Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Toymakers Arm for Battle of the Backyard Fisher-Price Enters Plastic Outdoor Gym War

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Toymakers Arm for Battle of the Backyard Fisher-Price Enters Plastic Outdoor Gym War

Article excerpt

The battle for the U.S. toy dollar has moved to the playground - the backyard playground, that is.

Brightly colored plastic playground equipment is fast becoming as common as dandelions in yards across the country, with sales expected to swell to $600 million in the next few years from an estimated $300 million this year.

The new kid on the playground is Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price unit, which has committed more money to launching the equipment than it has any toy in its history. It's taking on market leader Rubbermaid Inc.'s Little Tikes unit; privately held Step 2 Corp. of Streetsboro, Ohio; and Today's Kids Inc., a closely held company based in Booneville, Ark.

With prices ranging from $80 for a small climbing gym to $3,500 for a park-quality playground, preschool play equipment isn't exactly an impulsive purchase.

"It's not a toy. It's part of your backyard," said Step 2 founder and President Thomas Murdough. "It's part of your child's development."

It's also part of what the makers hope will be the next "must-have" toy product among the preschool set - and one that carries fat profit margins for toy manufacturers and retailers.

In what may be the new products' biggest boost yet, Toys `R' Us, the country's largest toy seller, recently decided to rid its stores of children's clothing, partly to make room for outdoor play equipment, which requires ample display and shelf space. Toys `R' Us sees the move as a way to gain an edge on competitors Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dayton Hudson Corp.'s Target, which so far are less generous with space devoted to the line.

King of the Yard

The biggest player in outdoor play equipment is Little Tikes. It's followed by Step 2, founded in 1991 by Murdough - who started Little Tikes in the 1970s. Murdough sold Little Tikes to Rubbermaid in 1984.

Watching Little Tikes become the king of the backyard prompted Fisher-Price, which also caters to preschool children, to make its move.

Fisher-Price opened two new plants and retooled a third to make the equipment, which involves a labor-intensive rotational molding system. The company made its playground debut last month with the Adjustable Playhouse Gym, which sells for about $225. Its Super Sand Castle, a combination sandbox, climbing and sliding toy, will be out this summer and will sell for about $200.

Fisher-Price concedes it has come to the playground a little late, but insists it will be a major force.

"The timing is good for us because there's a heightened awareness of outdoor playground equipment, especially with the growth of day-care centers," said Joseph Tindall, director of marketing for Fisher-Price.

While Fisher-Price refused to make projections, outdoor equipment could contribute more than 10 percent of Fisher-Price's revenue by 1997. Fisher-Price had revenue last year of $840 million. …

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