U.S. Toy Manufacturers Say Bilingual, Multicultural Toys Are a Hit

By Elizabeth Kelleher
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - U.S. toy manufacturers and retailers are boosting offerings of multicultural products, from bilingual talking toys to dolls of many races, and parents are responding by opening their wallets.

Dolls Like Me, a New Jersey online retailer, features dolls of many skin tones, dressed to reflect ethnic varieties.  The company has grown quickly since it was founded in 2005 by Denise Gary Robinson, an African-American entrepreneur.  Robinson said children should have dolls that look like them and dolls that look like their friends, too.  “We all look different; I celebrate that,” she says.

Robinson says she gets letters from parents all the time.  There were so many requests from Muslim Americans, she said, that she found an appropriate doll and commissioned an outfit for it that would appeal to Muslim American girls.  The doll wears a hijab, or traditional head scarf.

This fall, Robinson intends to sell a series that may appeal to immigrants.  Made by Karito Kids, each of the five dolls has a story about the country from which she hails - Kenya, China, Mexico, the United States and Italy.

Another small startup company is Miami-based Baby Abuelita Productions, which had its genesis in a desire by Hilda Argilagos Jimenez to preserve the lullabies her grandparents sang to her in Spanish.  She and business partner Carol Fenster hired artists to design grandparent-style dolls, and singers and sound engineers to record the music the dolls sing.  Fenster said the lyrics resonate with Cubans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans and others.

The first dolls - Abuelita Rosa and Abuelito Pancho - were manufactured in 2004, and within a year they were selling at major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys "R" Us.  That year, the new company sold 10,000 dolls; it expects to sell more than 100,000 in 2007.

While some store buyers were initially skeptical - “Who would buy a grandparent doll?” they asked - the reaction by Hispanic consumers has been strong.  “In Hispanic countries, the grandparents are the keepers of the culture.  There is respect for them in that role,” said Fenster.


In fact, toys that appeal to the Hispanic market are especially popular today, according to manufacturers.

Reyne Rice, a trend specialist at the Toy Industry Association, said manufacturers’ interest in the Hispanic market has picked up markedly since the 2000 census.  “This is a niche market,” said Rice, “but a big niche market.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reported a 60 percent increase in the number of Hispanics in the United States between 1990 and 2000.  At the turn of the century, there were 35 million Hispanics, making up 13 percent of the total population.

By mid-2005, there were 43 million Hispanics, according to Roberto R. Ramirez of the U.S. Census Bureau.  Furthermore, Hispanics have contributed one-half of the growth in the U.S. population since 2000, Ramirez said.  The Hispanic population is younger than the total population, a fact not lost on toy makers.  Nearly one-fourth of all babies born in this country since 2000 have been Hispanic.

“We are constantly looking at birthrates,” said Brenda Andolina, a marketing representative of Fisher-Price, a division of Mattel Inc.  She said her company began a dedicated effort to reach Hispanic mothers in 2003.

Hispanic households outspend others on children’s apparel, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and toy makers are betting they will spend more on educational toys, too.

Manufacturers are increasing offerings of interactive electronic toys that use Spanish and English - leaders in the category include Fisher-Price, Leapfrog Enterprises and VTech Electronics.

Fisher-Price holds the license for toys based on television characters called “Dora” and “Diego,” who use some Spanish phrases.  They began as a mainstream brand but are increasingly popular with Hispanics, according to Andolina.  New in 2007 is a toy from Fisher-Price called “Dora’s Vanity,” which will have a feature whereby, when a child says a word in English, Dora will say it back in Spanish.  “General market moms like exposing their children to a new culture and language, and Latina moms like reinforcing their roots,” Andolina said.

Leapfrog is coming out with a bilingual preschool toy called the “Learn & Groove Animal Sounds Guitar,” which introduces animal names and sounds, as well as numbers and counting in both Spanish and English.  Moms love the fact that they can learn English while their child learns Spanish, according to Angelica Elizondo, marketing manager at Leapfrog.

VTech’s “Nitro Notebook,” for ages 5 and up, will include Spanish-language features as it teaches reading skills through games.

A spokeswoman at Oregon Scientific said her company’s multicultural products are “extremely popular” and the company is expanding its bilingual offerings.  For instance, the "Barbie B-Smart," a toy laptop computer with activities that can be played in Spanish, will be updated for fall 2007 to teach Spanish as well.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a steady increase in demand for products that support a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and we expect this trend to continue,” the spokeswoman said.

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