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Mr. Hot Potato : Cross Off X-Men and Hug Barney Goodby--Classic Toys Are Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Power Rangers are losing steam and Barney the dinosaur is nearly extinct. Those latter-day playthings are hot no more--displaced by the familiar this holiday season as kids and their nostalgic parents are turning to classic, tried-and-true toys in a big way.

Consider Barbie. A perennial favorite, she’s now the top-selling toy for the first time in the 13-year history of Plaything magazine’s holiday season list. And there’s nothing new about the old-fashioned toy kitchen set--except its sudden appearance on one trade group’s best-seller list.

There’s been a rise in sales for construction toys produced by companies such as Lego and Mecanno. That signals gains by products such as Mecanno’s Erector set, a decades-old toy that disappeared in the 1980s but has been revived.

And while the Power Rangers have cooled off--and the once-popular X-Men are no longer even ranked--the much-older Star Wars figures are making a successful return from virtual retail retirement. The old Batman figure remains firmly entrenched in toydom’s top tier.

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Also big this year: Hot Wheels cars, Crayola crayons and Matchbox cars.

“This season will be the year of the classic toy,” said Playthings Editor Frank Reysen.

Indeed, classics and once-retired retreads may help toy retailers avoid a nightmare before Christmas. A year ago, holiday sales--buoyed by blockbusters such as the

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers--were up a hefty 7%. A more modest 4% increase in toy sales is expected this season, bringing the year’s total to $19.5 billion, and renewed interest in old favorites will account for much of that rise, industry analysts say.

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“The basic, traditional toys sell well every year, but they will do even better this year,” said Jodi Levin, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers Assn. of America. “They will do particularly well because there is no single blockbuster toy. For that reason, more parents will be inclined to buy toys that they used to play with.”

John Konarski, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, interprets the trend similarly. He said sales of classic toys are also soaring because the youngest members of the baby boomer generation are having more children.

“Because of this baby boomlet, Barbie will be big and--believe it or not--Mr. Potato Head will be big,” he said.

Mr. Potato Head is already among the top-selling toys for November. The plastic spud is among several traditional toys given extra cachet by their starring roles in “Toy Story,” the Disney movie that is enjoying strong box office success.

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For example, Slinky Dog, a version of the venerable wire toy that slinks down stairs, has spent the last five years in toy heaven. However, the coiled canine’s role in the film has prompted its maker, James Industries, to return it to store shelves.

The movie, released last weekend, may also give new life to other cast members--well-known toys and games such as Etch A Sketch, Operation, Tinkertoys, Barrel of Monkeys, Twister and miniature green army men.

“Many classics were already doing well this year,” said Reysen, the magazine editor. “But the movie will give the entire classic-toy category even more impetus.”

Among those thinking “vintage” this year is Dorothy Shuler, a Hollywood resident who recently visited a Los Angeles toy store with her two young sons in tow. She said Jeffrey, 5, and Steven, 7, were drawn to classics in the absence of any particular toy rage this year.

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“Last year it was Power Rangers and the year before that it was Barney,” she said, pausing to allow her sons to move beyond the sound of her voice. “This year, I may get them Mr. Potato Head.”

Shuler also said she planned to get an Etch A Sketch for her niece. However, she left empty-handed.

“I’m spending more time scouting for deals this year because I think toys will be cheaper,” she explained.

She’s right. Discounting is another hallmark of this season’s toy market.

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Without hot items to drive sales this year, most major retailers are cutting prices to attract consumers, said Richard Nelson, an industry analyst at Duff & Phelps in Chicago. Toys R Us, the industry leader, will probably record its first annual earnings decline in 20 years as a result, he said.

Nelson said the three chains ranking just below Toys R Us in toy sales--discounters Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target--are likely to mark down more toys this year to unprofitable “loss leader” levels to lure customers in.

The top two toy specialty chains, Toys R Us and Kay-Bee Toy Stores, “will have to be very price-competitive,” Nelson said.

Kay-Bee is preparing for stiffer competition, company spokeswoman Deidre Wilkins said.

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“The gloom and doom we’ve been hearing about the absence of a blockbuster toy makes parents less enthusiastic but more strategic in their toy-buying decisions,” she said. “Without a standout toy, parents will be more thoughtful and spend more time shopping. For that reason, we’ll see some growth in a lot of toy categories.”

Indeed, consumers continue to show interest in high-tech amusements. New video games by industry leaders Sega and Nintendo are strong sellers.

Also, industry observers note that there is still strong demand for certain new toys. Several new entrants are selling well, including the Pocahontas figure, Baby Tumble Surprise and Sky Dancers--a toy that spirals through the air when launched (but made a consumer group’s list of dangerous toys as a “projectile hazard to the eyes”).

However, many of the kids making out their wish lists pick classic toys in the mistaken impression that they’re something new. What do they know?

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Teen-ager Michael Edison looked on as his younger brother, 6-year-old Elad, passed on the video games and action figures this week at the Beverly Center’s Kay-Bee store in favor of the venerable slot car set.

“The other stuff is old,” said Elad. “This is new and fast.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Faves in Toyland

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With few hot new toys on the market this year, old favorites--like Mr. Potato Head, Etch A Sketch and Barbie--are expected to be big hits this holiday season, although overall toy sales are expected to increase only a modest 4%.

TOTAL U.S. TOY SALES

In billions of dollars:

1995*: $19.45

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BARBIE’S BOOMING

This year Barbie is the top-selling toy for the first time in the 13-year history of Plaything magazine’s holiday list. Worldwide Barbie sales, in millions:

1994: $1,200

* Estimate

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Sources: Toy Manufacturers of America, Mattel, Times reports. Researched by FRANCESCA BILLER / Los Angeles Times


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