Construction toys, dolls top Santa's list this year


Maybe it was all that talk during the 1992 presidential election about rebuilding the infrastructure, but construction toys have been a surprise hit during this holiday season.

The reliable snap-together sets of recent years, Lego and Duplo, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, have been joined by something old, the Erector Set, which is returning to the United States after an absence of 10 years, and something new, an elaborate set of plastic building parts that go by the name K'nex.

The toy makers and toy stores say both those products are among the season's biggest hits, along with plastic figurines modeled on the television characters called Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and all kinds of Barbie dolls.

Of the toy industry's $17 billion in annual sales in the United States, two-thirds come in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The success of the Barbie dolls, made by Mattel Inc., has been so enduring that it is no longer a surprise, but nonetheless remarkable.

Of all the toys sold in the United States each year, more than $1 billion worth are Barbies. If the best-selling car, the Ford Taurus, had as big a share of the auto market, there would be twice as many on the road.

Dinosaur toys and games are doing very well this season, according to people who follow the toy industry, driven at one end of the agespectrum by the success of the film "Jurassic Park" and at the other by Barney, the purple star of children's television, whose sales have dipped since last year but are still strong.

But the large-doll category has been disappointing this year for the second year in a row, said John Taylor, an analyst who follows the toy industry for L. H. Alton, a brokerage firm in San Francisco.

Other disappointments, he said, were radio-controlled vehicles and the Magna Doodle drawing toy. And video games, which are generally counted as a category apart from toys, are also not having a boom year.

At Nintendo of America Inc., the director of marketing, George Harrison, said sales were "not as strong as our projections; the acceleration of sales came later in the season than normally, which is in October."

On the other hand, the company's little hand-held machine, the Game Boy -- at $49 for the basic set -- had its best year yet.

By any measure, the biggest surprise of the toy season has been theMighty Morphin Power Rangers, which have already vanished from the shelves and will not be restocked before Christmas -- the toy world's biggest gap between supply and demand since the Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983, when some parents blackened others' eyes to get at new shipments of the dolls.

"We just cannot meet demand," Trish Stewart, the director of marketing for Bandai America, which makes the Rangers, said last week. "All our factories in Thailand and China are producing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."

Toys 'R' Us, the retailer with 581 stores and about 30 percent of the American toy market, has taken to offering parents "Goof Slips," an IOU that parents can hand their children at Christmas, promising a Power Ranger later, said Carol Fuller, a Toys 'R' Us spokeswoman.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are five action figures, each about 7 inches tall, that sell for $10 to $15 each.

In a popular children's television show on the Fox Television network, the Rangers are teen-agers, skilled in gymnastics and karate, who do battle with four evil aliens (which Bandai also sells for $10 to $15 each).

For help, the Rangers can call in Dinozords, which are sold in a set of five for $40 to $50.

While falling short of the Power Rangers' success, the companies that make Erector Sets and K'nex are nonetheless delighted with how the year has gone.

"Parents are looking for play value," said Stephane Treppoz, presi

dent of Paris-based Meccano, which in 1991 acquired the rights to Erector.

The Erector toys range in cost from starter sets at $13.99 to the top of the line at $124.99. The most popular, Ms. Treppoz said, was the $39.99 set that can be used to produce 27 different models.

The K'nex sets are produced by Rodon Group, a company in the Philadelphia suburb of Hatfield, Pa., that heretofore was best known for the white plastic circles pizza shops put inside boxes to keep the lid from disturbing the cheese atop the pie.

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