still in business are on the usual tenterhooks. In Canada, during the
eight weeks before Christmas, toy sales amount to two thirds of the year's total. Canadian Playthings Manufacturers Incorporated. an organization of toy makers, estimates that this Christmas sales will amount to sixty million dollars, bringing retail toy receipts for 1958 up to eighty million dollars, or almost three times the 1950 figure. Department stores and independent toy shops are carrying about a thousand different playthings, ranging from a two-cent plastic whistle and a five-cent rubber ball to a fourhundred-doilar miniature automobile and a thousand-dollar electric train set.
Canadian toy manufacturers, who've increased from thirty-odd in 1945 to more than a hundred and fifty, now supply sixty percent of the demand. The remainder of the toys, mostly mechanical. are imported from the United Kingdom. the United States, Germany, lapan. Italy and half a dozen other countries.
Canadian toy buyers rarely allow nationalist sentiments to influence their choice of sources. Many of them spend four months of the year overseas, buying what they think will sell. Jf they miscalculate, profits on their hits can be wiped out by losses on their turkeys. "In January." says Jack White, "toys are seldom worth more than fifty cents on the dollar.”
The present top buyer at Eaton’s, W. J. Wakefield, says: "No matter how carefully we make our Christmas selections we nearly always kick ourselves in the New Year. We know what the steady sellers are but it is almost impossible to predict what will flop altogether and what will sell like wildfire."
A big disappointment this Christmas is the space toy. A two-stage plastic rocket, which drives its nose cone by compressed air to an altitude of three hundred feet, has failed to sell in volume. A toy satellite, which consists of a glittering ball whirling around a globe on the end of a piece of elastic, has also failed to move. Why? Maybe because, as Gordon Pace of Simpson's says, "the most important element in any toy is the degree of participation it affords to the child. Toys that can merely be looked at soon bore them.”
Last Christmas, in Winnipeg. Grant Linington, North American buyer for the Hudson's Bay Company, displayed a space novelty that still disturbs his dreams. It was Muttnik. a little dog in a plastic sphere. Since sputnik II was then still in the headlines the Hudson's Bay Company thought that Muttnik, at $3.98. would be a sell-out. But the store was filled by organized dog lovers who looked upon the toy as the symbol of a cruel experiment. Their baying was so unnerving that the Hudson's Bay Company brass ordered Muttnik freed.
Linington recalls: "We sat around
until late one night ripping the plasticspheres open and chucking them away. The little dog we kept and sold as a ' separate at $2.98."
With space toys a glut on the Christmas market buyers are manoeuvring to recover losses by increasing turnover in other lines like miniature high-heeled shoes for little girls, the biggest single hit of the present season.
When the shoes were brought out last spring at $2.98 a pair they sold slowly. Then W. J. Wakefield of Eaton's bought a line to retail at eighty-five cents. Demand snowballed. From coast to coast moppets insist on dressing like Mum. Manufacturers are exploiting the "looklike-Mum” craze by producing miniature cocktail dresses, ball gowns, golfing tweeds and even "mink" stoles and makeup sets for between two and ten dollars. Wakefield says: “It's the biggest costume fad since the boys went mad on Davy Crockett outfits in 1955.”
According to Marvin Chodikoff, a director of Bullis Toy and Novelty Sales Lid., an Ottawa wholesale house, all big crazes spring from the imitative urge in children. “W/e have found," he says, "that when an item is purchased by more than twelve children in a given neighborhood that item suddenly begins to sell in volume. If the item catches on simultaneously in a number of widely scattered neighborhoods we suspect we might have a big money-maker on our hands and we begin to buy heavily."
Phenomena like the Hula-Hoop seem to occur only once in ten or twenty years, make quick millions, but rarely endure.
The biggest “basic" number of the toy trade is the doll, which, in Canada, accounts for about one quarter of the trade’s annual revenue. Today nearly all dolls are made of vinyl plastic and ninety percent of those sold in Canada are made here. Ever since the Shirley Temple doll of the late Thirties, character dolls have been popular and vinyl plastic has improved their resemblance to the original.
Best-selling lines in Canada since the war have been Barbara Ann Scott, Marilyn Munroe, Marilyn Bell and Princess Margaret dolls. Among recent runnersup were images of Sparkle Plenty, a U. S. comic-strip character, and Maggie Muggins, a Canadian radio character.
Only a tiny minority of little girls like little boy dolls. Out of a hundred and fifty different dolls produced by the Reliable Toy Company Ltd. of Toronto, Canada's biggest manufacturer of playthings. only one represents a male child.
They are not popular," says Gordon Pace of Simpson's, "because they cannot be 'fussed,' or made too pretty.”
Don't whistle at the dolls
"Fussing”—dressing and undressing— is now a vital element in doll games. The trend is toward an ever-increasing realism in dolls' clothing and anatomy. Reliable employs three hundred parttime seamstresses who make up dolls’ garments at home from patterns cut by fashion experts.
At present there is a boom in the dolls' clothing trade because a full-form teen-age doll has begun to replace the baby doll as the hottest item on the counters. Undraped, these pretty manikins are lifelike and need brassieres, girdles, panties, nylons and high-heeled shoes. Eighteen or twenty inches tall, they sell for between $4.98 and $14.95, and for between one and five dollars an item they can be outfitted with an enormous range of costume changes.
"At first," says Gordon Pace of Simpson's, "mothers thought that maybe we ought to preserve some mysteries of life from the kiddies. But I overheard one woman say to her husband, on buying a teen-age doll, "Oh, let’s not be so darn stuffy.” That woman's widely shared philosophy has made the teen-age doll the favorite this Christmas.
Parents of small daughters are not the only customers for dolls. A type known to the toy trade as The Rich Uncle will pay two hundred dollars for New York-made character dolls that stand up to five feet high. Occasionally Rich Uncles ask for a walking doll. W. J. Wakefield of Eaton's says: "We used
to sell one that would walk if you held its hand and pulled it along. But it w'as stiff and unlifelike. For several hundred years toy makers have tried to produce a mechanical doll that will walk alone. But they've never succeeded in putting out a good one.”
Dolls still sell in small numbers as bed ornaments for women and older girls. These are inclined to run to such romantic male types as matadors and sheiks. Another doll of this nature really belongs on the "plush toy" counter. It's a realistic reproduction of a tiger in repose.
In the plush toy field the Teddy Bear has been tops ever since the early 1900s when toy makers nicknamed it in allusion to President Theodore Roosevelt's passion for hunting the ursus. Nowadays panda bears and koala bears run it a close second. Plush toy styles have changed little in fifty years though real lambskin is now' being used to cover many of them.
Genuine hides are also used to cover the old-fashioned rocking horses that come from Germany and sell for about forty dollars. The hides, taken from unborn foals, are the most costly component in the toy. This year Spanish toy makers, seeking to lower costs and grab some of the German business, have introduced a shaggier nag clad in goatskin, priced at about twenty dollars.
But all such rocking horses are fast giving place to molded-plastic bronchos selling for $24.95. Mounted on strong springs, and fitted with western saddles, they are designed to give their rider any pace from the lazy jog of the lone range-rider to the rescue gallop of the U. S. Cavalry.
Pinto Pete and Buckshot are the names of tw'o mettlesome spring mustangs turned out by M. A. Henry l td., of Dundas. Ontario, Canada’s biggest producer of western playthings. Henry also makes cowboy suits, spurs, cuffs, pistols, repeating roller caps and holster sets. Next to dolls the biggest single selling hne in the Canadian toy trade is the twin guns and holsters. These range from $1.98 a pair to $9.98, the leathervork in the latter being natural topgrain cowhide with bandoliering for wooden cartridges. But buyers can now incur tig losses on guns through the changing fortunes of TV western shows. “All the test sellers are tied in with TV shows,” jays W. J. Wakefield of Eaton’s. “When a new show like ‘Have Gun: Will Travel’ comes out all the boys want Paladin forty-fives’ and you are liable to have a lot of Wyatt Earp six-shooters left on the counter.”
“Incidentally,” says Gordon Pace, ‘we are beginning to think that the last Indian has bitten the dust. 1 now buy one Indian outfit to every thousand cowboy outfits. It's cowboys against cowboys these days because nobody wants to be the bad guy.”
The obsession with the wild west is now reflected in "wheel goods,” another staple of the toy trade. Boys demand leather western streamers on the handle jrips of their bikes and even infants covet “covered wagon” kiddie-cars.
Other changes are taking place in doll carriages. Over the past three years many Canadian mothers have abandoned ihe old folding baby push-cart and adopted the heavy English perambulator, and little girls are following suit in large numbers.
Roller skates on the skids
Less successful than dolls’ perambulators are the elaborate toy automobiles now on sale. The most costly shown in New York last spring was a model DeSoto which would run on batteries or a real gas engine. It cost five hundred dollars. “But in Canada,” says W. J. Wakefield, "the owner must be sixteen and licensed to drive if he wants to take it on the street. They are selling well to American millionaire families who let their children run around private parks in them. But there is practically no demand for them in this country.”
The most tragic casualty in the wheelgoods division is the roller skate, now dying out because of traffic conditions. But once in a while the roller-skating cult seizes a neighborhood and buyers cast anxiously around for hard-to-get stocks. Miss Joyce E. Hopkins, who buys for Barber and Holdcroft Ltd., a Victoria, B.C.. toyshop, says: "Last winter was so warm and sunny that the children didn’t know what to do. Suddenly a few of them started roller skating. All through January and February roller skating was the rage and we were at our wits’ end for supplies.”
Ice skates and hockey sticks, two of the most popular Christmas gifts in Canada, are outside the field of the toy buyer. They belong to the sports department. But the sled is essentially a toy buyer’s responsibility. On the temperate Pacific coast, in fact, it is the toy buyer's most capricious item. “Sometimes,” says Joyce Hopkins, “we stock sleds for three years without selling one. Just as we're thinking of selling them at a discount in the east a few flakes of snow will fall and the telephone never stops ringing.”
To W. E. Peters, a Torontonian who buys toys for the Hudson's Bay Company’s northern posts, sleds are the steadiest staple. He says: “The Indian and Eskimo children are even going in for the ‘Flying Saucer,' a sort of aluminum bowl which has been increasingly popular in recent years.”
Wakefield of Eaton’s says: “The moment the snow melts, the boys in the south know by instinct it's time to play marbles and the girls know that it’s time to skip.”
Buyers have to learn new slang terms almost every year to keep abreast of boys’ nicknames for marbles. Colored clay marbles are called dibs, dakes and shooks. Bigger clay marbles are called taws and dobblers. Plain glass ones are known as smokies, glassies and aggies. More expensive glass marbles with colored entrails, are named bulls’ eyes and cats’ eyes; big steel pitching marbles are known as steelies or baldies. One very heavy job, intended for damaging an opponent's glassies, is called the chipper.
While the boys play marbles the girls skip, nowadays with double ropes, and belled handles. It is only during the two to four weeks of skipping that the girls are exposed to the fire of the boys’ water pistols. “For some curious reason,” says Jack Schaffter, an executive of the Reliable Toy Company, “water pistols only sell in spring.”
Another highly seasonal item is the mechanical toy, which sells in volume only at Christmas. Among this season’s biggest hits is an auto racing track from England, retailing at thirty-two dollars and up. Competing cars are driven by players sitting at remote electronic controls and skill is required to win a race.
Sonic and radio waves are also being used to control battery-driven toys. One toy bus retailing this year at $11.98 carries on its roof a miniature "radar” scanner responsive to sound. The owner sits in a chair and drives it around the room by blowing a whistle.
Model trains are still a year-round item and department-store buyers say they have no difficulty in selling their Christmas demonstration layouts for between seven hundred and a thousand dollars a set. Model railroads are getting smaller as owners seek ever more elaborate layouts. According to some buyers there has been a slight fall-off in model railroading due to the competition of television.
The most enduring of all mechanical toys is the big brass stationary steam engine. It is now driven by solid fuel instead of the old methylated spirits but otherwise its design has not changed for fifty years. Another old favorite, still going strong, is the toy soldier. In this line the latest innovation is the vinylplastic soldier, almost as realistic as the old lead model, and unbreakable. Many adults collect them. Also moving into the collector’s field are the Dinky Toys, or reproductions of hundreds of different North American and European vehicles.
Almost as successful are model kits now turned out by Canadian and American toy makers for boys who want to build scale replicas of military equipment. The plastic parts are cut from blueprints supplied to toy makers by the builders the moment the equipment is declassified. One of the latest kits enables the owner to reproduce the U. S. army’s atomic cannon.
Some buyers classify model kits as hobbies, along with the chemistry, physics and electronics sets now selling well. Others put them in the educational toy department with embroidery, weaving, leatherwork and printing sets. The distinction between the hobby and the educational toy is difficult to define.
But some educational toys are of such a schoolish nature that there is no doubt where they belong. Bill Williams, of Ottawa's Hobbyland, says: “Children never buy them. They are always bought by well-meaning matrons who think they know what children want. And what child wants to get educated at home? Toys are for fun. Educational toys give me a pain in the neck.” -fa