Barbie, Ken, and GI Joe are on the march. Battalions of ''Baby Huggums,'' ''Baby Hobos,'' ''Bonnie Bridesmaids,'' and others are right behind. Clad in the latest Lilliputian finery, they thunder over the retail counter and into the homes of what industry watchers call the fastest-growing segment of toy buyers in the world: doll lovers.
Like the toys in Walt Disney's ''Babes in Toyland,'' the doll market has taken on a robust life of its own. Doll collecting has ''flipped'' coins out of second place on the list of most popular hobbies. And it is looking to ''lick'' stamps, which are in first.
The buying surge reflects a never-before-seen interest in doll collecting from all age groups and both sexes. Doll sellers - mail-order companies, department stores, discount chains, and auction houses - have reported enormous jumps in sales of every doll category since the mid-70s. Roughly, those categories are play, collector, and antique dolls. And now, in the last two or three years, the surge seems to have taken a turn toward the astronomical:
* Effanbee Doll Corporation, the oldest and largest US manufacturer, has grown tenfold since 1975; its sales volume has doubled just since 1979. It doubled its manufacturing capacity last year. And so far this year, growth is up by 30 percent over last year, despite the sluggish economy.
* Theriault's Auction House in Annapolis, Md., the largest auctioners of dolls in the world, has roughly tripled its sales of dolls in three years: from
* Toy Manufacturers of America reports sales of dolls and accessories up from
* The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC), a nationwide umbrella organization of 600 member clubs, has tripled its membership in two years - from 5,000 to 15,000 members.
Ironically, the flood of interest is not welcomed by many. Beryl Knoblock, president of the UFDC, was reluctant to speak to the press about the doll boom. ''People who hear about the prices dolls have been getting at auction are getting in on the act just for the money,'' she said. ''It's changed the whole world of collecting - prices are soaring, collectors are hoarding, no one's sharing, and it's really not the avocation it used to be.''
In January, Theriault's sold a doll for the world-record price of $38,000. The sale was highly publicized. The doll was one of 20 designed by French sculptor Albert Marque between 1899 and 1915. Many other antique dolls command prices of $10,000 to $20,000 and more. But Mrs. Knoblock says reports of such high prices bring speculators into the doll market out of all proportion to the amount of money to be made in dolls.
Yet there have been widespread reports of 400 percent profits being made on non-antique dolls in a matter of just a few years.
Gary Rudell, publisher of Doll Reader magazine, bought a 1936 Shirley Temple doll for $250 in 1979 (its 1936 price was $1.98), and sold it three years later for $550. One Effanbee employee collected his company's limited-edition Legend series each year since 1975. This year he took out an ad in Contemporary Dolls Magazine, and one week later sold the eight dolls at a 400 percent profit. Original Barbie dolls, sold in 1958 for $2.98, are worth $800 to $1,200, according to George Theriault, owner of the auction house.
The dramatic increase in doll buying began in the mid-70s, say a number of industry watchers, but the same experts are perplexed about exactly why. The phenomenon seems to raise an unanswerable chicken-egg question: Which came first - demand for dolls or high prices?.
A key word is ''awareness.'' Mr. Theriault, whose auctioneers sold all kinds of antiques before they moved exclusively to dolls in 1977, uses that word. ''Dolls have always been hot,'' he says. ''We take a lot of credit for getting the enthusiasm from behind the woodwork.'' He's got three full-time public-relations people working ''round the clock'' to get exposure for doll collecting. Among their achievements have been some ''phenomenally successful TV coverage,'' he says. ''And this has made people aware of how fascinating dolls are. It's become more socially acceptable, less sissified, for men to admit they collect dolls. It's recognized as one of the chic things to do.''
The biggest surge has been in collector dolls. Though any doll can be collected, collector dolls are generally seen by buyer and manufacturer as art objects rather than playthings. Effanbee Dolls has led a trend in recent years toward limited editions. These dolls are manufactured for only one or two years, then discontinued. The doll's rarity is assured, and its appreciation, if it is kept in good conditon, is nearly guaranteed. Since Effanbee has had such success , other companies - Madame Alexander, Royal Doulton, and others - have stepped up their manufacture of limited-edition lines.
''To call doll collectors 'fanatics' would be polite,'' says Frank Martin, sales representative of New York-based Alexander Doll Company. ''I've never seen such enthusiasm in the marketplace in my 21 years in the business.''
Newly made Madame Alexander dolls are so popular that they never reach outlet stores. They are sold from stock rooms to thousands of customers on waiting lists who are willing to pay $70 to $200 per doll. More than 5,000 types of dolls have been created by the family-run company since matriarch Mme. Beatrice Alexander founded it in 1928. She still oversees the business.
''It's one of the great frustrations in the doll industry,'' says Mr. Theriault, ''that many new buyers can't get their hands on any. Alexander dolls are sold out way before Christmas, and have already gone up in value by Jan. 1 .''
Among the Alexander dolls most sought after by collectors are the 1936 Dionne Quintuplets set (complete with replicas of the doctor and nurse who delivered the Canadian babies) worth $4,500 and a 1966 Coco Chanel doll valued at $1,500.
Antique dolls (those over 75 years old) are another category entirely. Thuillier dolls and those of Casimir Bru - both French - are among those that sell for $10,000 to $25,000. But they are next to impossible to find, let alone purchase, collectors say.
Play dolls - those intended for kids to hug, dress, comb, and treat as companions - are enjoying strong growth as well. One analyst attributed this growth to the first generation of Barbie owners who have now come of age and want the same basic toy for their own youngsters. Those who began collecting as children want to continue their collections, and have more money to do so. Since the investment factor has become more visible, they are more willing to sink money into something they can enjoy while it appreciates.
While doll collectors used to be predominantly women over 40, today teens, children, and men account for a burgeoning share of the market, experts say.
Hasbro Industries of Pawtucket, R.I., this spring reintroduced its GI Joe combat-soldier doll as an antiterrorist commando. The doll had faded from popularity in the post-Vietnam '70s. Now, the company says it is having trouble keeping up with orders for the re-outfitted, reattired doll. Sales are expected to exceed $30 million this year - equal to half the company's entire sales in 1981.
''I think the mass appeal of dolls is that it is a human effigy, a representation of a human being,'' Mr. Theriault says. ''And childhood nostalgia effects it. I don't know of anyone who - if they walk down the street and happen to see their first doll or teddy bear in a window - doesn't say 'That's my doll!' or 'There's my teddy bear!' Many want to own it whether they're 30 or 50. Others own it vicariously through young ones they love.''
All the attention paid to dolls and the increasing demand for them helps Theriault's firm. It earns a 25 percent commission on all dolls it sells, which amounted to $908,000 last year. But, he says, ''our feeling is that more good stuff is thrown away for lack of education than is ever saved by people not knowing what they have. So we have worked very hard to educate the general public and dealers as to what's valuable and what's not. That's counter to the history of collectables, because there has always been this mystique that if you know something that someone else doesn't you're in a better position to get a good buy.''
Theriault says he has appeared on numerous talk shows - from Los Angeles to Cleveland to New York - with phenomenal success. ''We went on Candy Jones's show in New York and their switchboard lit up to the tune of 15,000 calls in three hours, setting some kind of record,'' he says. ''Other stations can't believe the response they're getting. They want us back as soon as they can schedule us.'' And he points out that Playthings Magazine - the toy-industry trade magazine - last Christmas put dolls just behind Atari video games on the list of popular pasttimes.
News coverage of high prices has been associated with a number of large-scale thefts, as well. The incidents have collectors reluctant to talk about collections even over the phone. One notable theft last January in Freeport, Mass., was cited by a collector as her reason for not quoting the value of the 2 ,500 dolls she has been collecting for nearly 60 years. ''The thieves broke in one week and nearly cleaned out the collection,'' says the anonymous collector. ''Then two weeks later, they came back and got the rest.'' Many collectors have withdrawn their names from lists in trading publications and club rosters so as not to be bothered by thieves or speculators.
''In the old days, people would help each other,'' says another collector who has been collecting dolls for better than half a century. ''You tried to teach one another what you knew about dolls. Today, there's much more jealousy. I don't even tell anyone I'm a collector.''
The owner of the 2,500-doll collection contrasts buying in past decades with today:
''When I was growing up, you could buy a whole box for practically nothing. Even as late as the late '50s and early '60s you could walk into an antique shop , and the owners might say: 'Oh, I have a box in the back someplace if you're interested. I'll see if I can find it.' Then you'd have to take a whole box to get the one you wanted.''
She says doll clubs began seriously forming in the '40s. ''Goodwill stores had tables full of dolls which you'd buy for 5 or 10 cents - 75 cents absolute tops. . . . It's incredibly much harder to find dolls now, you just don't see them anymore.''
As demand for dolls increases, so do the new lines of dolls available. America's Toy Fair, held this February in New York City, attracted armies of doll buyers from department stores, chains, and private outlets. This year they had more trouble than ever picking products, reports Doll Reader, from the ''astounding array of dolls commercially manufactured for doll collectors.''
Alexander Dolls has added a new Opera series including a ''Carmen'' doll and a ''Mimi'' doll from ''La Boheme.'' They also have a ''Little Women'' line, which was recently outfitted with new wardrobes (''Beth'' is wearing a pink-checked pinafore this season; ''Marme'' is wearing brown with white apron and cap; ''Meg'' is in purple).
Effanbee is continuing on the limited-edition track: its Great Moments in Literature series features a 16-inch Mark Twain in a white suit, and a 13-inch Huck Finn. Effanbee's Legend series this year features Groucho Marx, complete with black swallowtail coat, spectacles, and simulated greasepaint mustache.
Other doll developments:
* Mattel Inc., makers of Barbie dolls, has sold 120 million Barbies in 23 years. They report sales in 1981 were the biggest ever, exceeding the previous year by 25 percent. Barbie clothing is also collectible. Original outfits once worth $5 are now worth $50.
* Xavier Roberts of Georgia-based Appalachian Artworks Inc., has ''adopted out'' (the company refuses to say ''sold'') 150,000 of his Little People (as he calls his dolls) at $100 to $1,000 apiece, for sales of $7 million last year. Several of Appalachian's first creations, which sold in 1978 for $80, are now worth upwards of $1,800.
How long will the surge continue?
Arthur Alberts, a doll designer for over 20 years, thinks basic dolls will be strong for the next few years. He says the economy does not have an effect on how many dolls are sold, but on what ''price points'' are bought.
''In bad times, people shop for products that cost less but will last longer and and give more play than some fad item,'' he says. ''When they have a lot of money, they're more willing to go out and buy a product they know will only be around for three weeks before it breaks.''
Sheila Bradley, former consultant for Sotheby Parke Bernet in Los Angeles, believes the doll market hasn't fallen like the market for some antiques and collectables because people buy dolls for sentimental reasons first, and for investments second.
''Many doll collectors are recession-proof,'' says Gary Hedrick, president of the Doll Factory in West Palm Beach, Fla. ''A good number are on pensions and fixed incomes. And collecting is an obsession for many people. They give up something else rather than collecting.''