Step2 Co. has proved there still is room for rotational molding in a toy market swamped by electronic gizmos and gadgets.
For the second year in a row, Step2 was honored for its creative use of rotomolding to deliver child- and parent-pleasing play products. This toy season, its Lifestyle Kitchen got top marks in the NBC Today Show Toy Test in the preschool category.
Lifestyle Kitchen simulates the materials in a modern kitchen with its granitelike countertops and woodlike cabinetry and drawers. Decorative touches include wainscoting, crown molding, a wallpaper border and a slotted cutlery drawer.
``We believe a child should use his imagination,'' Thomas Murdough, Step2 founder, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a telephone interview. Some parents are turned off by electronic toys because the toys can present an unchallenging, preprogrammed play environment, he said from the company's head office in Streetsboro, Ohio.
Rather than fight electronic toys head-on, Step2 and other rotomolders increasingly are using technology to enhance their toys' realism. Lifestyle Kitchen, for example, features stove-top burners that simulate bubbling and frying sounds.
Other electronics-based sights and sounds are present in the kitchen's overhead dome light, push-button mobile phone, oven, microwave and dishwasher.
Step2 - the world's second-largest rotomolder after Little Tikes Co. of Hudson, Ohio - makes Lifestyle Kitchen in Streetsboro from its own rotomolded components and from outsourced injection molded and blow molded parts. The toy was tested alongside 400 others by more than 8,000 children in 70 child-care centers across the United States.
NBC Today Show criteria included durability, long-term attraction and creative play attributes. The $200 toy is suited to children 2 years and older. Last year, Step2's Up & Down Roller Coaster won the show's preschool award.
Rotomolding also figures in one of the hottest-selling toys in 2002, MGA Entertainment's Bratz Salon 'N' Spa. The ``full-service beauty salon'' includes stations for hair dressing and manicures, a cosmetics counter, a Jacuzzi hot tub and a cafe bar, reports Toy Wishes magazine. Barbie dolls, as usual, continue to be the most-popular-selling rotomolded toys. Mattel Inc.'s latest Barbie incarnation is a doll based on the Rapunzel fairy tale.
Bright spots notwithstanding, large, rotomolded toys have a tough slog in the toy market. Retailers avoid less-popular rotomolded products because the toys offer low sales for the amount of aisle space they consume. Rotomolded playground equipment, popular several years ago, is in a general slump.
``There is pressure to reduce cubic space in the retail sector,'' noted Jim Braeunig, Hedstrom Corp. vice president and general manager. ``I don't see a comeback any time soon unless there is another way to get [bulky toys] to the consumer.''
Market maturity and retail pressures are forcing some toy majors to diversify from large, playground toys into other categories, according to Chris Byrne, editor of Toy Report. Some toy producers also are increasing the injection and blow molded portion of their portfolio at the expense of rotomolding. Mattel's Little Tikes division has been branching out from its sluggish core lines of playground equipment.
Cutthroat competition is forcing more rotomolding to relocate offshore to take advantage of lower plastic resin and labor costs. Braeunig said his Ashland, Ohio, company moved a big chunk of play-ball production to China to cut costs.
The program is feasible because Hedstrom doesn't pay to ship air. The rotomolder in China deflates the balls for shipment and Hedstrom automatically reinflates them in North America.
Byrne added that stackable components also make it viable to rotomold big parts in Asia.