Today's toys talk high-tech Trend: Market-watching Christopher Byrne predicts demand for Furby and other computer-chipped playthings.

November 29, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

You know the holiday season is here when a voice from inside Christopher Byrne's luggage loudly pleads: "Mommy, I want milk."

That happened recently at a LaGuardia Airport ticket counter. No big deal though. It was just Amazing Amy, the talking doll.

"People look at you funny, but, hey, it's the best-selling doll in the country right now," said Byrne.

Byrne, a 20-year veteran of the toy business, is editor of Playthings Market Watch, a Manhattan-based industry newsletter. His job is to keep track of toy trends, including knowing what will be the holiday's best sellers.

You can usually find him at airports this time of year, toting around his suitcases full of toys and appearing on TV shows like "Today" and "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee."

He accurately predicted big things for Tickle Me Elmo two years ago and last year's Sing & Snore Ernie.

This year's biggest winner? Byrne picks Furby, the talking bird-like creation from Tiger Electronics. Tickle it and it laughs; give it a rub and it coos. The 5-inch-tall creature talks in its own language, Furbish, and gradually "learns" English, too.

Toy sales in general will probably increase only modestly this year, Byrne said. But winners like Furby could single-wingedly produce strong fourth quarters for their manufacturers.

On a recent visit to Baltimore, the Wilmington, Del., native shared his thoughts on the holiday toy season:

Q. When you look at the toys this season, do you see a theme emerge?

A. A lot of the biggest toys will be technologically driven, whether it's Furby or even something as simple as Talking Teletubbies. A lot of it is technology, and the reason why is that technology has gotten less and less expensive. A Furby has the same chip in it the Apple II had when it was first introduced, but the Furby is $30. As technology costs drop, toys can do more.

Kids live in a world surrounded by technology. So it's perfectly normal to them that their toys should talk to them, and talk to each other and talk back, and do this other great stuff. After all, Mom has a cell phone, and Dad has a fax in the den. It's not alien to them at all.

Q. Anyone who fell asleep 10 years ago and woke up today would be stunned by how every toy seems to have a computer chip inside.

A. Not every toy. But it's very cool. It adds a level of magic. That's what it really adds to the toys - magic. Toys have always been magical for kids, whether that's created by their imaginations or by the toy.

One of the criticisms I hear a lot is that kids aren't imagining anymore, and I don't think that's true. It's just they have a richer imagination.

You know a Furby doesn't really learn English. Kids have to pretend they're teaching them English as the toys go through their cycle. Now, how much worse is that than action figures where one kid picks it up and says, "I'm the good guy," and the other says, "Oh, I'm the bad guy," and they smash them together?

Q. Predictions of hot toys seem like media-hyped, self-fulfilling prophecies. Are these really the best toys available, or do they just have the best marketing campaign?

A. It's really a chicken-and-egg scenario. If you look at Tickle Me Elmo, what made it hot was Rosie O'Donnell had it on her show. Bryant Gumbel held it in his hand for most of an hour. It became fashionable to have one.

People forget the toy business is a fashion business with one season of the year. The media starts to report on something. Somebody picks it up, then others pick it up, and it's hot. It has to be a good toy for that to happen.

Peer pressure among kids is heavy, too.

Q. You talk about peer pressure. Isn't this driven more by adults?

A. Absolutely, it's driven by adult desire for certain toys. They are the people paying $2,000 for a Tickle Me Elmo so they could say they had the biggest Muppet. That's not about kids.

Q. Elmo seemed like the height of a hot toy. Parents were driven crazy by the way he sold out early in all the stores. Does this kind of phenomenon have to happen every year?

A. No, it doesn't. The media is part of it. The toy industry is part of it. Here's the bottom line: If a manufacturer can make something a fashion or fad and sell 2 million pieces as opposed to 250,000, which is a good sale, then why not?

Q. Board games don't seem to make your list.

A. Some board games are not doing well. It's cyclical. Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit - there are no big board games. There's the new Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus board game - a cute game, by the way. But some board games are doing well - Concentration, Boardgames for Dummies from Pressman Toy Corp.

Q. What should I rush out and buy right now to avoid the holiday shortages?

A. You're going to have a hard time getting Furby, Bounce Around Tigger, Talking Teletubbies. Most toy manufacturers try not to short the market. They don't make money that way. When a Furby sells for $2,000 on the Internet, the manufacturer doesn't make any of that. That's the secondary market.

Q. You think Furby will be as big as Tickle Me Elmo?

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