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Furby, Barbie and other old-school toys a hit for holidays

Toy IndustryGamingToys "R" Us, Inc.

Straight from the '90s, Furby is back on store shelves this holiday season, along with classic toys that never left: Barbie, Hot Wheels and Elmo, to name a few.

But more than ever, tech-related playthings are elbowing their way onto the traditional toys' turf. IPads landed on the National Retail Federation's most popular toy list for the first time this year. Even the reintroduced Furby, an electronic hamster-like robot that learns English, now interacts with a mobile app.

Children "like what they see when they see their parents play with their iPads, and kids want their own share of that," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the retail trade group. "Children are now specifically requesting electronic-type items."

Some old-school toys ranked high on the group's seasonal consumer survey, which was topped by Legos for boys and Barbies for girls. Close behind were electronics, including the season's two hottest gaming systems, Xbox One and Playstation 4.

Keysha Chambers' 12-year-old daughter asked for an iPad last year, but the Parkville woman ignored what she deemed a not-so-serious request. This year, though, the iPad topped the girl's list, and Chambers gave in.

"All she wants is a tablet and Beats headphones," said Chambers, a supervisor at Sam's Club in Timonium. The wish list didn't stop there, however; her daughter also asked for Twister and Uno cards.

Though age-old favorites such as Twister, introduced to the masses in 1966 on "The Tonight Show," have found a following among a new generation, the growth of electronics — especially mobile devices — may be redefining the toy category, said John Yozzo, a managing director for global business advisory firm FTI Consulting.

"The concept of traditional toys is not what it used to be," Yozzo said. "Certainly Legos are hugely popular … but I'm not sure if board games hold the appeal they did 10 years ago. We're in the middle of a secular transition in terms of what toys cut it today and what constitutes a toy."

The Furby Boom, for example, an updated version of the toy that sparked a craze in the late 1990s, comes with an app that translates "Furbish" and allows its owners to hatch and raise digital "Furblings."

The Monster 500, a popular line of character-based cars and play sets, also combines physical and digital play. With the Monster cars, racing characters such as "Zoom Zombie" come with trading cards that can unlock the characters in mobile apps.

Tracie Benjamin's 10-year old daughter and 5-year-old son requested electronic toys almost exclusively this year: Nintendo DS, iPod Touch, electric scooter and Playstation 4.

"I'm thinking about it," Benjamin, a Federal Express warehouse worker from Northwest Baltimore, said of the Playstation game console request.

In the meantime, she used a trip to Kmart in Parkville to load up on non-electronic toys — Beyblades tops and Ninja Turtles for her son and jewelry kits for her daughter, who enjoys crafts. "It keeps her mind going. It keeps her productive," Benjamin said.

Yozzo says it's hard to estimate seasonal sales from relatively well-stocked stores and thin crowds, in toys or other categories, because this year a growing share of gift-buying has shifted online. Strong online sales will likely help boost overall totals by nearly 5 percent, the FTC forecasts, but heavy discounts could cut into retailers' profits, he said.

The online impact can be seen in sales totals for the week of Cyber Monday, which follows Thanksgiving. Toy sales in stores and online jumped 23 percent compared to the same period last year, according to The NPD Group. Toy sales rose 12 percent when the Thanksgiving/Black Friday weekend was included.

A retail federation survey shows that nearly half of consumers plan to buy toys for gifts this year, a ratio that has remained fairly steady, even through the recession, Grannis said. U.S. toy sales are expected to reach $3.7 billion in December alone, a 7.6 increase over last December, according to market research firm IBISWorld Inc.

"Moms and Dads first cut back on themselves before they cut back on children, so that share stays consistent," Grannis said.

Even as tech toys gain ground, there's no denying the popularity of some classics.

"It's wild to see kids talking about toys that are older than they are," such as The Game of Life, Twister and Mr. Potato Head, said Eddie Simmons, co-manager of Kmart in Parkville. "Kids still like the old basic toys. Everyone thinks kids sit around playing computer games, but kids are still being kids."

And many parents fall back on toys they played with as kids.

"There's a little bit of nostalgia there," Grannis said.

Many newer, popular toys have either an electronic component or a connection to a cartoon, movie or TV show. And some don't stay in stock long, said Simmons, who was waiting Friday afternoon for a shipment to replenish store shelves.

As the last shopping weekend before Christmas loomed, the store had just a few Leappad Ultras — 7-inch tablets for kids — a half-dozen Furby Booms and a couple of Big Hugs Elmos, all that remained from shipments of 40. Also selling fast were Doc McStuffins Get Better Check Up Centers, doctor play sets based on the animated preschool TV show, and Sofia the First dolls. Simmons predicted that the next shipment would be grabbed up by shoppers before it could be stocked in the toy department.

At Toys R Us, big sellers this year include the Crazy Loom and So Cool Sewing Machine, said Kerry Smith, toy expert for the retailer.

Still, Smith said, "There's no denying the growing popularity of tech in play."

Anthony Ashton, shopping at the Toys R Us in Towson, went for nostalgia over technology when he snagged a Rock'm Sock'm Robots game, which dates back to 1964. The gift was for his father.

Ashton, a 24-year-old Towson University student, explained his choice this way: "Dad has not said what he wants. He liked this as a kid."

Nearby, in the Barbie aisle, Cockeysville resident Janeen Williams was looking for a Ken doll for her 5-year-old daughter, Ja'Liyah who has a collection of Barbies. Williams had already bought a Barbie Dreamhouse and a Barbie electric guitar, the types of toys she said encourage imaginative play.

"There are so many things they can do with a Barbie," Williams said. "They like to dress them up. They never go out of style."

Ja'Liyah also requested an Xbox, Williams said, adding, "I don't think she's old enough."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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