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II, III and IV: The meanest supervillains facing toy makers

Sales of toys based on blockbuster films like Transformers, Spider-Man and Captain America have been surprisingly lacklustre.

Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press

How many Spider-Man action figures does one child need?

That's the big question for investors in Hasbro Inc., who are counting on sales of toys linked to the summer's superhero blockbusters to translate into megabucks for the company.

Films that generate millions at the box office are big money makers for merchandisers who cash in on the hype of caped crime fighters and other heroes in tights. But with so many of this season's movies in the second, third, or fourth iterations of their series, concern is growing that superhero fatigue will hit the toy aisle extra hard this year.

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The lack of fresh franchises comes as sales of action figures have been declining. U.S. sales fell by 6 per cent last year, according to market information company The NPD Group.

Hasbro dominates what the industry calls the boy's toy category, and is highly dependent on movies to generate sales.

But the company's products linked to Marvel Worldwide Inc. comics – Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – have generated less customer excitement than investors were expecting, according to Gerrick Johnson, retail analyst at BMO Nesbitt Burns. It could be because none of these movies are the first of their kind.

"Name any superhero movie and it has a number after it," Mr. Johnson said, pointing to the Iron Man franchise, where the title character has had three movies of his own, as well as appearing in The Avengers series. "What kid in North America doesn't have an Iron Man figure now? Why would he need another one?"

The fourth Transformers film, which is set to be released in late June, got half the shelf space at Toys R' Us, Target and Wal-Mart as the movie's third instalment, Mr. Johnson said – this may have disappointed investors who were expecting the big-name movie to drive demand. He attributes the reduced space to increased caution on the part of retailers, and a certain amount of customer weariness.

The toys that do reach the shelves haven't been as popular as Mr. Johnson expected. "The Marvel movies (Captain America and Spider-Man) have generated little buzz or excitement in the toy aisle, with more discounting than we usually see at movie releases," he wrote in a note to clients. The Pawtucket, RI-based Hasbro also makes toys for the Star Wars franchise.

Driving profit from the boys products category has been a challenge for Hasbro in the last couple of years. In 2011 net revenues were $1.8-billion (U.S.) for boys, but that fell to $1.2-billion by the end of fiscal 2013 – the figures are heavily influenced by theatrical releases.

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This year, there are so many action movies coming out that there's likely to be a cannibalization of toy sales, said Lutz Muller, head of toy industry consultants Klosters Trading Corp. "There's only so many superhero movies that one kid can see," he said.

Mr. Muller's research shows that toy sales usually decline with each new movie in a series, even if the box office does well, or very well, because the characters tend to be similar and many children have toys from the prior films.

Some movies have been unique enough for toys to sell well on the store shelves. Pixar's Planes movie followed on the heels of its Cars craze, but its animated aircraft toys drew buyers. More recently, the Frozen movie has been a success for toy makers because it's clever, has catchy songs and is a relief from the boys action category, Mr. Johnson said. Another big toy company, Jakks Pacific Inc., recently came out with a giant size Godzilla figure that measured more than 40 inches, which stood out from other action figures.

"If you have something different, new and innovative, then it could do just fine being from a movie," Mr. Johnson said. "But a lot of these are just movies and action figures for movies' and action figures' sake."

New ways of playing are also changing the landscape as more and more kids seek out electronic games and other digital fun over more traditional toys.

Some companies have found a way to marry the two worlds and these toy products are eating the lunch of traditional action figures, Mr. Muller noted. Disney's Infinity toys that launched in 2013 are a hybrid of a tangible toy that connects to a digital world played in through video games. This followed a similar game-toy combo product called Skylanders. These games are increasingly popular with kids and Mr. Muller said both Hasbro and the world's largest toy maker, Mattel Inc., will likely develop similar products in the future in partnership with game design companies.

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About the Author
Financial Services Reporter

Jacqueline Nelson is a financial services reporter at the Report on Business. Prior to that she was a staff writer at Canadian Business magazine, covering news and writing features on a wide variety of subjects. More

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