Here's what retailers are predicting we'll rush out and buy HOLIDAY HITS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The holidays are nigh.

You know what that means: It's time to make a list and check it twice . . . and then tackle the somewhat daunting task of shopping for gifts.

From computers and books to toys and home accessories, the choices confronted during a holiday gift-shopping expedition are mind-boggling. A casual trek through your favorite mall can induce sensory overload.

We'd like to help. That's why we asked retailers this simple question: What will be the hot gifts this holiday season?

"Let's start with the two B's -- Barbie and Barney," says Ian McDermott, senior buyer for F. A. O. Schwarz, the toy store emporium in New York.

Barbie continues to be the queen bee of fashion dolls.

"We've got Barbie boutiques in our larger stores that feature a wide assortment of special-edition Barbies, videos, play sets and games," Mr. McDermott says.

And what about your toddler's favorite dinosaur?

"This year, Barney will be more than holding his own," Mr. McDermott predicts. "In addition to puppets, there's the Talking Barney [$46], the Barney Costume [$30] and a big assortment of merchandise."

Aside from trendy dolls and dinosaurs, video games will play a key role in this holiday season's mix of top-selling toys.

"We've been waiting for the 'Aladdin' game, which will be out by Christmas," Mr. McDermott says. "And boy-oriented, macho-related videos such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II will be very popular."

The game cartridges ($68 to $75) are available for the Sega Genesis System and the Super Nintendo system.

For girls who love to dress up, Mr. McDermott predicts, "The genie costume from 'Aladdin' [$36] will be our best-selling unit."

When toys talk, kids listen. So this holiday season, computer-driven toys that entertain and instruct top the most-likely-to-succeed list at many retailers.

An example: Magellan ($350), for ages 8 to adult, is a globe that when touched responds in a clear, pleasant voice. It is the Nature Company's "Product of the Year."

"Physically, Magellan is a 12-inch globe on a flat base that takes Nintendo-style cartridges," explains Jennifer Kaiser, a spokeswoman at the Nature Company's San Francisco headquarters. "Simply touch any place on the globe and Magellan recites the name, capital, population and area of the country you've chosen. It can even tell you the local time anywhere in the world."

You might want to look up a copy of "History Safari" ($60), for ages 11 to adult, available from the Neiman-Marcus catalog; call (800) 825-8000. The world history book combines text, 600 full-color illustrations and an electronic quiz machine.

"It's more than a history book," explains Liz Barrett, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based retailer. " 'History Safari' has a quiz game built into it and features lots of sounds and flashing lights for instant positive reinforcement when a correct answer is given. It's a book for kids who love to play computer games."

Adults crave toys during the holiday season, too. This year the selection in the executive toy market includes powerful electronics in small packages.

The Psion Pocket PC ($500), available at the Sharper Image, is a computer that fits in your pocket. It features software such as Lotus and Microsoft Word, as well as a modem and fax.

"It's the size of a checkbook and opens up with a screen on the top and a keyboard on the bottom," says Brian Ahearn, a 'D spokesman at the Sharper Image's San Francisco headquarters.

Tired of searching the coffee table for the correct remote control? The Remote Control Watch ($70) controls the television from your wrist: power on/off, channel select, volume, even VCR functions. "It's also a stopwatch, daily alarm and calendar," Mr. Ahearn notes.

Circuit City is betting the One Four All ($15) remote will be a hot seller this holiday season, says Julie Mullian, a spokeswoman at the company's Richmond, Va., headquarters. The device handles all video equipment; a $30 version also controls stereo gear. "It's a fun stocking stuffer," Ms. Mullian adds.

And if you think the latest in telephone technology is the cordless phone . . . think again. New this holiday season is a cordless headset unit ($140) from Radio Shack.

"My 15-year-old daughter tested a prototype and loved it," says Rick Borinstein, director of merchandising at Radio Shack headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. "With the dialing pad hooked to her belt she could walk around and do four other things while she talked on the phone."

Big-ticket electronic devices will do well this year, retailers say. The buzzwords to remember are "personal digital assistant."

"The Apple Newton 'MessagePad' [$699] is a hand-held digital secretary and [business card file] that sends faxes," Ms. Mullian says. "It's really a minicomputer with a difference: You write on the screen with a special stylus. It even learns your handwriting."

The new Zoomer Personal Digital Assistant ($699) will be a hit with people who like electronic gizmos and gadgets, says Radio Shack's Mr. Borinstein. "It combines pen and pencil capabilities with the computer," he says. "It's 'gee whiz' technology."

Radio Shack is also betting that desktop personal computers will be hot tickets this holiday season.

"Machines based on the 486 microprocessor [the brains of the computer] will be very popular," Mr. Borinstein predicts. "We'll sell a lot of systems for under $1,000. That's a lot of computer power for the money."

Another buzzword exciting computer retailers this season is "multimedia."

"By using compact disc storage capability and a personal computer, multimedia brings in sound, sight, color, graphics and text," Radio Shack's Mr. Borinstein says. "For example, when you visit a zoo via multimedia, you don't just read about a lion on the computer screen. You can see it and hear it roar." Complete multimedia systems at Radio Shack range from $1,399 to about $2,000.

While decidedly low-tech, books will continue to make popular gifts. Melvin Gordon, president of Gordon's Booksellers, predicts these will be the season's best sellers:

"Tom Clancy's newest book, 'Without Remorse' [Putnam, $24.95], will definitely be big in the Baltimore area -- and in all parts of the U.S.," he says. "And the Howard Stern book, 'Private Parts' [Simon & Schuster, $23], will be a best seller. He'll do what Madonna did with her book, 'Sex,' which was a big seller last Christmas."

Mr. Gordon predicts these will also be holiday blockbusters: "Martha Stewart's Christmas" (Crown, $16, paperback); "Star Trek Memories" (Harper Collins, $22) by William Shatner; "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend" (Warner Books, $16.95) by Robert J. Waller; "Lasher" (Random House, $25) by Anne Rice; "Secrets of a Sparrow" (Random House, $22) by Diana Ross; and "SeinLanguage" (Bantam, $19.95) by Jerry Seinfeld.

Crate & Barrel spokeswoman Bette Kahn suggests the store's new cookware items will be popular with food lovers.

For example, there's a new terra-cotta garlic baker.

"Baked garlic is delicious over bread or cheese -- and recipes come with [the baker]," Ms. Kahn says. "And it comes with a garlic braid with 20 heads of garlic strung together."

Also new this year from the Chicago-based furnishings and home accessories chain is a pewter pepper mill ($30) with a lifetime guarantee. Blends of peppercorns also are available ($14 for a 9-ounce jar).

At Rockville-based Kitchen Bazaar, Calvin McMullen, vice president of merchandising, says, "Bread machines are hot this holiday season. And people are going for the higher-end models that offer features such as programmability."

Mr. McMullen predicts the Zojirushi S-15 bread machine ($300) will be the firm's best seller. "If you have a favorite bread recipe you can program it in and it will stay there," he says.

The coffee trend is still going strong -- and espresso makers will be another hot holiday item. Mr. McMullen predicts the Espresso Novo from Krups ($200) will be his best-selling espresso machine.

"It's highly rated by the food magazines," he says. "It's a pump machine, which is better than the lower-priced boiler machines. They don't have the pressure for creating the espresso and frothing the milk."

Outdoor and fitness buffs will appreciate a new set of wheels -- specifically, in-line skates.

"In-line skating has gone beyond the fad stage," reports Fred Prescott, a product manager at L. L. Bean in Freeport, Maine; for a catalog, call (800) 221-4221. Prices of in-line skates begin around $98 a pair for adults and $75 for children. A set of elbow, wrist and knee pads is $38 for adults and $28 for kids.

The catalog retailer also predicts big things for a new type of synthetic outerwear fabric: "Windbloc" fleece.

"It's going to be gangbusters," Mr. Prescott predicts. "Fleece is an extremely warm, light, soft and fuzzy material that feels great against the skin. Our new version features a laminate inside that blocks out wind." Prices for jackets start at $110.

Something for the person who has everything. That's what shoppers can search for at Brookstone, a retailer with an eclectic inventory of gift items. Don O'Brien, vice president of marketing at the Peterborough, N.H.-based chain, predicts severals items will be holiday hits:

"Our new 4 in 1 Game Table [$300] features pool, air hockey, pingpong and several table-top games such as chess and backgammon," he says. "Most people don't have the room for four game tables, but here's one that does it all."

Another popular item, he predicts, will be the Shiatsu Lounger -- in spite of its $2,795 price tag.

"It's a computer-controlled, leather lounge chair that massages like a Japanese massage person. It kneads, rolls and taps your back as you relax."

Nearly everybody has an umbrella that opens automatically. How about one that also closes automatically?

"If you've ever had to get in and out of a car in the rain, you'll appreciate our automatic open and close umbrella [$25]," Mr. O'Brien says. "Just press the button and it closes."

And for the handyman who collects tools, there's now an angled hammer ($15).

"You can change the angle of the head so you can get at really difficult spaces to pound a nail," Mr. O'Brien explains. "It's for the guy who has everything."

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