Plastic robots from Japan changing the shape of the toy market

The lastest hit toys are not what they appear to be. Transformers, sold by Hasbro, and GoBots, by Tonka, are plastic robots one minute and cars, trucks, and planes - even fake cassette recorders, the next. They change shape through Rubik's Cube-type twisting and echo that age-old theme , the good guys vs. the bad guys.

The success of the product category, first introduced by Tonka last January, is enough to make a Cabbage Patch doll blush. Dan Owen, marketing vice-president for Hasbro Industries, says the company will be shipping about 10 million Transformers this year - that's three times the number of Cabbage Patch dolls shipped when they were introduced last year.

By the end of March, Hasbro had booked $100 million in orders, the largest prebooking of any nonelectronic toy in the industry's history, according to Mr. Owen. ''We'll only be able to ship about $75 million to $80 million,'' he says. ''We certainly won't be able to meet demand through '84, and it will be well into '85 before we completely can.'' Tonka also is unable to keep up with demand.

(Meanwhile, the Cabbage Patch is by no means washed out. ''Demand experienced for the dolls at holiday last year is mild compared to what they are receiving on a day-to-day basis today,'' says Barbara Wruck, spokeswoman for Coleco Industries, which makes the dolls. Even though Coleco stepped up production significantly, it still is coming up short. Other new cuddly dolls, such as Mattel's Rainbow Brite line, can't keep up with the desires of little girl's hearts. Mattel was forced to stop taking Rainbow Brite orders after demand overwhelmed the company at the industry toy fair last February.)

Analysts say the reason robots and dolls are putting in such stellar performances is because consumers are shifting back to toy basics after a brief, though passionate, fling with video games. Industry Surveys, a publication of Standard & Poor's Corporation, estimates that video game sales dropped 54 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same time a year ago, leaving them with only 21 percent of the toy market compared with 34 percent a year earlier.

Because of video games, ''consumers have been softened to (paying) higher prices,'' theorizes Mr. Owen. Compared with the $39 consumers paid for some video cartridges in the past, the $22 suggested retail price for Hasbro's top-of-the-line Transformer, could appear reasonable. In the stores, robot prices start around $3 and reach into the $30 range.

Transformers and GoBots are manufactured in Japan, where the toys have been popular for years. They are action and violence-oriented characters with attachable weapons used to fight for the sides of good or evil. In Transformer lingo, the Autobots wear the white hats, warring against Decepticons. Each character has special powers, which must be decoded, and fits into a robot history now being featured in Marvel Comic Books.

While Transformers are targeted mostly at boys, ages six to 12, Mr. Owen says some type of changeable product like this is not out of the question for girls. He also says that next year's Transformers will be more Americanized.

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