In a season of sluggish toy sales, U.S. firms making rotational and blow molded toys say they are more than holding their own. Toddlers love the large-as-life play products that rotomolders and blow molders make. In the absence of a blockbuster toy, like last year's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, more parents are choosing large plastic toys this Christmas season because of value and durability.
``We've had a great year,'' said Allen Kannapell, Step2 Corp.'s vice president of marketing and sales. ``We're doing real well in this [sluggish] climate.''
Step2 of Streetsboro, Ohio, started up a third rotomolding plant, a 160,000-square-foot facility in Perrysville, Ohio, in August to meet growing demand for its expanding product line. Kannapell said his firm added 18 new products in 1995, including toys and home and garden items. The private firm's sales grew 30 percent this year, he estimated.
Among its hot sellers are Little Helpers Work Bench and Welcome Home Playhouse, which Kannapell claimed is ``the biggest playhouse on the market.''
Jill Krutich, an analyst with Smith Barney of New York, said her firm predicts toy sales this year could rise 3-5 percent.
Several other market analysts predict toy sales will rise 4 percent or less this year. Last year, U.S. toy sales grew 7 percent to $18.7 billion, nearly two-thirds of which were rung up in the fourth quarter, according to Toy Manufacturers of America Inc.
Retail sales in general are slow and the lack of a ``hit'' has slowed traffic in aisles filled with toys. The decline of Lion King and Power Rangers has leveled the playing field for competing toys, but parents are not pressed to rush into stores looking for a product a kid demands to have. Krutich said traditional toys are attracting parents in a competitive market.
Custom-Pak Inc. President Richard Olsen said his Clinton, Iowa, firm, which blow molds components for undisclosed major toy companies, expects toy sales to be flat or slightly lower than last year.
``Overall, the retail market is soft,'' said James Braeunig, vice president of Hedstrom Corp.'s plastics division. His firm, however, has done well this season.
Hedstrom's riding horses are so popular that the Ashland, Ohio, firm will boost capacity to make them. It has ordered a 3,000-pound Ferry rotomolding machine to produce them beginning in March, Braeunig said.
The absence of a ``wonder toy is good news for us,'' said Laurie Strong, spokeswoman for Fisher-Price. Its Kitchen Center All in One, blow and injection molded in Murray, Ky., is its top seasonal seller, and other toys with an educational bent also are doing well, according to Strong.
Fisher-Price's recent push into rotomolded outdoor play equipment made this the first Christmas it offered theline. Strong had no sales data for the equipment, which in the past peaked in spring and summer. The Mattel Inc. subsidiary makes the play equipment at a new rotomolding plant in Augusta, Ga., which opened in mid-October, and in Medina, N.Y., and Ontario, Calif.
Little Tikes' Hudson, Ohio, rotomolding production is up this year, said Leslie Mapes, spokeswoman for Rubbermaid Inc.'s child toy division. She said her firm has been able to weather toy trend crazes in previous years because parents make buying decisions for preschoolers, who are Little Tikes' key market.
Little Tikes is building a 600,000-square-foot distribution center in Hudson to replace leased warehouse space in the area. The aim is to reduce product handling for cost savings. The project is part of parent company Rubbermaid Inc.'s recently announced streamlining program that includes closing Little Tikes' Guelph, Ontario, plant and eight warehouses and other nonproduction facilities around the world.
Kids' experiences in ``the outside world'' help spur demand for large, plastic toys. One of Little Tikes' hot items is its pickup truck. As more parents drive pickup trucks, kids want their own version.
Another big seller is Little Tikes' Peek-a-boo Activity Tunnel. The tunnel is a small version of the kind found in many commercial play centers.
Hedstrom's Ball Pit also taps energy from commercial play centers and fast-food restaurants. Ball Pit is a nylon tent filled with blow molded plastic balls that kids love to roll in. Braeunig said the product's popularity is one reason his firm is expanding blow molding capacity at Ashland.
Hedstrom has had such a good Christmas it plans more toy introductions next year.