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Creative Response to Market Signals Revs Up Falling Sales for Toy Company

“Creative Response to Market Signals Revs Up Falling Sales for Toy Company”

Scott and Steven Walker win with change management.

Selling a toy in toy stores seems logical, but the Walker family, owners of IceBreaker Enterprises of Atlanta, found some flaws in that thinking.

Founded in 1993 by Walla Balla inventor David Walker and his wife, Jocelyn, IceBreaker markets a single product: Walla Balla, a game featuring a belt, three small baskets and an attached ball. Players strap it around their waists and then bounce or wiggle their hips to score a basket.

The Walkers’ sons, Scott and Steven, quickly assumed day-to-day operations, spent a year researching the toy market and started selling the product in 1994. FAO Schwartz and Spencer Gifts were two big early accounts, and two years of exposure on QVC, the television- and Internet-based shopping network, also boosted sales.

Yet staking turf in the traditional toy market was highly competitive, and in 1997 sales were dropping by about 20%. "Most retailers look for products that have a short shelf life," explains Scott Walker, vice president of marketing and sales. "If you’re lucky, you get a couple of Christmas seasons, but then retailers want something new, and your product is gone. The company realized that growth would depend on tapping new distribution channels."

Then, IceBreaker had a stroke of good fortune. "We started getting a few calls from DJs who play at parties and other functions who said, ‘Hey, we love your product,’" says Walker, explaining that DJs not only provide music at events, but also are responsible for entertainment. Walla Balla was in high demand because it crossed demographics, appealing to both adults and children.

"Some DJs even told us that they had gotten rid of all of their other party props because they were not so universal or easy to carry as Walla Balla," he adds.

This information prompted the company to take out an ad in Mobile Beat, a magazine for DJs. "The response was huge, and not only from DJs," Walker notes. "A distributor who markets items to DJs contacted us after seeing the ad and wanted to represent our product. We began a relationship, and business has been really, really good."

If the game was a hit at parties, the Walkers reasoned, why not at places with a party-like atmosphere — bars and restaurants? Running an ad in Nightclub & Bar magazine opened another new market. And games sold to yet another unconventional niche would be seen by thousands.

"The good thing about these new niches is that the game gets wide exposure, literally at no cost," Walker says. "The people who are buying the product also are promoting it." And although IceBreaker doesn’t operate a Web site, Walla Balla wins exposure from sites maintained by different DJs throughout the country.

"Compare that to a game sold by a retail outlet to a grandmother who buys it for a grandchild. How many kids see it? So marketing in these non-traditional niches is a long-term strategy. We won’t be Tickle Me Elmo, but we’ll be able to sell the product over the long haul," Walker predicts.

"If I had it to do over again, I would have investigated alternative niches along with the traditional toy market in our first year," Walker says. "I think the niches would have complemented our retail presence," he adds.

Writer: Bill Bike