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Action Figures Get the Action : Toy Category Is Red-Hot This Season, Retailers Report

December 04, 1993|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GI Joe has a real fight on his hands this holiday season.

Waves of new action figures are invading toy departments this year, challenging longtime sales leaders such as Joe--in his most recent incarnation as GI Joe Street Fighter II--and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Last year, nostalgia and "nice" were the rage as toys such as troll dolls and gentle Barney the Dinosaur dominated the scene.

This season, however, feisty figurines such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Biker Mice from Mars and other toy versions of film and television characters are among the projected top sellers.

"There's Batman and Jurassic Park figures--the action figure category is very hot," said Jill Krutick, an industry analyst at Salomon Bros. in New York. "There are so many popular figures that no single toy will dominate."

While retailers are giving ample space to these mites, they're also pinning their hopes on high-tech talking toys, board games and traditional top sellers such as Barbie.

Mattel's introduction of the new Western Stampin' Barbie is expected to bolster sales of this perennial favorite. Traditional board games and battery-operated toys such as Radio Control Racer by Fisher-Price should also do well, said Laurie Smith, an analyst at Seidler Amdec in Los Angeles.

Retailers believe that an entry by Yes Entertainment, TV Teddy, will do particularly well. TV Teddy comes with a videocassette that is designed to prompt the toy to talk to a child viewing the video.

Among the other talking toys expected to be popular are Toby Terrier from Tiger Electronics, Hasbro's Talking Barney and Tyco Toys' Talking Family Dollhouse.

However, it is the action figures that are creating the holiday season excitement this year.

Although hot-selling action figures are nothing new, toy makers introduced about 40 new lines this year--nearly twice the number that debuted a year ago.

Tie-ins to successful films and television programs are a particularly powerful combination in the action figure sector this year, said Thomas Kully, a toy industry analyst at William Blair in Chicago.

"We go through waves--periods when the media influences toy sales--and the industry is riding a big wave right now," Kully said.

The "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" television show is red-hot. The Rangers are five teen-agers empowered with the spirits of dinosaurs.

The live-action program includes tot and teen lures such as robots, dinosaurs, alien creatures and martial arts.

The Mighty Morphin toys have been in such high demand that parents have had to scramble to find them. In fact, the toy's manufacturer--Cerritos-based Bandai America--recently bought newspaper ads in major cities promising consumers that efforts are being made to get more Rangers to toy stores.

"As soon as we put the Rangers on the shelves, they're gone," said Gail Dorn, a spokeswoman for Target.

So far, 1.7 million Ranger figures have been sold at about $10 each, said Peter Dang, marketing and sales vice president at Bandai. The figures are popular with girls as well as boys because two of the Ranger characters are female, as is an estimated 35% of the viewing audience, Dang said.

Another new popular television program, an animated show called "Biker Mice from Mars," is generating interest in action figures with the same name and likeness. The manufacturer, San Francisco-based Lewis Galoob Toys, started shipping Biker Mice to stores this week--ahead of the original January launch date.

The TV characters are human-size mice who battled and lost the fight to the loathsome Plutarkians on Mars. The mice left their planet but found Plutarkians--disguised as Chicagoans--when they arrived on Earth.

The extraterrestrial rodents live in Quigley Field and love rock and roll, sports and root beer. Industry analysts expect the toys to be big sellers.

Toy Survey Favorites

Children, the ultimate toy experts, were recently given opportunities to test and rate toys during two different surveys. Some put toys to the test at 554 Target stores in 32 states, where they showed a clear preference for action figures such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman.

The sixth annual Duracell Kid's Choice survey was based on testing at 30 YMCA after-school centers. The participants showed a preference for action toys such as Loopin' Louie, a game in which players hit a lever to protect their chicken token from a swooping plane, and Zoom Ball, a version of catch with handles and string.

Target's Top 5

Toy Manufacturer Talking Barney Hasbro Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Bandai America Western Stampin' Barbie Mattel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Playmates Batman Kenner

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Duracell's Top 5

Toy Manufacturer Loopin' Louie Milton Bradley Radio Control Racer Fisher-Price Zoom Ball Pressman Toy Snardvark Parker Bros. Crayola Designer Lite Desks Binney & Smith

Favorites and Flops

Toy industry analysts say preferences shift, with some categories popular one year and weak in others. Here are the "in" and "out" categories for 1993, according to some analysts.

Hot

Action figures

Small dolls

Talking toys

Not

Large dolls

Water guns

Drawing toys

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