This year's toy story

Gifts: Never mind the playthings that get all the publicity. The season's hottest items can come out of nowhere.

November 28, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

The search is on for holiday sleepers. Not just the kind you try to tuck into bed on Christmas Eve with visions of dancing sugar plums and all that, either.

We're talking toys, the kind that prove unexpectedly popular. They are playthings that don't necessarily come from the major manufacturers or have multimillion-dollar TV campaigns and movie tie-ins.

Pokemon, for instance, is no sleeper. Although it's expected to be the biggest toy craze of the season, it's been in full-hype mode all year. So take that, Pikachu, you interactive mouse-thing.

Ditto for "Star Wars"-related toys -- which some retailers are reporting aren't selling all that great anyway. The Sesame Street Ernie and Elmo dolls that dance and sing to rock and roll are surely going to be big, but hardly sleepers. Sega's Dreamcast, the big new $200 video game system, has gotten more press than some candidates for U.S. president.

No, if you want to see a real sleeper, get a load of MusicBlocks. Never heard of it? You will. By mid-November, toy stores were already reporting brisk sales of the $70 toy that allows 2-year-olds to play brief passages from Mozart.

By touching different sides of five cubes, a toddler can vary the instruments playing the tune -- like a conductor assigning parts to his orchestra.

"The sound quality is so good, I don't even mind when the kids play with it in the store," says Sharon Tufaro, co-owner of Shananigans in Roland Park.

At the toys etc... stores in Potomac and Bethesda, owner Brian Mack says parents are going so wild over MusicBlocks he suspects he won't be able to keep them in stock. Same thing for LeapPad, an electronic book that allows a young reader to press a wand to a word he can't read, and the book sounds it out.

"A lot of technology has come out these past few years in toys, but it hasn't always been that useful," says Mack. "Just because it's electronic doesn't make it cool."

Zany Brainy, the educational toy retailer, seconds Mack's prediction for the $60 LeapPad. "You open one up in a store, and anyone within earshot has been sold," says Lisa Orman, spokeswoman for the 103-store chain, which has stores locally in Annapolis, Columbia and Timonium.

Orman also nominates two other computerized toys as guaranteed hits: Ellie's Enchanted Garden and Redbeard's Pirate Quest. Both are plastic play sets that activate a game on your home computer.

Move the Ellie character piece around her garden, and the same thing happens on your monitor. Fire Redbeard's cannon from your plastic pirate ship, and you can hit targets on the computer. Both sell for $60.

"We're going to sell out of whatever we get with those," says Orman. "Everyone who sees them goes totally bananas."

Spotting a sleeper is a vital skill in the toy industry. Most retailers have to decide what to order as early as February during the annual Toy Fair in New York. Fail to spot a trend, and a store may be left in the cold when December rolls around and manufacturers inventories are depleted.

The staff at Zany Brainy's King of Prussia, Pa., headquarters is encouraged to play with the toys so winners can be spotted as early as possible. "Buyers have to learn to trust their instincts," Orman says.

Figuring out the best new toy is a useful skill for parents, too. Shop early and correctly, and you can make your child the envy of his or her peers.

"Parents get sucked into buying a so-called 'hot' toy, and that's a media-crazed phenomenon," says Christopher Byrne, a New York-based writer who covers the toy industry. "What you want is a toy that's hot for your kids."

Byrne is high on a number of electronic items. Among them is a wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin doll that you can plug into a computer and dial up new rants and tirades for him to spout into a microphone. He sells for $50.

Another he loves is the Radica Rider, a virtual snowboard that sells for $54. Stand on it, and your body movements are translated onto a electronic display on the board.

"It's not enough for a toy to light up and beep anymore," says Byrne, who writes for Toy Wishes magazine. "They have to have a human element."

And few toys are as human as Amazing Ally, the $60 doll with a PC-like 32-megabytes of memory. Her internal clock reminds children of coming holidays. Built-in sensors in the doll allow Ally to know when she's being fed or getting dressed.

"She's as human as a doll gets," Byrne says.

Unfortunately for parents, a lot of the hot electronic toys are expensive. From MusicBlocks to LeapPad, the toys retailers are most excited about often seem to fall in the $50-to-$70 range.

There are more affordable items on the sleeper lists, however. F.A.O. Schwarz predicts big things for the Barbie Beaded Handbags at $25 each. While Barbie might not seem to be a sleeper, the Mattel doll has performed so badly since last Christmas that a big Barbie year would be something of a surprise.

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