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$100 Dolls Are the Talk of Toy Makers

November 22, 1987|DENISE GELLENE | Times Staff Writer

She can kiss, hiccup, burp and even sneeze. She plays pat-a-cake and sucks her bottle and laughs when her tummy is rubbed. She is Baby Heather, a plump electronic baby doll, and she comes with a high-voltage $110 price tag.

Mattel's Baby Heather, a blonde, blue-eyed bundle of silicon chips, isn't the only high-technology, hundred-dollar baby being delivered to toy stores this fall. Using the same intricate electronics that power home computers, supermarket cash registers and smoke detectors, at least six toy companies have come up with high-priced dolls that can "read" storybooks, "feel" cold or "wake up" in the morning.

At a time when toy sales are depressed and retailers are discounting other high-tech toys, the beleaguered toy industry is carefully monitoring sales of these electronic dolls, most of which cost $100 or more--a price that a few years ago would have been unimaginable for a toy.

Parents Spend More

The price tag "is in keeping with our life style," says Richard Sallis, a marketing vice president with Playmates Inc., which makes $150 "talking" Jill and $75 "talking" Cricket and her brother, Corky. Parents who spend big on themselves will spend big on their children too, Sallis reasons. "A few years ago, it would have been unheard of to spend $50,000 for an automobile."

Ever since parents snapped up the homely Cabbage Patch Kids rag dolls for $30 each in 1983, toy prices have continued to climb, and parents have continued to pay those prices. According to Toy & Hobby World magazine, the amount parents spend each year for toys has jumped to $200 for each child from $55 in 1977.

The magazine also reports that 74% of consumers think that they spend too much on toys. Rick Anguilla, editor of the magazine, says the $100 price tag is a real gamble. "The manufacturers are sort of testing the boundaries . . . parents are going to look at these prices and search deeply to justify spending that amount on a toy."

One parent who hasn't made up her mind to spend $100 on a talking doll is Gladys Saucdo, a San Gabriel mother. "My 8-year-old is begging me for Baby Heather," said Saucdo, as she looked over the talking doll display at a Toys R Us in Rosemead recently. "But $100 is a lot of money. And my 7-year-old wants one, too."

Saucdo's dilemma was anticipated by toy merchants, who placed only modest orders for the talking dolls. Richard Brady, owner of Play Co. toy stores in San Diego, says that, although he thinks the dolls will do well at Christmas, he doesn't stock Jill, the most expensive doll, with a suggested retail price of $150.

Toys International in Glendale carries a variety of talking toys, but its only talking doll is Baby Talk by Lewis Galoob Toys, a big seller last year that has been discounted in most stores to around $35 from $70 last Christmas. Among the electronic dolls, "it's the only one that sells," says store manager John Bryant.

Federal Wholesale, one of the largest toy distributors in the West, is distributing only Baby Heather and Coleco's $125 Talking Cabbage Patch Kids. Robert Freedman, marketing director, says the high-price dolls appeal only to the "yuppie-type person who has to have the trendiest product . . . most consumers are reluctant to invest this kind of money in a toy."

Toy & Hobby World's Anguilla says the high price of the dolls makes it risky for the merchants to order many of them. "It's a lot of capital for them to tie up," he says. "And if the dolls don't sell, the retailers will lose a lot of money when they have to take markdowns on the dolls."

Some merchants think the dolls will be a big success. Toys R Us, the nation's biggest toy retailer, expects sales revenue from talking dolls to exceed revenue from any other kind of girls' toy, such as fashion dolls. J. C. Penney says Talking Cabbage Patch and Baby Talk are selling well.

Play Co.'s Brady expects to sell all his Baby Heather dolls and Talking Cabbage Patch Kids by mid-December. Brady reasons that parents are willing to spend a little extra on their children at Christmas. "I think the parents and kids will be happy with what the dolls do for the money," he says.

Dolls React

And the dolls do a lot. Julie, a brunette talking doll from Worlds of Wonder, has light sensitive cells that let her know when the lights go off in a room. Playmate Inc.'s Jill "sings" into her own microphone. Talking Cabbage Patch Kids dolls talk to each other with the use of radio waves.

The toy companies explain that these dolls "discuss" everyday things with little girls because they contain sensors that "hear" key words and react with certain phrases. Jill, for example, asks "Do you like cats, dogs or cows?" If a little girl picks cats, Jill will talk for 30 seconds about cats before asking another question.

If a little girl tells her Talking Cabbage Patch she wants to sing, the doll will "sing" a chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in a high-pitched voice. And, if dolls work as they should, two of these dolls in the same room will sing in unison.

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