Wish lists for Santa, from both the naughty and nice, traditionally include play products the industry hopes will be a hit.
Besides Barbie dolls, this year's top 15 hottest-selling new toys on the domestic front include Star Wars and Batman and Robin action figures and a menagerie of small electronic cyberpets. But this year, as last, most of the action will come from Hollywood.
Licensed products are the name of the game in Toyland. Industry observers agree that is why both Hasbro Inc. of Pawtucket, R.I., and Galoob Toys Inc. of South San Francisco, Calif., earlier this year traded equity positions in their companies to Lucasfilm Ltd. In return, they got a licensing agreement with filmmaker George Lucas for products based on three upcoming Star Wars films.
The licensing success of Star Wars toys significantly reshaped the competitive toy industry, according to Sean McGowan, senior vice president of toys research at New York-based investment firm Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co. Inc. McGowan expects holiday toy and video sales to be strong this year.
``We estimate full-year retail toy sales will rise 9 percent and could increase as much as 10 percent,'' he said.
Star Wars figures and vehicles by Hasbro and Galoob will drive much of that, but Tickle Me Elmo, Beanie Babies and Tamagotchi, the cyberpet that comes in a plastic egg, are still hot, he said.
McGowan said U.S. shipments of Star Wars toys — about $225 million last year — will jump to more than $400 million in 1997. That number represents a significant chunk of the industry's action-figure toy segment, which totaled $1.12 billion in 1996, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America Inc. in New York.
The 290-member trade association estimates the retail size of the U.S. toy market at $20.7 billion and calculates that $350 per child is spent annually in the United States on toys.
In 1996, U.S. retail toy sales were estimated at $18.4 billion, according to market researcher NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. Through August of this year, sales were up 9.6 percent over the same period a year ago and since have accelerated, McGowan said.
His projection for a strong fourth quarter is shared by Wayne Stock, vice president of manufacturing at Step2 Co. in Streetsboro, Ohio. In an interview at his office, Stock said the company's sales are ``looking good.''
Step2, a rotational molder that recently expanded operations, produces a traditional line of larger plastic toys but is moving, like many other toy makers, into making smaller items.
Little Tikes, the Hudson, Ohio-based toy subsidiary of Rubbermaid Inc., experienced significantly lower sales in 1996 and its new president, Cal Eller, is looking to turn that around next year with a different emphasis on marketing.
Eller, whose background is in retail, would not disclose specific marketing plans in a recent interview at his Hudson office. However, subsequent to those comments, Rubbermaid has put its $10 million advertising account up for review.
This year's demand for Little Tikes toys has been excellent, acdording to Rubbermaid spokeswoman Lorrie Paul Crum.
"We've had great demand," Crum said in a Nov. 19 telephone interview. Two hot new plastics sellers for the company are its Revv 'n Roar Mechanics Workshop, a multiuse item that doubles as a desk, and the Mighty Explorer Sea Sub.
According to McGowan's research, slipping sales for preschool products are, in part, a result of sagging consumer demand for unlicensed preschool toys. That drop, he claims, has been caused by a decline in kids' television viewing.
Nonetheless, Hedstrom Corp. of Mount Prospect, Ill., expects to get a nice bounce from its inflatable Hopper Bing-Ball and Ball Pit Mountain toys for preschoolers.
The company, which does rotomolding, is expanding rapidly through acquisitions and anticipates a good holiday season, said James Braeunig, vice president of operations for the firm's plastics division in Ashland, Ohio.