NEW YORK Led by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., discount retailers won a war with other toy stores this past holiday season. Now toymakers, a casualty in that bitter fight, have decided to make their own stand.
To protect themselves and toy retailers they see as key to their profits, some manufacturers plan to deliver fewer hot toys to Wal-Mart and to have more exclusive launches at chains like Toys ''R'' Us Inc. It's a rare instance of manufacturers challenging the biggest U.S. retail juggernaut and its low-price approach to business.
Wild Planet Toys' Aquapets, an interactive critter, will be at Toys ''R'' Us exclusively for three months this spring before it reaches the mass merchants.
''The success of Toys "R" Us is important for the health of the toy industry,'' said Danny Grossman, founder and CEO of Wild Planet.
Said Jim Silver, publisher of the Toy Book, an industry magazine: ''Wal-Mart is a very important part of the toy business, but toymakers don't want its low-pricing strategies to devalue their brands and their business and put more toy retailers out of business.''
The price wars contributed to the bankruptcies last holiday season of FAO Inc., owner of the famed FAO Schwarz, and KB Toys Inc., which plans to close nearly a third of its stores.
''Whether it is exclusive launches or controlled product shipments, they are going to do whatever they can to keep other retailers healthy,'' Silver said.
Still, given the clout of Wal-Mart, which has a 21 percent share of the toy market, it remains to be seen whether these strategies will be effective. Many manufacturers who wanted to speak anonymously for fear of losing the discounter's business said there is only so much they can do. Setting prices with retailers is illegal under antitrust laws.
And Karen Burk, a Wal-Mart spokesperson, said: ''Our focus will continue to be what it has always been, and that is delivering value to our customers, and that will not change.''
The pricing issue is expected to be a key concern of manufacturers and retailers at the American International Toy Fair, the industry product expo that officially begins Sunday.
Toy price wars have always been part of the holiday season, but 2003 was even more brutal than expected. In September, Wal-Mart started by dramatically reducing prices on more than a dozen hot toys, six weeks earlier than usual.
The retailer sold Mattel's Hot Wheels T-Wrecks playset for $29.74 instead of the original $49.88, while the price of Play Along's Sing-Along Care Bears fell to $14.99 from $24.99.
Wal-Mart used the toys as a loss leader to woo shoppers to other aisles elsewhere in the store.
Discount rivals including Target Corp. followed, but other stores that could not compete ended up canceling orders and advertisements.
Manufacturers are worried about 2004. ''This sets the bar this year,'' moaned Jay Foreman, CEO of Play Along.
The $20 billion traditional toy industry suffered a 3 percent decline in sales last year, according to analyst estimates. Mean-while, prices fell 4.3 percent on top of a 9.3 percent decline in 2002, according to the Labor Department.
Some companies like Applause LLC are determined to create a best seller even without discounters' help. The toy company, which limits its distribution to independent stores and specialty chains, is reintroducing Dream Pets, fuzzy animals originally brought to the United States in the 1950s from Japan.
''I believe that phenomenons can happen today without mass merchants,'' said Bob Solomon, chair of the Woodland Hills, Calif., company.
Still, those who still want to have a good relationship with Wal-Mart will need to be diplomatic; with $256.03 billion in sales last year, the company has unprecedented power and offers a chance for big sales that manufacturers cannot ignore.
During a recent conference call with investors, Bob Eckert, chair and CEO of Mattel, said the company is trying to lessen the impact of price wars by building ''more value into our products to sell more on content and less on price.''
''We expect the business environment will continue to be a challenge with ongoing retail consolidation and cost pressures,'' he told investors.''How long it takes to get through this is anybody's guess.''
Not all manufacturers are upset by what happened last year.
LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. believes Wal-Mart's price cutting of some of its educational products helped to establish the chain as a destination for the brand, said Tom Prichard, senior vice president of marketing.
The closings of other toy retailers is something that ''was going to happen. Wal-Mart is bringing it to the forefront earlier,'' Prichard said.
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