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Jennifer Marks

Toy story

Imagine a world in which Wal-Mart so completely dominated your product category that a supplier would have little hope of becoming a significant player without Wal-Mart shelf space.

Imagine there were only two specialty chains devoted to your product category — but one was hemorrhaging money and the other was in bankruptcy.

Imagine there was no middle tier of retailers to sell to — no Kohl's, JCPenney, Mervyn's, TJMaxx and the like. No department stores. No off-pricers or closeouters either. Only Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart and two ailing specialty chains.

Imagine every other retailer in your product universe was pretty much a mom & pop shop.

Imagine 95 percent of the products in your category were made in China.

Think you'd be up a creek? No. You'd be in the toy business.

I don't know whether the U.S. toy industry stands as model for the ultimate endpoint of the evolution now taking place in the home textiles industry. It's certainly an example of an industry operating at the extremes: a fully contracted retail base, one key selling season each year, no significant U.S. manufacturing, no new store growth to count on except from Wal-Mart and Target.

And yet it survives.

In fact, hundreds of suppliers were in New York last week for the International Toy Fair — despite its lopsided universe.

The toy industry has a remarkable capacity to wholly reinvent itself on an annual basis.

It comes up with new products that are actually … new. It is swift to incorporate emerging technologies into its product lines. It is aggressive in its outreach to target consumers.

Toy suppliers also are masters of product extension. When they come out with a new item, they've already mapped out two years, sometimes three years, worth of add-on products. They romance their product lines. They have stories to tell.

Sure, sure, you say. But toys are different. Toys are fun.

If DeLonghi can make toasters fun, Braun can make blenders fun and Method Products Inc. can come up with potions that make household cleansers fun (the ylang-ylang anti-mildew shower spray is positively yummy), anything is possible.

What do you do for an encore if you're the country's leading toothpaste maker? If you're Crest, you create whitening strips and sell them at a premium. What's your second act if you're peddling icky-tasting mouthwash? If you're Listerine, you create pocket-sized breath tabs.

Consumer product makers have managed to come up with cool new ideas based on products that are far more mundane than sheets and towels.

Let your imagination fly.

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