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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hot toys for the holidays: Squinkies, Monster High, Barbie Video Girl, Hot Wheels and more

Retailers hope toys will help boost other sales. This year, trends include 'mini collectibles,' bigger dolls, high-tech gadgets for young children, movie tie-ins and activities for the whole family.

By Andrea Chang
From: http://articles.latimes.com/

Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times

For parents, finding the right holiday toy isn't all fun and games.

After a robotic hamster became the breakout hit last Christmas, the race is on to snag this year's hot toy. But what is it?

No front runner has emerged yet, but parents and kids have been buzzing about squishy pencil toppers, a Barbie equipped with a real video camera and toy musical instruments that can be played by lightly touching the paper surface.

"Part of what makes a toy the must-have toy is the scarcity in finding it," said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at Needham & Co. "There's social currency attached to being the parent who can deliver it and the kid who gets it."

Toys may be a bright spot during what industry watchers are predicting will be another tough holiday season for consumer spending. Compared with other retail categories such as luxury and electronics, toys weren't hit as hard during the economic downturn for one major reason: Parents will cut back everywhere else before they deprive their children of that Buzz Lightyear action figure or the latest Bratz doll. Plus, toys are relatively cheap.

For those who haven't started shopping, prepare yourselves for bigger toy displays, more pop-up shops and better discounts as retailers boldly move into their most important time of the year. Many toys are priced around the "sweet spot" of $30.

Discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has expanded its toy assortment and inventory and added "Rollback Alley" to most stores, an aisle that features deals on toys. Toys R Us Inc. will operate 600 temporary holiday shops and 10 FAO Schwarz pop-up stores nationwide.

Target Corp. is featuring 10% more discounts and items in its annual holiday toy catalog. And Sears, which last year brought back in-store toy sections to 20 of its department stores, is opening 79 more this year.

Even though the economy has forced her family to cut expenses, stay-at-home mom Dianna Lynn, 40, said toys would still be at the top of her shopping list this Christmas.

"You still want them to have something to open and something to get excited about," Lynn said while browsing a Toys R Us Express store in Rolling Hills Estates recently. "Santa doesn't know about the recession."

Squinkies, Zoobles and Sing-a-ma-jigs, oh my

Because price will again be the most important factor for many shoppers, toy manufacturers have focused on making products that can fit into small budgets. Experts are predicting a strong year for "mini collectibles" — toys that are inexpensive but feature a full lineup of characters with different looks, sounds and personalities.

The collectibles category has performed extremely well in the tough economic climate, with Zhu Zhu Pets, an assortment of robotic hamsters, and Bakugan Battle Brawlers, a line of spherical, spring-loaded miniature toys, flying off shelves.

This year's newcomers are led by Squinkies, soft and squishy figures that can be worn as jewelry, used as pencil toppers or displayed in play sets; Zoobles, plastic spherical characters that pop open when placed in their "happitats" to reveal creatures inside; Sing-a-ma-jigs, plush creatures that sing, harmonize and chatter with one another; and Hot Wheels R/C Stealth Rides, mini-vehicles that fold flat inside cellphone-size cases that double as remote controls.

For parents, they are an economical choice, said Lydia Ho, a stay-at-home mom from Rolling Hills Estates. Her 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, particularly enjoys Silly Bandz, colorful rubber bands molded in different shapes; a pack costs just a few dollars.

"It's easy — it's not an investment if they lose it or it breaks," said Ho, 43.

Toy experts say collectibles appeal to kids, who like to accumulate different characters and trade them with friends. Owning the most items can be a status symbol, such as with the Beanie Babies phenomenon in the 1990s.

Barbie gets more (and bigger) rivals in the doll aisle

In recent years, the fashion doll category has become highly competitive thanks to a growing number of plastic figures with diverse images and personalities, whether cute, sporty, scholarly, glamorous or edgy.

This holiday season, new players such as Mattel Inc.'s Monster High — a line of characters, such as Frankie Stein and Draculaura, who are the offspring of famous monsters — and the relaunch of the saucy Bratz dolls by rival MGA Entertainment Inc. are heating up the closely watched doll battle.

Fashion dolls are always popular among girls, who like to emulate their favorites and dress them up in cool outfits and accessories, retail experts said. A trend within the category this year is the rising popularity of larger, 18-inch dolls (Barbie is 11.5 inches tall), which girls find more relatable, they said.

At a Toys R Us Express to redeem a birthday gift card, 8-year-old Elena Wingard passed by the smaller dolls, instead opting for a Dream Dazzlers styling head.

The large doll came with an array of hair accessories, as well as makeup, which Elena said she was excited to apply to the doll's face. Her other favorite dolls are American Girl, another brand that features larger-size characters.

"It seems like it's my friend," she said of larger dolls. "It feels more real to me for some reason because it looks like a real person."

The frontrunners among the large-scale dolls come from local toy companies: Disney Princess & Me dolls are made by Malibu-based Jakks Pacific Inc. and cost $49.99. BFC, Ink dolls are a product of MGA, based in Van Nuys, and cost $29.99.

High-tech goes to kindergarten

The economy hasn't been kind to the youth electronics sector, with U.S. sales falling 29% year-over-year for the 12-month period ending in September, according to market research firm NPD Group.

But toy makers are betting big on the high-tech category for the holidays, rolling out a wide selection of electronic toys that have been generating buzz for months.

This year's top picks include Mattel's $49.99 Barbie Video Girl, which features a working video camera embedded in the doll's necklace and a color LCD video screen on her back; Paper Jamz, a series of thin toy guitars and drums that can be played by simply touching the paper surface; and Dance Star Mickey, a plush Mickey Mouse from Fisher-Price that walks, talks and does dances (including the moonwalk).

Manufacturers have also added more technology to the learning tools category, developing several toys that look remarkably like adults' iPads and Kindles.

Hand-held learning gadgets such as VTech's V.Reader, Fisher-Price's iXL Learning System and LeapFrog's Leapster Explorer Learning Experience use technology to help kids read, play games and learn other tasks.

"Kids today are Skyping, they're on the Internet, they're going on YouTube," said Neil Friedman, president of Mattel Brands. "And what we're doing is we're allowing them to expand their imaginations and utilize their toys to even go further."

Not surprisingly, the prices in this category are a bit higher, with Dance Star Mickey retailing at $69.99 and the iXL at $79.99.

Familiar faces go from the big screen to the toy chest

Just as Hollywood filmmakers have seen success in adapting comic book characters into major movie franchises, the toy industry has benefited from crafting toys tied to an existing brand.

It's already been a big year for movie-related toys with the release of the blockbusters "Toy Story 3" and "Iron Man 2": Boys flocked to toy stores to pick up action figures, vehicles and games. Those entertainment properties are expected to continue to be big sellers during the holidays.

For girls, the Disney Princess line is expected to sell well. The release this month of Disney's animated movie "Tangled," based on the story of Rapunzel, has already brought a host of products including dolls, a hair braider and a fairytale tower.

Kids like toy products linked to popular movies and television shows because they feel more familiar with the characters, said Margaret Whitfield, a toy analyst at Sterne Agee.

Families search for stay-at-home fun to save money

The recession brought about the trend of "cocooning," where families tended to forgo dining out and taking expensive vacations in favor of staying home.

That led to a boost in classic family activities such as board games, arts and crafts, building sets and outdoor toys, which are expected to be popular again this year.

After the holidays last year, Denise Vazquez, 41, and her family pooled together their Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Wii video game console "so we could all play as a family," she said.

This year, she'll be looking for more Wii games and other family-friendly activities that won't break the bank, she said. The Torrance resident, who works as an accounts representative at a bank, plans to buy a lot of toys at Kmart and Sears so she can use the stores' layaway programs.

"With a large family, you have to remind yourself to budget," she said. "We don't want to deprive the kids, but we have to be more conscious."

Retailers counting on toy sales to boost holiday business

With U.S. retail sales totaling $21.5 billion last year, toys are big business — especially during the final months of the year.

For major chains, the aggressive stance on toys this year is part of a larger strategy to drive traffic to other store sections, said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice of management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

Retail watchers are predicting only a modest increase in sales for the holidays, so merchants need any edge they can get as they try to woo tough customers.

"Retailers have conditioned the consumer to really wait and buy on deals," Mityas said. "So if they can draw consumers in by giving deals on toys, then they're hoping they can sell other products in the store at potentially more full price."

Merchants, too, admitted that toys are a smart bet.

"It's a tough economy and we know our customers are struggling," said Laura Phillips, senior vice president of toys and seasonal merchandising at Wal-Mart. "But we do know that the kids are probably going to get what they want on their wish lists."

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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