Pittsburgh's Bossa Nova Robotics battles for space on retailers' toy shelves

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Prime-8 made the big time. The yellow-and-black robotic gorilla from Oakland had his picture in the 80-page Toys R Us "Great Big Christmas Book" distributed nationally in late October.

There he is (on sale for $69.99) on Page 59, between two Prehistoric Pets -- a Terrodactyl interactive dinosaur (on sale for $29.99) and a Cruncher interactive dinosaur (on sale for $89.99) -- and a radio-controlled Fast Lane wild fire monster truck (on sale for $79.99).

His sweet sibling, a fuzzy robotic penguin named Penbo, didn't make the book but, hey, there are different routes onto children's Christmas lists.

And if any toy wants to get under the tree this year, now is the moment to be out there flipping or purring or doing whatever it is that makes that toy special.

"This is really the busiest time of the year," said Ellen Wang, who leads sales and marketing for Bossa Nova Robotics, a Carnegie Mellon spinoff formed five years ago to commercialize robotic technologies.

A full third of the millions of shoppers who head to stores on the day after Thanksgiving buy toys, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, a number of organizations are predicting holiday spending overall could rise, but most believe that consumers will spend carefully. A survey by research firm NPD Group found 32 percent of shoppers plan to buys toys as gifts this year, down from 34 percent in 2009.

Into that less-than-playful environment, Prime-8 and Penbo are going up against lines such as Barbie, Hot Wheels, Squinkies, Zoobies, Legos, Imaginext and Sing-a-ma-jigs! Pretty scary stuff.

Still, they've made it this far and that was quite a process.

The toys could have been sold in U.S. retail markets last year but Bossa Nova, new to the industry, didn't have its timing quite right. "If you don't have your product ready by a certain time, you miss a whole year," explained Ms. Wang, who works out of the company's California office and joined the 20-employee business last year.

Pitching new products to retailers typically starts at the Toy Industry Association's Fall Toy Preview gathering in Dallas. The event, held in October, often determines which toys will be ordered by buyers for holiday sales -- a year later.

Bossa Nova wasn't quite ready to deliver by the deadlines set by major U.S. stores for the 2009 holiday season -- "I think we missed by a week," said Ms. Wang -- although Penbo and Prime-8 were available online at Amazon.com. Instead, "Our first year was predominantly focused on the European market."

That wasn't such as bad thing. The toys were sold in Scandanavia, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. A wholesaler in Italy ordered 46,000 units. At the wholesaler's suggestion, Bossa Nova altered Penbo, which is designed in Oakland and made in China. "We actually changed the fabric into a plush fabric so it's softer," said Ms. Wang.

A television commercial shown in Europe did well and, after being tested with U.S. focus group, the same commercial is now running on American cable networks such as Nickleodeon and Cartoon Network.

It also didn't hurt the company to have sales data to share with U.S. buyers when it went to the Dallas gathering in late 2009. Penbo (U.S. suggested retail, $59.99), in particular, did well despite being a relatively expensive toy in the midst of an economic downturn, Ms. Wang said.

Bossa Nova unveiled new branding in time for the Texas show -- the toys are now part of the iloveRobots brand -- and new packaging that uses consistent coloring across the line. "Really, to be successful, we are not selling product," she said. "We are selling experiences, we are selling a brand."

That brand can be found this year in Toys R Us, RadioShack and Target stores, as well as online. The line includes the new Blazor raging raptor (suggested retail price, $39.99) and Bebe, the tiny baby penguin that fits inside an egg that Penbo lays. There's also a mini version of Prime-8.

If the Dallas show is all about closed booths and secretive discussions with buyers, then the annual American International Toy Fair in New York City in February is about generating as much buzz as possible with media and industry. By then, Ms. Wang said, it's too late for competitors to copy products in time for the holiday season.

At the 2010 show, she was thrilled when a Fox News reporter started a piece in front of the iloveRobots booth. There are also videos of Penbo and Prime-8 in action on YouTube.com.

A Target spokesperson said the company sources from many places, including emerging vendors who show new items at toy fairs. "We look for what our guests would expect to find in a toy -- is it fun, new and different, and is there an interesting play pattern that makes it stand out from other toys?" said Tara Schlosser. She said Target offers Penbo "based on its innovative product features and relative value to other robotic offerings."

At the chain's Ross store last week, two neatly boxed blue Penbos sat on the bottom shelf in aisle E13 in the toy section, right next to also interactive dinosaur Cruncher. Cruncher was harder to miss because he had a special display platform that allowed shoppers to see him move and come when he was called. A couple of rows over, a dancing Mickey Mouse had a similar display and the sales associate said he was sold out.

Bossa Nova didn't release sales figures, so it's hard to tell how its line is doing. Ms. Wang said the toys arrived in Toys R Us in August, Target in September and RadioShack in October. The company is watching point-of-sale data and she said sales started to lift after the TV commercials began appearing the last week of October.

The toys also have gotten some good reviews. TimetoPlaymag.com, which put Prime-8 and Penbo in its list of top 20 tech toys, said there have been similar products to Penbo in the past but it's well-designed. "At the end of the day, however, it's about the play, and girls will love the interaction they have with Penbo -- and moms and dads will think it's pretty cool, too."

Prime-8 got a pat on his hard plastic back, too. "At nearly $80, this is an investment toy, but you're paying for some outstanding technology and it's definitely worth it for kids who are into tech and robots."

Some reviewers on Amazon.com raved about the toys. A few reported their particular child stopped playing with them pretty quickly. "If you have a child like mine (likes to figure things out and then move on) your money may be better spent elsewhere for something less expensive. However, if your child sticks with toys for a while, you can't go wrong," wrote Steve "droptiks" in June.

Ms. Wang said one of the biggest challenges for pricier items is convincing parents the toys are worth the expense. As the mother of a 4-year-old, she said she thinks carefully about investing in play things that exceed the $30 level and expects other consumers do, too.

Bossa Nova's research and development team in its Oakland offices is working to expand the company's offerings in ways that may take its products into bigger places such as Wal-Mart and even into specialty toy retailers. Each retail customer has its own needs.

Ms. Wang said Wal-Mart buyers loved Penbo a year ago but they were concerned about the price point, especially in the tough economy. Bossa Nova pitched the retailer again this October but doesn't know yet if it will make the Wal-Mart toy list next year.

But that's next year. For now, they've got plenty to do to make it through this holiday season and see how well their plans work out. One thing about being a relative rookie: "We're learning all the time."

To see Prime-8 and Penbo on YouTube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe7GxO_YsXg and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt4odad9p8c.

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.


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