Giant toy fair gives retailers an early peek into Santa's workshop

Heads up, parents: In the coming months, your kids could be begging you for a moonwalking Mickey Mouse, a UFO that hovers above your hand or a video-camera-equipped Barbie.

Those toys -- and thousands more -- were on display Sunday for the opening of the American International Toy Fair in New York, providing attendees with a colorful peek into Santa's workshop months ahead of the Christmas season.

Retail buyers, licensers and other industry professionals packed the trade show's galleries and showrooms to check out the latest offerings by big-name toy giants and small, independent toy makers.

The four-day event is expected to draw more than 32,000 attendees and feature 100,000 products, including action figures, stuffed animals, remote-controlled cars, board games, costumes and jewelry-making kits.

Coming off a decent holiday season for the toy industry, buyers said they were optimistic that business would pick up this year and were increasing inventory orders, although many said they were still interested in products that stressed affordability.

"I just can't quite move fast enough," said Matt Hannifin, manager of Science Toy Magic, a toy store in Fort Collins, Colo. "I've been buying so much."

Held each winter at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the toy fair serves as a major buying event for the holiday season -- although it doesn't take itself too seriously.

A band of clowns dressed in red and yellow marched through the convention center in the morning as exhibitors lugged in boxes and suitcases full of toys. Throughout the day, professionals dressed in suits strummed toy guitars and kneaded green pieces of Bubber, a non-sticky modeling dough with the consistency of stale marshmallows.

In Mattel Inc.'s showroom, attendees gushed over a 3-month-old golden retriever that was modeling Puppy Tweets. The El Segundo company's new toy posts pre-written tweets to the social media website Twitter when triggered by a dog's bark or movement.

Downstairs, women wearing trench coats decorated with dozens of Ty Hello Kitty Beanie Babies posed for photos while a security guard loomed over a $10,000 Gund teddy bear nearby (the one-of-a-kind plush toy, which is expected to be auctioned off this year, features white alpaca fur, black Tahitian pearls and a white-gold-and-diamond necklace).

By the end of the day, greeting card company Up With Paper had received at least 40% more orders compared with the same day a year earlier, company President George White said. That was a relief for the Mason, Ohio, firm, which saw sales struggle last year as buyers and consumers cut back.

"Business in 2009 was a challenge," White said. "Money was tight, so people were worried about buying more inventory. . . . Last year, they would say, 'We like the product, but we can't place the order.' This year, that doesn't look to be an issue."

Not all buyers were spending freely, however. Citing lingering economic concerns and high prices for many hot toys, David Landis, founder of the Los Angeles online toy and clothing store Awesome Avenue, said he hadn't placed any orders yet.

"As of now I'm literally just getting business cards and catalogs," he said. "Caution is probably a very good word to describe my mentality here."

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