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Area toy makers try to cook up holiday hits

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

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Tom Richmond, little tikes general manager, skippers the Pirate Ship toddler bed at little tikes headquarters in Hudson. The themed toddler bed comes with a ships wheel, built-in toy box with a removable lid, headboard with cubby holes and working night lights, cannons and a main mast with fabric sale and crows nest. (Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)
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The elves at two area toy makers are hoping their products top kids’ wish lists this holiday season.

Both Step2 of Streetsboro and Little Tikes Co. of Hudson keep designers and plant workers busy year-round hoping to find the year’s biggest hit. The majority of their products are made in Ohio but both companies also have products with some imported parts.

Both specialize in rotational-mold processes in local manufacturing. They said for the 2012 season, sales are off to a strong start.

Jack Vresics, Step2 president and chief executive officer, said consumer spending on toys is expected to be flat, while Tom Richmond, Little Tikes general manager/MGA executive vice president, said the toy maker expects spending to be up.

“It’s a late Christmas. The election is over and everyone is vying for the consumer dollar earlier,” said Richmond. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand.

Toys R Us’ “Big Book” of popular toys came out in October this year when it normally comes out in November, said Richmond.

“I think retailers want to empty their shelves by the end of the year,” he said. “There’s a lot of discounting going on.”

Whatever the forecast for consumer spending, one thing is clear: Market share is important.

“We’ve got great placement [on the store shelves],” said Step2’s Vresics. “It’s up to us to dominate.”

At Step2, the focus is online, allowing moms to write reviews and push them out to their Facebook friends. The company has made more than 100 product videos online. The company is also utilizing QR codes (square bar codes scanned with a smart phone that take you to a website). Scanning the codes on three toy kitchens on display at Toys R Us will take shoppers to a video of a mom talking about the product.

Little Tikes has hit the television airwaves, as well as posting information online with blogs and social media this fall to highlight its new Cook ’n Grow Kitchen ($109.99), which has two stages. The first stage is at a lower height for preschoolers and the second stage, which can be transformed with a few moves by mom and dad, allows growing kids to continue their play.

Little Tikes also has a new Pirate Ship Toddler Bed ($299.99), which has a ship’s wheel, built-in toy box, cannons, a headboard with working night lights and a mast with a fabric sail and crow’s nest.

“What moms are really loving about this bed is it’s a great motivation for getting into their own bed,” said Jennifer Couillez, Little Tikes’ director of design. “It also provides an imagination destination. You can really be imaginative and play and have a compelling environment to look forward to going to bed.”

At Step2, kitchens are among the hottest toys and include the Creative Cooks Kitchen, which has electronic sounds. “We want kitchens to reflect the home,” said Meghan Hale, Step2 marketing manager.

Designers will often take their real-life experiences or shopping trips into account when thinking about the newest kitchen, said Step2 designer Matt Maxwell.

Step2 has its Big Builders Workshop, a realistic workbench that is co-branded with Home Depot on it. The workshop ($119.99) is sold exclusively at Toys R Us, which has featured the product in its TV spots.

A lot of retailers often want their own exclusive product, such as Step2’s Create & Play Kitchen, a pink kitchen ($89.99 at Target).

Employment at Step2 is up from 800 to 900 this year, with 500 at the company’s Streetsboro plant and headquarters. Step2 in August received a 45 percent, six-year state tax credit to help pay for expansions that would generate about 200 jobs over three years in Streetsboro and its plant in Perrysville.

Step2 will be spending $1 million over the next few years to reconfigure the plant floors, updating technology and adding capacity, company officials said.

At Little Tikes, employment is steady at 800, said Richmond. The company has made a concerted effort to continue bringing back some products made in China, either to be made at the plant or by area contractors, he said.

In 2008, the company’s parent, MGA Entertainment, committed to staying in Hudson with the help of state tax credits. Richmond said beyond a small portion of the property that is leased to another operation, the company is using every square inch of its facilities.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com.