Old Toy Favorites Lead the Way

Barbie, Etch-a-Sketch, Elmo -- they're all back, some with new flourishes. Overall, though, no gotta-haves are on the horizon

Parents and other gift-givers breathe easy. This holiday season, no must-have toy is expected to trigger a run on stores this year. Nothing like the Furby craze of 1998, which sparked shoving matches between customers over who would get the few fuzzy, talking critters left on retailer shelves. The rush drove the price of the $30 Hasbro toy into the hundreds of dollars on Internet auction sites. Before that came the Cabbage Patch Doll mania in the 1980s, which set off the same sort of frenzy.

The toy-shopping outlook for 2003, thankfully, appears to be a more subdued. Value is the catchword this year. Consumers are looking for things that offer "more bang for their buck," says Maria Weiskott, editor-in-chief at Playthings, a toy-industry trade magazine in New York.

With wallets still on the thin side after three years of economic downturn, parents will be seeking toys that encourage children to be creative -- and keep their attention for a while, the smart thinking goes. "Even if there was some hot talking robot, I doubt parents would spend their money on it," Weiskott says.


  Topping this year's list of added-value toys are the latest in interactive learning gizmos. LeapFrog has rolled out its $49.99 LeapPad Plus learning system, and Fisher-Price has countered with its own $49.99 PowerTouch. Both are designed to help kids ages 3 to 8 learn skills such as reading, phonics, and spelling. "If there's one theme this year, it's interactive learning," Weiskott says. "Parents really like these toys because they think it will give their kids a leg up."

Learning toys sound a little borrr-ring? Rest assured that Holiday 2003 will pack its share of gimmicky toys into Santa's bag. One product that retailers are talking about is Hokey Pokey Elmo -- the latest incarnation of the lovable character from Sesame Street, which Fisher-Price is offering for $29.99. This time around, the furry, pint-size monster -- long a favorite of preschoolers -- sings and dances to the Hokey Pokey, a tune whose heyday seems to have been in the 1970s at weddings and roller rinks.

"When kids see it, they get up and move around with it," says New York-based independent toy consultant Chris Byrne. "It's an active kind of play."


  Elmo won't be alone. Retro-inspired toys, or souped-up versions that scored big with kids some 10 even 20 years ago, are hot this season, industry watchers say. Among the products hitting the market in time for the holidays are Bandai's scented Strawberry Shortcake dolls and Hasbro's My Little Pony pony figures. That hardy toy perennial, Ohio Art's Etch-A-Sketch, is expected to sell well too this year, especially after it was used as a prop by Will Ferrell in the movie Elf.

"The 80s' kids are becoming parents, and they remember these toys and want to share them with their kids," Weiskott says. In an industry that prides itself on innovation, "honestly, no one expected these toys to do as well as they have done," Byrne says.

One of these back-to-the-future toys -- Play Along's Care Bears, which had their big run in the 1980s -- comes updated with modern technology. An infrared system makes the bears sing along together if you group at least two together. That's not a bad way to get grandma's and grandpa's attention, toy experts note. "[The bears] probably will be a $200 million business," Byrne predicts.


  For girls, Barbie remains diva of the toy stage. This year, the shapely doll from Mattel (MAT ) is back with a "Swan Lake" holiday theme. But the fairy-tale maiden will face stiff competition from Bratz, a line of sassy dolls from MGA Entertainment that also makes accessories like limos and clubbing outfits. "They're dolls with attitude," notes toys observer Michael Redmond, a senior industry analyst with NPD Group, a market-information provider in Port Washington, N.Y. "They are supposed to have all the latest clothes and hair styles." (Mattel's answer to Bratz is Flavas, a line of multicultural dolls.)

For boys, Redmond bets Hasbro's Beyblade Remote Control Top with Launcher will be a good seller. Basically, it's a top that can smack down other tops. "You pull a string, and your top can battle against others," says Redmond. Also in the battle vein, Hasbro's BTR Transformers, or toys that can be changed into different shapes -- from robot to space ship, for instance -- will likely be near the top of holiday wish lists, despite having been on the market for a while, Weiskott predicts.

Video games? Oh, they'll be plenty available, although they're not technically considered toys by the industry. But kids are asking their parents for them at younger and younger ages, toy-industry followers say. Sony (SNE ), Nintendo, and Microsoft (MSFT ) are all unveiling new hardware and software game products this holiday season to capitalize on the "age compression" trend of children moving more swiftly out of traditional toys and into more sophisticated pursuits. "You will start to see more and more [video-game] products that are targeted to younger children," says Richard Ow, also an industry analyst at NPD Group.


  Parents who frown on the new trends must remember that old standards such as construction sets, LEGOs, and even arts-and-crafts supplies can still go over big with children, says Weiskott. "Toys that allow kids to spend hours making their own things spark imagination and creativity," she adds. "That's what drives a good toy."

The good news for shoppers is toy prices have declined slightly on average in recent years, says Byrne. Although the total annual retail toy sales per child stands at an eye-popping $340, according to US Bancorp Piper Jaffray (which means parents are buying a lot of them), the average toy price ranges from $34.99 to $50, says Byrne.

Some parents will naturally spring for more expensive ones, such as the $129.99 Barbie Cook With Me Kitchen. But plenty of quality toys are much cheaper than that. "Many parents just don't want to spend a lot on whacky new things," says Weiskott.


  Several of the 2003 season's newest toys are already popping up on Internet auction site eBay (EBAY ) with starting bids at inflated prices in anticipation that certain ones may sell out. One "NIB" (new in box) Swan Lake Barbie was recently offered at $27.99. At least one major retailer was selling the same doll online for just $16.99.

Shades of Furby and the Cabbage Patch? Not likely. Byrne offers this advise on ignoring toy hype: "The hot toy is only hot if it's hot for your kid." After a rough economic patch, the emphasis on tried-and-true -- with a few techno-splashes here and there -- should make this a hunt-for-value holiday season. After all, it sure beats having that trendy new toy end up getting tossed into a closet after a few days' use.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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