Toying with perfection TV-hyped gizmos come and go, but classic toys such as yo-yos, Lincoln Logs and Legos have endured the test of playtime.

November 15, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Does this sound familiar?

The holidays are over, and your children are bored with their latest toys - all of which are based on the latest TV shows and movies.

Mesmerized by television commercials, they had yearned for these plastic-and-electronic gizmos. But here they are: scraps on the toy heap.

What do the youngsters reach for instead? Maybe their old Brio )) wooden trains, or that Tinkertoy set that was passed down from older siblings. Legos, Barbie dolls, the Erector set, Lincoln Logs. Could it be the old Slinky fascinates?

If this has happened to you, rest assured you are not alone. Your children have demonstrated what child-development experts have long known - newer isn't necessarily better when it comes to toys.

As consumers once again flood toy stores in search of holiday gifts for their youngest relatives and friends, the smartest may be the ones who search for the familiar: the classic toys they played with as kids.

"Sometimes we get so caught up in the technology of today, we forget about the simple joys of playing with balloons or kites," says Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, author and toy-industry consultant. Kids get brainwashed by commercials. You need to get children back in touch with the old-fashioned."

Somebody must be listening to that advice, because toy retailers and manufacturers have already begun to see a much greater interest in the classics this year.

At Be Beep - A Toy Store, classic toys have become best sellers, says Jeff Franklin, owner of the stores in Severna Park and Annapolis. Old reliables like Brio trains and Playmobile play sets are enjoying a record year in sales at his stores.

"Parents are disappointed with the limited toys that are hyped on TV, and the child plays with [them] once or twice," says Franklin. "Classics have always been a substantial part of our business, but that part of our market is growing, too."

Sally Lesser, owner of Henry Bear's Park, a toy retailer in Cambridge, Mass., says parents have discovered that classic toys are a better value. Time-tested, the toys are certain to capture a child's imagination for years, she adds.

"Lights and sounds are helpful and fun - I can go for them - but the real value in play can usually be found in classic toys," says Lesser, who also serves as president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.

Whether it is baby boomer nostalgia or a backlash against the mass-market licensed products that still dominate toy sales, consumers are snapping up a variety of classic toys - some of which would be familiar to their great-grandparents.

Carol Wirth, director of the Timonium United Methodist Church nursery school, says it's easy to predict what her 180 pre-schoolers will want to play with every day: building blocks, kitchen toys, trucks, trains and puzzles - all toys that have been around for decades.

"My son is 10 and he still plays with Legos," she says. "Stick with the classics. These things are always popular."

At Chicago-based Radio Flyer Inc., two out of three of this season's top-selling wagons are old designs - the classic "Model 18" steel wagon and the "Town and Country," with the added wooden sides.

"Hot things come and go, but a Radio Flyer is something people can depend on," says Robert Basin, Radio Flyer's president and grandson of the 81-year-old company's founder. "It's a classic because it has intrinsic value."

In the northwest Pennsylvania town of Kane, Dick Bly restarted 10 years ago a classic toy company that went out of business in the mid-1960s. The company, named Holgate Toy, has seen steady growth each year since.

Doesn't sound familiar? Maybe you've heard of their maple wood creations: the Rocking Color Cone (a 1938 creation), the Bingo Bed (the peg bench created in 1934), or Jumbo Lacing Beads (a classic since 1948).

"Children are no different today than 60 years ago," says Bly. "They don't need the whistles and bells. They have imagination."

This year's holiday-buying season hasn't so far produced an overwhelming sales leader, a got-to-have-it toy on par with Tickle Me Elmo of two years ago or last year's Tamagotchi and Giga Pets. In this vacuum, classic toys are more apt to get noticed, says Alan Dorfman, president of Basic Fun Inc., a toy manufacturer in suburban Philadelphia.

Dorfman knows classic toys. In 1993, he started making miniature key-chain versions of popular classics like Colorforms, Monopoly and yo-yos. Business has been good. This year he expects to sell 10 million key chains.

"When in doubt, parents go back to the basics," he says. "They go to the proven item."

Classic toymakers say one characteristic that often distinguishes their products is simplicity of design. Another is that the toy was a best-seller - at least when first released - and then held on for 25 years or longer.

Exhibit A: Etch A Sketch, the mechanical drawing toy that was all the rage when it was first produced in 1960. Today, its sales are good enough to be described as "warm," but probably not "hot."

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