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Big Names Flop With Christmas Buyers : Retailing: The Trump game and Pee-Wee clothes are among the retail sales bombs this holiday season.

December 30, 1989|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Donald J. Trump, for a change, came away a loser this Christmas. Joe DiMaggio struck out. And Pee-Wee Herman had little to giggle about.

Merchandise that was, in one way or another, linked to their names apparently ranked among the bigger disappointments this holiday gift-giving season.

Solid sales figures aren't available yet. But it's clear that even though many manufacturers and retailers narrowed their losses by taking fewer chances on imaginative new products, they still came up with some flops that gathered dust on store shelves.

Retail industry observers said some of the bombs were products that relied on simple gimmickry or, perhaps, on little more than the notoriety of the people associated with them.

"Trump: The Game" suffered from its somewhat misleading image as a clone of the longtime favorite board game "Monopoly." But even more damaging, analysts said, was the public's apparent growing disenchantment with the real estate baron himself.

"If there was a Leona Helmsley game, that would have been a dud, too," said Al Aguiar, a retailing consultant in Cameron Park, Calif.

Janelle Berger, assistant manager of the Toys International store in Glendale, said the Trump game eventually sold out at her store. But, she said, it didn't start moving until it was marked down from $40 to $29, and a sign was put up indicating that Trump's proceeds would go to charity.

"Trump doesn't need any more money, and I think people realized that," Berger explained.

Consumers weren't turned on by entertainer Pee-Wee Herman, either. A line of children's clothing he promoted for J. C. Penney stores reportedly fizzled.

The fashion world saw women's jodhpurs, pants styled along the lines of horseback riding breeches, get off to a slow start. Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report, said would-be buyers, particularly in the 35-to-54 age bracket, weren't interested in a design that accentuated their hips.

"Women didn't want to look like the back of a horse," he said.

Many other goods that were labeled mild disappointments sold reasonably well but failed to meet store owners' overblown expectations. For example, "Game Boy," the much ballyhooed hand-held video game from Nintendo, sold out at many stores but never generated the hysteria that some retailers anticipated when word came out earlier this year that Christmas supplies would be limited.

William B. White Jr., a Nintendo spokesman, described Game Boy as a big success, but he acknowledged that it wasn't in "the Cabbage Patch range," referring to the doll that was the rage among young children during previous holiday seasons.

Although the regular Nintendo game and other video goods remained popular, retailers said shoppers otherwise turned away from high-tech and electric toys in favor of more traditional products such as dolls and action figures. Among the victims: several of the lines of "hyper cars," the speedy battery-powered vehicles that have been a big hit in Japan.

But even if parents tended to buy toys that forced children to use their imaginations, they didn't snap up old-fashioned educational gifts. At Toys R Us, the nation's leading toy retailer, sales of microscopes and telescopes were soft for the second year in a row, said Vice Chairman Michael Goldstein.

"That's a sad commentary on our times," Goldstein said.

Generally speaking, adult consumer electronics items fared well, but certain segments of the market suffered. Lee Isgur, an analyst with Paine Webber, said VCRs still are popular, but sales this Christmas tapered off faster than some retailers anticipated. The problem, he said, is that many people already own VCRs and don't need a replacement.

Among camcorders, VHS models seemed to lose out to the sleeker, though more expensive, 8-millimeter devices. Home computers were a bomb for yet another Christmas, but that apparently wasn't much of a surprise.

The wallet-size "electronic notebooks" brought out this year by such companies as Casio and Sharp Electronics also failed to win over customers. They can be used as appointment calendars, personal telephone directories and memo pads, but they offer little advantage over pencil and paper, Isgur said.

"You better have an improvement. Otherwise, it won't sell," Isgur said. "The public is very smart."

At bookstores, the most expensive titles languished. "The pricing in art books has gotten away a bit from the market," conceded Edward A. Morrow Jr., president of the American Booksellers Assn. and owner of a book shop in Manchester Center, Vt.

Morrow cited "Chagall: The Russian Years 1907-1922" and "Georgia O'Keeffe in the West," both priced at $100. Morrow's store ordered 12 copies of the O'Keeffe book and sold only two or three; he received five or six of the Chagall books and sold none.

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