2011 could be dream year for tech-toy lovers

A stunt car powered by light. Check. A table-top version of a popular iPhone game. Check. A battery-powered sweet-talking boyfriend doll. Check.

These are some of the items the U.S. toy industry hopes will help it rebound from a lackluster holiday sales season in which demand petered out after a strong start.

The top U.S. toy fair kicks off Sunday in New York just weeks after toy makers Hasbro Inc and LeapFrog Enterprises Inc shocked investors with a weak finish to the biggest selling season of the year.

"The buying patterns of the consumer have been permanently adjusted ... At least for the foreseeable future, they are tighter with their money, looking for specials," Jakks Pacific Inc Chief Financial Officer Joel Bennett said.

The 2011 lineup from industry goliath Mattel Inc to Hasbro to smaller companies such as Canada's Thinkway Toys will show how new technology and even iPhone apps are becoming the driving forces behind the latest playthings.

One of Mattel's bets for 2011 is the "Angry Birds Knock On Wood" game, a tabletop version of the current No. 1 paid game app for Apple Inc's iPhone . Inspired by 2010's top-selling music iPhone app, Jakks Pacific will tout a microphone that auto-tunes what you sing into it, making you sound like rapper T-Pain .

"A great game transcends the platform," Tim Kilpin, executive vice president of Mattel Brands, said.

Many toy makers are also jazzing up their traditional brands with hi-tech attachments or a social network avatar or an iPhone app to woo increasingly tech-savvy kids.

"It is clear that consumers are expecting to experience brands across digital and analog platforms in any form or format they want, anytime and anywhere," Hasbro Chief Executive Brian Goldner said.

Trend watchers agree.

"(Toy makers) really (need to) be aware of what is happening in the social media space and what's happening in mobility," said Reyne Rice, trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association.

"As smartphones become more prevalent in society and parents trade up to their second or third smartphone ... the other devices are going to be handed down to kids," she said, adding that she expects children to use the devices more to play games rather than to make calls.

Mattel's $20 "Sweet Talkin' Ken" doll will feature a built-in microphone and can record up to five seconds of sound, while Hasbro's $25 Jigazo puzzle will be powered with advanced software. The new Hot Wheels Videoracer cars will sport video cameras, while Jakks will look to woo gaming fans with "Kinectables" plush.

BALANCING ACT?

U.S. toy retail sales rose 2 percent in 2010 after declines in 2009 and 2008, with sales in the recent holiday quarter up 3 percent over the prior-year period, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Despite the overall sales rise, many toy makers saw demand falling late in the season when retailers applied brakes on discounts.

"Consumers are certainly looking for value," Hasbro Chief Executive Brian Goldner said.

Toy makers from Mattel to Jakks agree they are stuck in a tough spot between rising costs and bargain-hungry shoppers.

"We really do have to find that balance," Mattel's Kilpin said, adding that despite Mattel's plans to take some price hikes, the company will keep 80 percent of products in its portfolio priced below $20.

"There is no question it's a challenged environment," Kilpin said. "We are working that balancing act."

STAR POWER

Toy companies are also counting on movie superheroes for a significant sales boost this year.

On Thursday, toy retailer Toys R Us Inc unveiled its first-ever collection of wood vehicles, track and playsets based on the Disney Pixar movie " Cars ." Mattel, Lego, Spin Master all hold licenses for the " Cars 2" toy line.

Hasbro's lineup includes toys based on " Transformers -- Dark of the Moon," while Jakks is betting on upcoming movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Real Steel." Mattel is also looking for some boost from the Warner Bros film "Green Lantern."

(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan; Editing by Gary Hill)