February 4, 1998 in Nation/World

Playing The Odds Retailers Sift Through Mountains Of Prospects In Search Of This Year’s Hit Toys

Rachel Beck Associated Press

The search is on for the next toy sensation to sweep the nation.

After a number of big sellers last year - like Beanie Babies and virtual pets - retailers will spend a week at the American International Toy Fair hunting for what may be the megahit of 1998.

But figuring out what kids want to play with isn’t easy. Thousands of toys will be showcased during the annual toy expo, which begins Monday, but only a few will likely ever make headlines.

“Consumers and their kids are being more selective in what they want from their entertainment,” said Gary M. Jacobson, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. “It’s hard to be a winner.”

Toy sales have grown steadily in recent years. Although total sales have yet to be released, analysts said last year should top 1996 revenues of $20.7 billion.

Fueling much of that growth was big demand for plush dolls. Ty Inc.’s Beanie Babies sold out nationwide through the spring and summer, while Tyco Toys’ Sing & Snore Ernie and Microsoft’s Actimates Barney were popular for Christmas.

Sales of traditional plush dolls rose 21 percent in 1997, while sales of special feature plush dolls, which interact with users, rose 222 percent compared with 1996, according to The NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

For sure, consumers can expect to find more of the same this year on store shelves. There will be more small, cuddly bean-filled dolls and a new generation of interactive dolls that can play along with a CD-ROM, television and the Internet.

Among the new high-tech variety to be unveiled at Toy Fair will be Microsoft’s Arthur and D.W. dolls from popular PBS TV show “Arthur” and Tyco’s Play & Teach Big Bird, based on the Sesame Street character.

“Plush will continue to be the star of the show, and many more companies are going interactive,” said Margaret Whitfield, a toy analyst at the investment firm Tucker Anthony.

Technology is also making its way into more traditional toys this year. Mattel will offer CD-ROM games for its Hot Wheels line and Uno card game. Lego will put a microchip inside some of its building blocks, which can be used with a personal computer to perform certain motions.

“Toy makers realize that they need to create a different level of life for their characters and games,” said Chris Byrne, editor of Playthings MarketWatch, a toy trade publication. “Everything becomes more real when you put it on a CD-ROM and that’s what kids today want.”

As usual, manufacturers also will depend heavily on licensed toys, linking their products to new Hollywood movies and television shows.

Among the hot licenses for 1998 are “Godzilla” and “Small Soliders,” two new movies to be released this year. There also will be more toys based on the TV shows “Rugrats” and “Arthur” and the classic book “Winnie the Pooh.”

Hasbro is making a big push with its “Teletubbies” line, based on the popular British TV show set to begin airing in the United States in April. It will offer talking and plush dolls, puzzles and collectable figures.

Toy makers like movie- and television-related paraphernalia because they take away a lot of the guesswork and provide free advertising.

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