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Toy Makers Set Their Phasers on Tried and True--With a Twist

February 13, 1996|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The Cabbage Patch dolls are back and buff for the Olympics, Barbie is boldly going where no doll has gone before, and the venerable jump rope is going high-tech.

As the 93rd annual American International Toy Fair opened here Monday, it was clear that manufacturers are banking on tried-and-true toys for the second year in a row to prop up sales. But this year, the classics are back with a twist.

According to figures released Monday by the Toy Manufacturers Assn. of America, which hosts the toy fair, retail sales were up only marginally in 1995 and toy shipments to stores decreased 1.4% last year.

Some of the biggest sellers in 1995 were old favorites such as Barbie, Batman and the board game Monopoly, the manufacturers group said, along with toys featured in the Disney film "Toy Story": Etch A Sketch, Slinky and Mr. Potato Head.

With no new blockbuster toy like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on the horizon, manufacturers seem to be sticking with that formula, bringing some old favorites out of retirement and releasing new versions of other classics.

Consider Mattel's "Star Trek Barbie." Equipped with a communicator, she's dressed in the red Star Trek garb that the crew of the Enterprise wore in the original television series.

Barbie's steady, Ken, packs a phaser as he goes "exploring new worlds." The dolls are a tie-in for the 30th anniversary of the show.

Mattel is also trying to rev up sales for its venerable Hot Wheels cars by adding the "Crash & Smash Bike Set" to the lineup. The company hopes kids will want to race, jump and crash these miniature motorcycles, which come with a launcher, ramp and four pieces of track.

Mattel has high hopes for new versions of the Cabbage Patch Kids. It recently acquired the license from Hasbro Inc. and will issue the toys under its brand this year.

"We had been salivating for the Cabbage Patch Kids," Mattel Chairman John Amerman said Monday. "It's back to basics. We're bringing back what worked for brands years ago."

Like the Cabbage Patchers of the past, the Mattel versions are a racial rainbow with a variety of hairstyles and outfits. However, this line includes the new "Olympikids," dolls dressed as athletes--just in time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

(El Segundo-based Mattel does have some new entries. Among them are the Mighty Ducks, duck-billed action figures that borrow the name and logo of the Anaheim hockey team. But these ducks can be transformed into superheroes, riding off on Duckcycles to fight villains.)

Other toy makers are introducing their own neoclassics. La Mirada-based Playmates has given a high-tech twist to the no-tech jump rope. The company unveiled an automated jump rope called Jump Dancer that will retail for $49.95. One end of the rope can be tied to a fixture while the other end is twirled by an electronic gadget. For safety, the toy is designed to unleash easily when tripped by a foot or leg.

"A jump rope is a very basic idea," said Richard Sallis, the company's chief executive. "But this allows one or two girls to play instead of the usual three."

Another California company, San Francisco-based Lewis Galoob, is introducing a new version of the Pound Puppies stuffed toys.

Galoob also hopes there will be new interest in action figures based on the "Star Wars" films. The company is introducing new versions of the characters more than 20 years after the first film rocketed to the top of the box-office charts. By releasing the new version this year, Galoob hopes to benefit from the video repackaging and re-release of the "Star Wars" trilogy next year and the release of a new "Star Wars" movie in 1998.

By reissuing vintage toys, toy makers are hedging their bets in case there is no toy mania comparable to the rage created by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in 1994, said Kurt Barnard, a New Jersey retail economist. Sales of the Power Rangers dropped in 1995, a decline that contributed to a 14% drop in the sales of all action figures. Overall toy sales were $20 billion in 1995, up from $18.7 billion in 1994.

"Most retailers lament the decline of the Power Rangers," he said. "Right now, the industry needs some hot new ideas."

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