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Rapid-Paced Turtle Sales Starting to Slow Down : Toys: Rival manufacturers see a cooling of the 'Ninja' fad as a chance to regain a larger share of the market.

December 23, 1991|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After what must seem like an eternity to weary parents and sales-starved makers of rival toys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mania is cooling.

Sales of that gang of four pizza-chomping sewer dwellers--a whopping total of about $1.1 billion at retail over the past four years--dropped by about one-third this year, and analysts expect sales to taper off even more in 1992.

Coupled with the declining video game craze, the passing of the Turtle fad--which at its peak in 1990 represented nearly 60% of all movable toy characters sold in the United States--is sure to touch off a mad scramble among toy manufacturers for their share of the newly freed toy market.

Toy makers couldn't be happier. "It's go for broke time," one said. "Everyone will be fighting to replace Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Meanwhile, Playmates Toys, the La Mirada distributor of the awesome foursome, will be fighting its own battle: to turn its colossal hit from a one-time fad into a timeless classic such as G.I. Joe, who still does a steady and handsome business 27 years after being deployed.

"We recognize that nothing goes on forever," said Richard Sallis, Playmates Toys' president. "But we're entering our fifth year, and if you get to five years, there's probably no reason you can't grow to 10. The trick is in managing it."

It's a mean trick that few toy companies have been able to pull off. In fact, toy industry mega-hits are equally likely to pull down their makers when they cool. When Teddy Ruxpin, the talking teddy bear that was a huge success in the mid-1980s, crashed, so did Worlds of Wonder. Coleco folded when Cabbage Patch dolls went from red-hot to lukewarm. And Atari was never the same after the first video game craze ended nearly a decade ago.

Only Barbie, who turned 32 this year, G.I. Joe and a handful of cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Snoopy have managed to remain perennial favorites among successive waves of youngsters.

Although it remains unclear whether Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael--as the four Turtles are named--have what it takes to become one of these timeless classics, their initial sales performance has been indisputably the best ever for toy characters.

Since their introduction in 1988, about $850 million worth of Turtle toy merchandise--not including clothing and other licensed items--has been sold at wholesale, the equivalent of about $1.1 billion at retail prices. The total is enough to make the Turtles, in just four years, one of the three top-selling toy figures ever, along with G.I. Joe and the "Star Wars" characters.

Hits are important to the overall toy industry, because they get children and parents into toy stores and in a spending mood. But rival toy manufacturers get edgy if a hit is too big, because it smothers the competition.

"I'm delighted that the peak has been passed and Turtles are on their way down," said Dave Mauer, president of Mattel USA. "If the Turtles crash and burn, that plays into our hands. Those dollars have to go somewhere."

But any obituaries for the Turtles are decidedly premature. Despite their cooling, analysts still expect Turtle merchandise sales to reach at least $200 million next year--down from $300 million in 1991--and to remain the top-selling character toy among boys, just as they have been for the past two years.

"Turtles can still have a 50% decline in sales next year and be twice as large as anything out there," noted John Taylor, a toy analyst for L. H. Alton, a San Francisco brokerage. "The growth may be gone, but this thing has a long way to run."

But now that the mania that has gripped the 5-year-old to 10-year-old set for the past four years appears to have been broken, it has created an opening for a new fad to take its place. And the toy companies, some of which held back introducing new products during the past two years for fear their efforts would be futile against the Turtles, are expected to throw their best stuff into the heated competition for the next big hit.

Although most toy companies are keeping tight wraps on their products until their official unveiling at Toy Fair next February in New York, rumors abound throughout Toy Land.

Hasbro, it is said, will introduce "Rockin Rollin Miner Ants," a set of six humanoid insect figures unveiled in the same comic book that introduced the Turtles. Whiz, Crash, TNT, Rockin, Figure and Queenie (the leader of the pack) live in a coal mine and like rock music. They get around on roller skates. Hasbro is also said to be introducing a James Bond Jr. set of action figures.

Tyco is widely expected to unveil "Crash Dummies," figures patterned after the Department of Transportation's test-car dummies that spew body parts if they're not wearing safety belts when children crash their cars into walls.

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