Jessica Rogers is one wired five-year-old. The East Rutherford (N.J.) kindergartner has a Playskool talking barbecue set, a pair of pink Pottery Barn Kids walkie-talkies, and a Barbie Bank with Me ATM machine that spits out play money when she inserts a card. And high on her Christmas list: a working telephone and television. "Five-year-olds can have TVs," she says. "My friend Kelly does."
Welcome to the latest trend in the toy industry: adult-style gadgets for ever-younger kids. With children maturing more rapidly and playing with computers from a very young age, they quickly tire of toys that seem too, well, toylike. So the $20 billion industry, struggling to goose sales after three flat years, is going head to head with consumer electronics companies with a host of products ranging from portable video players to handheld electronic games.
Realizing that Mickey Mouse toothbrushes and Pooh Bear bedspreads may not be enough, Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) this year launched a line of consumer electronics aimed at kids aged six and up. Disney's $119 color TV features a remote control designed especially for little hands. Adjust the volume and Princess Ariel flits across the screen. Touch the channel changer and Cinderella pops up.
Hasbro Inc. (HAS ) also has high hopes for VideoNow, a handheld video player retailing for $50. Kids slip in 3.5-inch discs containing cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants. Brian Goldner, president of Hasbro's U.S. toy division envisions a whole family of handheld devices coming down the pike. "Kids are on the go more than ever," he says. Then there's the company's ThinTronics line of ultraskinny FM radios and telephones in jazzy colors that are designed to hang like posters on a bedroom wall. With a press of the button, kids can call up their friends and chat over the speaker phone embedded in the poster.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Other toymakers are taking on the game industry. Mattel Inc.'s (MAT ) Fisher-Price unit, for example, has added color and games to its three-year-old Pixter, a PDA-style device with a stylus that allows preschoolers to make sketches and store them. The company doubled the price to $80 -- and dropped the age rating from five to four.
Despite the proliferation, not everyone is a fan. Paul Thiem, a graduate student in Santa Clara, Calif., bought his three-year-old son, Chace, a used iMac computer earlier this year. Chace plays counting and spelling games on it. But for Christmas Chace wants a video-game player, and Pop has nixed that idea for now. Says Thiem: "I see kids becoming obsessed with those things." That's exactly what the toymakers are counting on.
By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, with Faith Arner in Boston