GROWING PLAYGROUND RIVALRY SENDS LITTLE TIKES TUMBLING OTHER TOYMAKERS DOWNSIZING, TOO

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Tough toy markets will force Little Tikes Co. to close its Aurora, Mo., plant May 6.

Little Tikes announced the closure March 6, just three days after Fisher-Price Inc. laid off one-third of the workers at its Medina, N.Y., outdoor play products plant. Aurora mainly uses rotational molding to produce play sets based on kitchen and household themes, and riding and other toys.

Little Tikes spokeswoman Leslie Mapes said her firm has not decided the fate of the machinery or the 300,000-square-foot plant. She said in a telephone interview from Little Tikes' Hudson, Ohio, headquarters that it may move machinery to other domestic or international operations.

Little Tikes, a Rubbermaid Inc. subsidiary, closed its Blythwood, S.C., toy rotomolding plant late last year, about a month after shutting its Guelph, Ontario, facility. Rubbermaid has complained about Little Tikes dragging down its financial results, although high resin prices also hurt its profit last year.

Little Tikes began a major streamlining program in 1995, but officials at the time did not suggest that they might close Blythwood or Aurora. Mapes said she had no comment on whether Little Tikes is reviewing the future of

other plants.

The 10-year-old Aurora facility was strategically located when it opened, but customers and their distribution networks have changed. Little Tikes has to change as well ``in response to a vastly changing retail landscape,'' Little Tikes President Gary Kleinjan said in a news release.

The firm said in a prepared statement that markets are soft for traditional toys and increasing competition has cut Little Tikes' U.S. sales. Mapes said players in the infant-toys market raid each other's market areas with new products. She cited Fisher-Price as a tougher competitor since it began rotomolding operations. Little Tikes is fighting back by introducing more than 60 products this year.

Mapes said Aurora, with 350 employees, is a midsize-to-large plant in Little Tikes' network. Its other consumer toy operations are in Hudson and Sebring, Ohio; Shippensburg, Pa.; and City of Industry, Calif.

It makes commercial play products in Farmington, Mo., and Walnut, Calif. Its international operations are in Ireland, Luxembourg and South Korea.