In hard times, nostalgic toys strike a chord

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email

November 24, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) -- Counting dollars this holiday season, Tom De
Santes wants to avoid buying high-priced techno gadgets as gifts
for his two sons.

Instead, he is going to buy the boys, ages 6 and 7, a classic
from his own childhood: Lincoln Logs.

"I loved them as a kid and used to build huge log cabins,"
remembers De Santes, 38, who lives outside Boston in Scituate,
Mass., and is a marketing director for an education software
company. With Lincoln Logs, "I like that my boys and I can create
something together."

Without a "must-have" toy fad this holiday season, and with
parents facing a deteriorating economy, tried-and-true toys are
being embraced by parents and toy makers alike -- what one analyst
calls a "back to the toy box" approach.

"'Retro' or 'nostalgia' toys can be viewed as the 'comfort
food' of the toy industry and I do think folks naturally gravitate
to what made them happy when they were young, or what is familiar
to them," said Anita Frazier, a toy analyst at NPD Group, a market
research firm.

Ken Moe, general manager of Backtobasics.com, a Web site owned
by Scholastic Corp. that offers classic toys like "Rock 'Em, Sock
'Em Robots," Slinky and Colorforms, said sales so far this season
indicate a rising interest in old favorites.

Though most sales will occur over the next few weeks, Moe said
Junior TinkerToys, Lincoln Logs and toy instruments have been among
the big sellers in the past few months.

"It's instinctive in tough times to reach back to a happier,
simpler time," he said. "Parents remember how much they loved
those toys, and want that same happiness for their children."

Lauren Horsley, who has 5- and 1-year old boys and a 3-year-old
girl, plans to buy TinkerToys, a Cabbage Patch Kid doll and classic
board games Sorry! and Hungry Hungry Hippos this holiday season.
The 29-year-old from Salt Lake City said she finds value in the
toys' quality and universal appeal.

"We just bought our first house this fall, and with the economy
so unstable we need to be as conservative as possible to ensure
that we pay our bills," she said. "A lot of pricey, faddish toys
aren't going to do our children much good if we don't keep a roof
over their heads."

Parents aren't the only ones looking again at classic toys. Toy
makers are also turning to the old standbys as they face not only
weakening toy sales, but also steep prices for commodities like
resin used to make many toys and tough competition from electronic
gadgets.

Holiday toy sales are often spurred by hit toys, with popularity
driving shortages, creating more demand -- as with the "Tickle Me
Elmo" craze of 1996 and the Nintendo Wii, which has run into
shortages since it was introduced in 2006.

This year, however, "not much is selling at all," says BMO
Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson. While he believes shopping
will pick up as the holidays get closer, he expects total sales to
be down about 2 percent this year. Frazier expects toy sales this
year -- about half of which come in the fourth quarter -- to be about
flat this year at $22 billion.

Classic toys could fill the gap left by a lack of a "must
have" toy, as toy makers stick to past hits and avoid taking
risks, what Needham & Co. analyst Sean McGowan calls going "back
to the toy box."

"Partly, its because they know 'this thing works,"' he says.

Hasbro Inc., for example, has found success revitalizing names
such as the 40-year-old Nerf brand and Transformers, which first
hit the U.S. in the early '80s and are selling well again after
last year's "Transformers" movie.

The company also debuted revamped versions of classic board
games like Clue, Operation and Monopoly this year.

"One of our core tenets is to reinvent and reimagine a lot of
our core brands," says John Frascotti, Hasbro's global chief of
marketing, who is 47. "There's an emotional resonance that comes
from the quality of the experience people in my or our generation
had with the toys, and recognition that the same experience can now
shared with entire family and children."

Hasbro plans to continue to update old brands and has a G.I. Joe
revival -- including toys related to a new live-action movie -- set
for 2009.

Jakks Pacific Inc. has brought back several classic brands this
year, including a 25th-anniversary Cabbage Patch Kid doll that is
the replica of the original version and a new Smurfs plush toy and
DVD.

"During these times parents want to remember something positive
to share with their family now more than ever," says Tom Delaney,
senior vice president of marketing for Jakks' Play Along division.
Classic toys "bring parents and grandparents back to their
childhood memories of a simpler time," he said.

That's why Elizabeth Peterson, 39, from Redondo Beach, Calif.,
bought an Easy-Bake Oven -- first introduced in the 1960s -- for the
holidays. The mother of a 2 1/2-year-old boy and a 10-month old boy
admits she might be jumping the gun a bit, but couldn't resist.

"I never got one when I was little and all my friends had
one," she said. "I'm probably going to be the one playing with
it."

She also bought two Nerf footballs, which she remembers playing
with as a child.

"I think they'll grow with them. People are maybe focusing on a
smaller Christmas and buying one or two things that they known are
a sure bet."

With the football, she says, "It won't just make it through the
week of Christmas, they'll play with it for years to come."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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