Dear Santa: Skip The Batteries

Sales of non-electronic board games, puzzles, and building sets are climbing

Scan any list of the toys expected to fly off store shelves this holiday season, and you'll see a slew of electronic playthings and kid-size gadgets from video cameras to handhelds that teach math. The widely followed Hot Dozen list from Toy Wishes magazine, for one, includes only three items that don't have a computer chip. Last year, sales of tech-based toys grew an estimated 19%, siphoning off sales from such traditional playthings as stuffed animals, dolls, and art supplies.

But with parents increasingly agitated by the amount of time kids spend with video games and other mind-numbing chip-based toys, companies large and small are finding there's money to be made selling old-fashioned stuff -- from puzzles to board games to building sets. Even as sales in the $20 billion industry fell 3% last year, according to researcher NPD Funworld, sales of family-oriented board games jumped 12%, puzzle sales rose 26%, and games for preschoolers climbed 27%. Not only are pediatricians advising parents to limit "screen time" to two hours a day but also, says independent industry analyst Chris Byrne, parents increasingly are seeking toys that will help make their kids "physically and socially adept."

Some board game makers are pushing the notion that their products encourage verbal interaction between kids -- and maybe even between parent and child. "The countertrend to all the technology toys is the human yearning for a sense of togetherness," says Richard Tait, chief executive of privately held Cranium Inc. His Seattle outfit this year has unveiled three new products, including Bumparena, a $16 game in which players place pinball machine-style bumpers on a slanted board, release small balls at the top of the board, and try to guide them into a goal at the bottom. Pretty basic, right? Well, according to Tait, Cranium's sales of such family-oriented games grew 320% over the past two years.

Another angle: selling toys that purportedly help boost kids' spatial skills. Automoblox Co., for example, is in its second year of selling a line of $32 wood-and-plastic cars that kids as young as four years old can take apart and mix and match to design their own models. Last year, the toy company startup, based in Roseland, N.J., sold all 12,000 cars it had in stock, says President Patrick Calello. This year, Automoblox has already shipped more than half of its 60,000-car output to retailers. What's the appeal? Independent toy analyst Stephanie Oppenheim says that the toy cars are a hit with kids because they're "part vehicle, part puzzle." And hey, parents: no batteries required and no beeps or sirens. "It's a nice, quiet toy," says Calello.

Even building sets are making a comeback. RoseArt Industries Inc., a unit of Montreal-based Mega Bloks Inc., this fall unveiled Magnetix Magna World, construction kits whose magnetic pieces let children build skyscrapers, action figures, and vehicles. And K'NEX Industries Inc.'s new Flex K'NEX products have flexible parts that can be used to assemble cars and spaceships. These building sets let kids as young as five construct relatively complex structures easily and quickly, toy analysts say. Individual pieces in the Magna World kits, for example, incorporate magnets that help little hands connect all the parts firmly. To get the word out, RoseArt is displaying 18-inch-high clock towers made of the magnetic parts in toy stores.

Plenty of tech-free toys are duds, of course. Sales in the U.S. of Mattel Inc.'s (MAT ) Barbie dolls, for example, dropped 30% in the most recent quarter. Indeed, if demand for traditional toys is going to bounce back, says NPD Funworld toy analyst Anita Frazier, "there'll have to be more creativity" on the part of manufacturers. That's especially true in the era of Apple Computer's iPod (AAPL ), which, once again, is expected to top countless kids' holiday season wish lists.

By Louise Lee in San Mateo, Calif.

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