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Toys, Tried and True : Old Classics, From Troll Dolls to G.I. Joe to Marbles, Are Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Low-tech and no-tech toys are making a comeback this year.

Kids and their nostalgic parents are rushing for classic toys that have been available for decades and are snapping up playthings that are back on shelves after a period of retail retirement.

Troll dolls--ignored by many shoppers for years--are commercially cute again. Sales of marbles are rolling. Sales of jacks are picking up. And jump rope sales are skipping along.

Meanwhile, some popular classics are back in a previous incarnation. The 12-inch models of G.I. Joe, last sold in 1978, are back in action. Smaller versions of the military mite have been doing toy-shelf duty the last 14 years.

There has also been a build-up in business for Meccano’s Erector Set, a toy that disappeared in the 1980s. Creepy Crawlers by Toymax, the rubbery bugs made by pouring goop into a mold, are back in stores after a hiatus.

With so many classics and retreads selling strongly, the toy industry appears to be poised for a merry Christmas in 1992. Analysts expect the industry, which had $13.3 billion in sales in 1991, to generate $14 billion this year. At the start of this week, sales were about 5% higher compared to the same period a year ago, according to Playthings magazine, a New York City-based toy trade publication that bases estimates on reports from 10,000 stores nationwide.

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That’s not to say that consumers are turning their backs on more expensive, high-tech wonders. For example, video games--led by industry leaders Nintendo and Sega--are expected to do a record business this year. But when it comes to non-video playthings, classics and retros are the sales-surge story.

Of the 10 top-selling toys this year, four--including troll dolls and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Hall of Fame Collection--are classics or are based on classic figures, according to a separate Playthings survey of 10,000 stores.

Other top-sellers in the Playthings survey include Creepy Crawlers, Erector Sets and mainstays such as Monopoly and Scrabble games and yo-yos.

The sales tally includes purchases made by children--not just parents.

“Jump-rope and marbles are very popular around here,” said Wendy Campbell, child care director at the Northeast YMCA after-school program in Los Angeles.

However, marbles and many other traditional games have new features. For example, some marble sets are made of metal and include magnets, an addition that gives players more game options.

Some children want a mixed-bag Christmas of classic and contemporary toys.

“I want a Nintendo (video game) and some model cars,” said Anthony Sandoval, a 9-year-old in Campbell’s care who loves to play marbles with his brother.

“I like the troll dolls a lot more than Barbie,” said Bridgette Monroe, 7, who also enjoys playing with jacks and newer toy products, such as a slimy goo called Gak.

Some children are enthusiastic about retros.

“I love Creepy Crawlers because you can use them to scare people,” gushed Tal Yeadon, an 8-year-old New Yorker who also wants the G.I. Joe Hall of Fame Collection for Christmas.

Julia Zaychenko, a 7-year-old New Yorker, also wants Creepy Crawlers for Christmas. Asked to propose the invention of a new toy, Julia displayed the kind of savvy that toy makers are exhibiting this year--suggesting an old toy with new features.

“I would like to see gigantic trolls--with neon hair that glows in the dark,” she said.

While children like classics and retros for their play value, many parents buy the toys for practical reasons. Industry analysts believe that there are economic reasons for this resurgence. “Classics and toys of the past are doing well because they are cheaper and because they are tried and true,” said Frank Reysen, editor of Playthings magazine. “People know that these products work.”

Reysen said there are other reasons for the rising popularity of classics and revival toys.

“Many mothers played with trolls when they were kids, and they want to share that experience with their daughters,” Reysen said. “And the same is true with many men and their sons when it comes to toys like G.I. Joe. Also, grandparents are getting more involved in buying for kids, and grandparents tend to go for more conservative, tried-and-true gifts.”

Producers of new and classic toys are vying for shelf space in a retail sector that is now bristling with aggressive competitors.

Discount merchants such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target Stores are making a more concerted effort to expand their toy sales--challenging industry leader Toys R Us.

The discount retailers have been expanding their inventory of toys and cutting toy prices to draw more shoppers.

Wherever toys are sold, Mattel’s Barbie is a big star, and this classic--which first appeared in 1959--is becoming even more popular at the age of 33.

A new version of the doll--Totally Hair Barbie--has enough hair to make Rapunzel jealous. Totally Hair is a big seller and bolsters a line that includes spin-offs such as Mermaid Barbie and Rollerblade Barbie.

Barbie, which generated $840 million in sales in 1991, will in 1992 become the first billion-dollar seller in toy history, Toy & Hobby World magazine predicts.

If reviews from the experts--children--are any indication of sales potential, a number of new toys will also be much in demand.

In a survey conducted by Duracell U.S.A., the battery company, 656 children in 30 cities--including children in the Northeast Los Angeles YMCA after-school program--played with 30 new toys.

When asked to rank the toys, these experts named Knock-Out by Milton Bradley as the No. 1 toy.

In the Knock-Out game, players are expected to knock the bricks out of a small wall with a motorized hammer without causing the entire structure to collapse.

Classic Comeback More consumers are buying tried and true toys in 1992. Of the 10 top-selling toys this year, four are classics or are based on classic figures, according to a survey of 10,000 stores.

1. Troll dolls* (four manufacturers)

2. Totally Hair Barbie* (Mattel)

3. Incredible Crash Dummies (Tyco)

4. “Batman Returns"* (Kenner)

5. Super Soaker Water Gun (Laramie)

6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates)

7. Super Nintendo System

8. G.I. Joe Hall of Fame* (Hasbro)

9. California Roller Baby doll (Tyco)

10. Puppy Surprise (Hasbro)

*Classic toys or based on classic figures

Source: Playthings magazine’s 1992 Best-Selling Toy Survey.


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