Creating a hit toy is like trying to catch lightning. Marty Abrams has done it at least five times over the past 50 years. Now, at age 71, he is hoping to do it again.
Abrams, who is in the midst of launching a new type of soft plush toy, called Ani-Mei, which comes to life with sounds and lights, is an example of a small-toy manufacturer who needs the retail chain Toys R Us to continue to exist. He calls Toys R Us a crucial springboard for ideas from smaller companies.
Abrams, chief executive of I-Star Entertainment in Great Neck, N.Y., has seen the toy world change dramatically since the 1950s, when his father founded the now-defunct Mego Toy Co. Abrams, as a young man in the 1960s, helped Mego give birth to the action-figure genre with a line of superheroes.
Mego also brought the first Nintendo games to this country in the form of the Mego Nintendo Timeout games — credit-card-sized LCD games. In addition, Abrams played a role in the launch of crafts toy Magna Doodle, Micronauts action figures and the 1990s hit Sky Dancers flying dolls.
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Abrams says all of his hot toys had one thing in common — the rest of the toy industry was cold to them originally. His latest launch, Ani-Mei, seems to be following that pattern. The toys, which Abrams described as huggable, animated “friends” that kids can take to bed with them, use an algorithm that syncs lights and sounds to make a doll or pillow appear to wake up and talk.
Abrams plans to have the first U.S. Ani-Mei products in Toys R Us and other retailers this summer. Abrams spoke with The Record about taking a toy from idea to launch, and why toy inventors and manufacturers need Toys R Us to survive.
Q: How was Ani-Mei born?
A: A lady walked in with what we call a bread board — a working piece of what Ani-Mei does. I looked at it and instantly saw what I wanted to do with it. For me, when the match is lit and the dynamite’s in the room, I don’t blow the match out. I just light the dynamite. The woman who developed this had been turned down by everybody in the toy industry not once but twice. They were clueless what to do with it.
Q: What was it you instantly wanted to do with it?
A: I said I had to go get every (children’s cartoon and character) license there ever was in the world. It creates so much emotion and such warm and fuzzy feelings, and it goes across a wide range of ages and different licenses. When it lights up, and there’s nothing hard in there and the eyes come alive and the language or singing is absolutely in sync with the moving of the lips, it’s magical for the child.
Q: You’ve said that all your toy hits got a cold response from the industry at first. Why is that?
A: When it’s new and you don’t quite get it, you pull back. Everybody talks about thinking outside the box, but when you think outside the box, the territory becomes very tough to navigate. There are no trailblazers.
The closest thing to a trailblazer today is Toys R Us because they buy so much across the board. They’ve got 50,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units — or different toys) while everyone else has 2,000. The problem is they don’t buy enough to make it happen. So the risk is always on the new guy coming up with the product.
Q: You talk about learning to enjoy the journey of rejection. What’s that?
A: That’s where the kick is — when everybody says “no, no, no” and then the toy comes out and it’s “yes, yes, yes.” You saw that happen with Cabbage Patch (dolls). Everybody turned Sky Dancers down. Everybody turned this Ani-Mei down.
Q: What about someone stealing the idea or copying it?
A: I’ve locked it up so tight, nobody can steal this. I have nondisclosures from all the companies in America who saw it. And we have issued patents. I also have the licenses. Between the nondisclosures, the patents, and the licenses we’re pretty well positioned.
Q: Compared to when you first started working in toys, how hard is it to sell toys today — in terms of getting them into stores?
A: Much more difficult. Those days, there were so many more retailers. Just in New York you had Alexander’s, May’s, Times Square stores, Caldor. … You had a hundred more retailers. Those 100 retailers are now basically Wal-Mart. So if you don’t sell Wal-Mart, you’re in big trouble.
Q: Do you think the U.S. can continue to support a specialty toy chain like Toys R Us?
A: Let me rephrase that. I think the toy industry has to support a specialty toy chain like Toys R Us, because if they don’t, how are they going to launch products? Where are they going to be able to sell the unique products that can start off at Toys R Us and then roll out to a major distribution? There are millions rooting for this company. It is essential that it survive and work and be profitable. But they have to get their house in order. If (the new management) understands what needs to be done and works with their marketing group and the industry, they can be successful.