Grown-ups In Toyland

SCENES FROM THE MALLS

December 12, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Not to alarm anybody, but there was a sighting of an elusive purple beast on Route 40 yesterday morning.

"Omigod! Where did you get that?" an employee at a Toys R Us store was heard to exclaim when a colleague wandered out of a storeroom clutching a stuffed Barney dinosaur. "Those are rare. We got them maybe twice this summer, and that was all."

Of course, by the time you rush out there -- you who have your Barneys on back-order or have come up empty-handed on various toy store forays -- he might already be, as the young and the hip now say, Audi (translation: "outta here, history").

The surprise popularity of dolls, tapes and videos of Barney, the violently purple host of a children's show on PBS, is one reason that retailers are smiling this holiday season.

President-elect Bill Clinton apparently is another.

"It's a much nicer Christmas this year. People are much happier," said John Hall, owner of Patowmack Toy Shop in Columbia Mall. "Last year, you could tell they had to shop but they really didn't want to. But ever since Clinton got in, it was a magical thing. It's not so much Clinton, but just the fact that it's change."

After last year's recession-dampened holiday, toy store owners like Mr. Hall are welcoming back consumers whose spirits and purse strings appear to be loosening up. (Manufacturers expect a 5 percent to 8 percent increase in toy sales this year over last year's $13.3 billion.) Except for Thursday, when snow and rain kept many would-be spenders home, toy stores these days are the places tobe -- especially on weekends and weekday lunch hours as working parents slip out of the office for a quick present or two.

"Eleven to two, it gets crazy here," Mr. Hall said. "But people are not shopping nights -- it's the carjackings. Women don't want to be out alone at night shopping."

Indeed, at midday Friday, the Columbia Mall store was jammed, with kids crawling on the floor testing race cars and puzzled adults reading from highly specific lists of items such as "Barbie's authentic cedar chest" and wondering where all the trolls were (so plentiful and costing from $2 to $84 that they merited a separate cart upstairs in the mall.)

Sian Kong was shopping with her two sons for "anything that shoots." Her 3-year-old son, Yung Han, seemed particularly taken with a rat-a-tat plastic machine gun, but he'll find another toy weapon he'd asked for previously under the tree, a Nerf bow and arrow.

"He saw the video, 'Robin Hood,' " explained Mrs. Kong, who lives in Woodlawn.

Shopping has been fairly painless, she said, mainly because she started early -- about 1 1/4 months ago. "And I never go on Saturday or Sunday."

Videos, TV and movies compete with old-fashioned peer pressure when it comes to kids making out their Christmas wish lists, shoppers said.

"They're brainwashed by the marketing -- the girls all want trolls and the boys all want Batman," said Eve Firmani of Catonsville, shopping for a niece, nephew and friend's child. "I like getting them clothes, but they hate getting anything but toys."

And so she picked up some Batman action figures -- to go with the Batman costumes she previously had bought.

But while early indications are that shoppers are back out there -- if you've tried to find parking at any mall during the weekends, you already know that -- consumers retain a caution bred of the recession.

"Everyone knew someone, or a number of people, hurt by the recession," said Ann Clurman, senior vice president at Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a Westport, Conn.-based research firm. "But people are beginning to see the end of the tunnel. In part, it's the election. They seem determined to have a better time this year. They're still cautious, they're still going to look for good buys and they're price conscious, but they want the fun and cheer back in Christmas."

Yankelovich found in a telephone survey in November that more than half of those polled were approaching the holiday shopping season more confident, cheery and generous than they were last year.

"I think being frivolous is part of human nature around the holidays," Ms. Clurman said. "But it's not going to be like the flaunting of the '80s. People want fun, but also practical, gifts."

Local parents certainly seemed in good spirits -- yet in control of holiday excess. They say they're resisting the impulse to buy everything in sight, and start early to avoid the dreaded rain checks for popular toys that have run out.

"I order a lot from catalogs. . . . I find that to be a whole lot easier than fighting the crowds," said Jeannie Forster, a Baltimore mother of four. "When you have kids, you have to start before Thanksgiving.

"I think I overdo it, but I like seeing them enjoy their Christmas," Mrs. Forster said. "But I also try to make it more than toys. We bake cookies together, and we go out and cut our own tree. I have good memories of Christmas when I was little, and I hope I'm making good memories for my kids, too."

Brenda Carl Bridges, too, has much of her shopping done. "There's no way I go to Toys R Us any time after Thanksgiving," she groaned. And, because she got an early start, her kids will get their Barney fix. "Oh yes, we're getting a T-A-P-E and a V-I-D-E-O. We do a lot of spelling this time of year," the former local television anchorwoman said with a laugh.

"I started planning in August and September, and I'm almost finished," reported Sharon Miller, a mother of two in Lutherville and secretary to the president of Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"I go out over lunch time sometimes, and sometimes I have my husband pick the kids up so I can shop after work."

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