With the 1991 holiday season upon us, the jolly old sleigh driver, once again, has his job cut out for him.
The North Pole elves have churned out a blizzard of products, and what kids will be clamoring for, according to retailers, runs the gamut. There's everything from remote controlled cars and Barbies that bathe to movie-inspired action figures such as Robin Hood -- and nearly anything mermaid.
And, they say, as the craze for video games wanes somewhat, parents are returning tried-and-true favorites -- Lego, dolls, puzzles and games -- as gifts for their kids.
But frankly, this year "there's no runaway blockbuster," notes Jodi Levin, director of communications for the Toy Manufacturers of America, so it's hard to know what anyone's favorite child is going to be wild about.
Nonetheless, the economic Grinch who's glaring so balefully at shoppers has already influenced toy sellers. "Last year a lot of retailers didn't recoup their investment, and this year a lot of them have cut way back on buying," says Bill Pearse, associate editor of Playthings, a trade journal.
"We expect to see a strong sell-through; that is, they'll clear their shelves. What that will lead to in the Christmas buying season is that consumers may not find everything they need," he warns.
Looking at yearlong sales of toys, with the big video games excluded, Playthings magazine top toys list is headed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe.
Other action figures that made the top 10 are Robin Hood characters and World Wrestling Federation figures.
Nintendo's hand-held Gameboy is up there, too, along with the Water Babies doll, which gets filled with water for the heft and feel of a real baby, and the Magna Doodle, a magnetic drawing toy.
VTC But a somewhat different list of hot toys comes from the toy stores.
Nationally and locally, at Toys R Us, Kiddie City and Kay-Bee Toys, the new Super Nintendo Entertainment System, at about $200, is reportedly selling well. So is its competitor, the Sega Genesis, at about $150, and Gameboy, at about $90. According to Joel Weiner, Philadelphia-based spokesman for the Kiddie City chain, "Demand for the Sega Genesis outweighs the supply; most retailers are running short."
Another hot item, at Kay-Bee in Mondawmin Mall and Reisterstown Road Plaza, is Hasbro's Cabbage Patch Crimp 'n' Curl, with restylable hair.
It's popular at Children's Palace in Glen Burnie, too, confirms general manager Ronald Hall; in fact, he says, "It's already difficult to find."
Also moving off the shelves, he adds, are Tyco Toys' Magic Copier, which rolls out a paper copy of what's drawn on its screen, and Kenner's Color Blaster, which spray-paints designs over stencils. Little workshops and laundry centers, made by both Fisher Price and Little Tikes, are popular, too, he says; so are the Nerf bow and arrow set, the Turbo Fist and Fast Traxx radio-controlled vehicles, and last year's hot-selling Three-in-One Tournament Table, for air hockey, pool and pingpong. Price tag on the table is about $160.
Fast Traxx, in fact, is making fast tracks off the shelves in a lot of stores. It costs $70, and it's aimed at children aged 6 and up, but younger kids can get in on the action, too, with their very own $30 Playskool Preschool Radio Control car, which is maneuvered with a hand-held steering wheel device.
This year, popular movies translate into popular toys, too: Besides the already best-selling Robin Hood figures, there are the Hook figures inspired by the cinematic update of the adventures of Peter Pan, says Mr. Pearse.
And there are the Addams Family Family Reunion Game and the Find Uncle Fester card game, so new they haven't even hit some of the toy stores yet and haven't racked up enough sales, in the stores that do have it, to lead to predictions about its future.
However, the "The Addams Family" movie has already proven itself a smash, and it's a good bet that the games will follow suit. "It could be one of the big Christmas sellers because it could cash in on the movie publicity," says Frank Reysen, editor of Playthings.
That's what happened with the "The Little Mermaid," although it was the recently released video, rather than the movie itself that made products pop toward the top. Now, says Mr. Pearse, "Anything with a 'Little Mermaid' license is selling well."
That includes Tyco's mermaid doll, a convertible with a removable tail and clothes and accessories appropriate for both fins and figure. Her pal, a stuffed crab called Sebastian, is making a merchandising splash in plush, according to Mr. Pearse. And floating in the midst of mermaid mania is Mattel's L'il Miss Singing Mermaid, which sings and changes color when you put it in water.
But if none of the new toys turn you on, you may not be alone. "Parents do not have a lot of money to spend," notes Mr. Pearse; as a result, a lot of them are looking for toys of lasting value from high-quality manufacturers.
"The basics do not go out of style," agrees Ms. Levin; what that means, she adds, is that dolls, stuffed animals, bikes and trikes and sleds, sports equipment, construction toys, arts and crafts supplies, books, costumes, skates and games like Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Twister and Candyland are always good choices.