Wanted: a superhero in a store near you

Now it's Batmen and Power Rangers. Next year it'll be Spiderman. Monique Roffey keeps pace with children's crazes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bat mugs, bat boxer shorts, bat key-rings, bat T-shirts, bat pendants, even bat gumball machines. There's nothing they haven't thought of down at the official Batman Forever HQ, the Warner Bros Studio Store on Regent Street, central London. "We have more than 150 lines of products," says Anne Janas, marketing manager for Warner Bros Studio Stores. "Already the mugs and some of the figurines have sold out and more is on order." The film opened yesterday.

Batmania, third time round, is going to be huge. And this despite the fact that the toys do not come cheap. The sold-out 10-12in figures of Batman, Robin, Twoface and the Riddler cost pounds 27, and many children are given a set of four. The Bat-head mugs, also sold out, cost pounds 9. Children are putting the pressure on, and parents are digging deep. But the chain of 10 Warner Bros stores, like most other large retail outlets selling bat toys and other Bat-memorabilia feel they are prepared for the rush. Mainly because when a film of this magnitude hits the mainstream, and manufacturers and retailers are given over a year's notice, it is fairly easy to prepare.

"Sales figures are estimated by the track record of the last two movies, the star power of the film and the volumes of merchandising for similar movies, and then a good judgement call is made," says Anne Janas. "When there's a big film out, or a new TV series, we know that an accompanying craze will be a fairly sure thing," agrees Nicole Turrell, toy buyer for Woolworth. Most retailers put in orders for Batman merchandise six months to a year ago. They ordered, and they ordered big.

But advanced knowledge doesn't always stop them from being caught out. "When the first series of Power Rangers came out, we knew it would be huge and that it would be difficult to satisfy the demand," says Ms Turrell. "People were always queuing outside retailers, but it wasn't their fault. The Americans were soaking up most of the market and manufacturers just couldn't make them fast enough." The problem was with making the moulds, or the "tooling" for the toys which can take up to three months. When new or more toys need to be made, manufacturers simply can't jump to it. Retooling, or recasting new toy moulds, is a slow and expensive process.

"Initially we were caught short with Power Rangers," admits Darryl Jones, marketing assistant for Bandai, which has the master licence for the Power Ranger toys. "Because of the lead time needed for making toys, the toy industry just can't react quickly to huge and sudden demands. There are no factories outside China that are geared up enough to deal with the huge quantities needed for a global craze. With Power Rangers, we were caught unawares." In the first year, the States placed $10m worth of orders, but they ended up using up more like pounds 25m. "They worked a miracle," says Daryl Jones. "They only had five factories working on Power Rangers and overnight they upped this to 16."

Now in their second year of popularity, stocks of Power Rangers are being more accurately managed. Bandai has 33 factories worldwide, ranging from Asia to Mexico, solely working on their Power Ranger lines. Last year they sold pounds 10m worth of Power Ranger toys in the UK, this year they expect to sell pounds 20m.

Nicole Turrell explains that there is a well-known life-cycle for a film or TV-related craze. "First it's launched in the States, and then for the first six months of its life, the demand for 'the big one' of the year is very difficult to satisfy. There's a genuine supply and demand problem." Manufacturers then retool and increase production. "The demand is then satisfied and there is a 12-month-long good trading season. The idea then gets refreshed, for example with a film [as with Mighty Morphin: Power Rangers the Movie, which opens on 21 July] or with a new series. After the refreshing period there's a pause." This is usually a two-year cycle. After the pause comes an uncertain waiting period, when a new concept will become the next craze. Five years ago it was Ninja Turtles, two years ago it was Thunderbirds and Power Rangers. But retailers are selective about which films they back and how big. "Longevity is the key," says Ms Turrell. "For instance, we didn't go big on Judge Dredd or The Flintstones because the selling time was too short and we didn't want to be left with stock we can't sell." So far, this year, Batman Forever and the Power Rangers movies have been 'the big ones'.

"Concepts don't operate in isolation," she continues. "There's always something else about to pop up. We do a weekly monitoring of sales and profiles of concepts and their life-cycles. This is about trends and high- fashion merchandising. If something is hot, then you can't sell kids anything else. But it's a constant rolling table of trying to predict what's the next craze."

Pog, a playground game that involves flipping and swapping milk bottle tops, was also predicted to be big this year, but no one could predict what was to send it into orbit and make it an overnight cult success. "One school banned Pogs from its playground and that was it," says Mark Beill, sales manager for Selfridges. "They were popular before they were banned, but when that happened, sales went through the roof."

Since February, Waddington Games, which manufactures Pog in this country, has sold five million foil packs of Pogs (99p each) and 60,000 megapacks (pounds 3) throughout the UK. "The way children in Britain have gone for Pog has been amazing," says a spokesman for Waddington Games. "It took more than a year for the game to travel from California across to the east coast of America. In the UK, within weeks of the launch of Pog, Poging children could be found in just about every school playground in the country. Although the speed with which the game has taken off has taken us by surprise, we always knew Pog would be huge in the UK. Children are very discerning consumers and won't accept inferior substitutes for Pog. We are therefore stepping up production, and when we launch series three in August, we will be attempting to put twice as many Pog sachets into the shops."

While retailers do not like to admit it, another way of coping with a sudden, huge demand for a product is by selling knock-offs. "We do a lot of business with parallel lines which make similar, cheaper products," says Ms Turrell. "These are not a substitute, as kids are very sensitive to brand names, they are additional business. Not everyone can afford the real thing."

But while today it's Batman, just what will be "coming soon?" "Spiderman," says Nicole Turrell. Already a big hit in the United States, a new Spiderman television series is due to start on BBC1 in September. "It's going to be an unknown quantity," says Ms Turrell. "It's hotly tipped as the next big concept and there are rumours already about a film next year."

While it won't knock either Power Rangers or Batman out of their present lifecycles as the dominant craze concepts, it will be big enough to follow through on. Ordered months ago, and available from August onwards in most major retail outlets will be Spiderman figurines, vehicles, playsuits, mugs, stationery, bubble bath, boxer shorts, keyrings ...

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