Fun doesn't always require microchips

Electronics sell, but so do board games and yo-yos

Try as she might, the toy vender couldn't interest Johnny Pearson in the "interactive cyber-watch."

Young Johnny, visiting London, told his mother he would rather have a simple yo-yo than the hi-tech timepiece.

Amid the pre-Christmas shoppers at Hamley's - Britain's largest toy store - Johnny had his own ideas, too, about the CD-rom Monopoly game.

Offered a choice between the electronic version and the traditional board game, he explained: "My friends and I like to actually handle the money and move the counters around the board. We couldn't do that with a PC."

Johnny's selections are indicative of how difficult it is to read the toy preferences of the Nintendo generation. High-tech clearly does sell to many of his peers.

Online games that zap reptilian aliens and other electronic demons are projected to rake in $81 million this year, reports Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm. In the past 18 months, sales at Mattel's new interactive computer division have grown from $20 million to $100 million. The "hot" toy for this year is Furby - a stuffed animal equipped with a 200-word vocabulary and electronic sensors that respond to motion or touch.

Old favorites are staples

There's no comparable hit - so far - in the traditional toy category. Since 1991, board game sales in the United States have risen just two percent a year, according to a recent Washington Post article.

Yet traditional games and toys are the bread-and-butter of toy stores everywhere. It's often forgotten that "sophisticated electronic toys and games grab the headlines and sell well for a season or two," says Gerry Masters, spokesman for the British Association of Toy Retailers (BATR), but more traditional children's pursuits enjoy "a steady, on-going market".

"Successful toys don't just go away," Mr. Masters says. "Action Man was toy of the year in Britain as long ago as 1966. He dropped out for a while, but after being revamped in 1994, now, as Action Man Moonraker, he's a top favorite again. Then there's Rubik's Cube. Lots of parents still buy it for their kids."

"If you get your product right," Masters insists, "a new generation will discover it. Barbie dolls were created 36 years ago, but are constantly updated and are still going strong."

There's also the nostalgia factor. Parents raised on Clue and Scrabble are introducing Colonel Mustard and tiny wooden tiles to their children.

A spokesman for Mattel, makers of Scrabble, says: "You can get a CD-rom version of the game, or play it online. But many kids prefer to sit cross-legged on the living room floor, face each other across the board, and go to word-war with the tiles."

At the main London outlet of Toys R Us, a spokesman draws a distinction between "family purchases" and "under-the-tree presents."

"Computer and multimedia games tend to be purchased by the family, after consultation among the members," he says. "Parents pick the simpler toys and games as gifts intended to surprise the children."

While industry observers may divide toys in electronic vs. non-electronic, kids often don't define fun by the presence of a microchip - or the lack of it.

Masters says children easily mix hi-tech and low-tech toys. "I drive a car, but I also ride a bike. Kids these days are thinking along much the same lines."

Take the yo-yo craze. After sweeping the United States and Japan, yo-yos are currently selling at a 150,000-a-week pace in Britain, and toy shops in France, Germany and Italy report a sudden upsurge in sales.

What other toy would bring together hip teens and the silver-haired Londoner Don Robertson during the recent Toy 98, an industry promotional fair in London sponsored by BATR. "Acquiring yo-yo skills like 'walking the dog' and 'skinning the cat' gives a kid street-cred[ibility]," says Mr. Robertson, who wears a blazer marked with "European Yo-yo Champion," a title he won back in 1953. "It's a very simple toy - you don't need batteries."

Nothing too complicated, Mom

Back at Hamley's, Janice Collins says her daughter Alice, age 6, had dropped a hint that she "didn't want anything too complicated" - maybe a giant two-sided easel, with a blackboard on one side and a white board on the other. "She saw it on TV, and loved it."

Keeping children like Alice coming back is one of the biggest challenges facing toymakers. Recent research shows children have busier schedules and spend more time in organized sports.

"Girls stray from dolls at an earlier age now," says Marianne Szmanski, president of Toy Tips Magazine (www.toytips.com).

"You used to get children aged 14 and 15 in toy shops," agrees Masters, "Now we've lost them by 11."

Toy experts say that at a younger age, children are shifting their focus from toys to sports, clothing, cosmetics, and computers. Toys R Us has responded by making more room in its stores for clothing and electronics. Hasbro also recently launched a "Family Game Night" ad campaign in the US.

Another marketing tactic taken by Hasbro: board games for baby boomers. It's developed adult-oriented games such as Taboo and Plant Hollywood.

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