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Toymakers aim for sales stamina, not speed

Remember the days when there were near-riots over toys? When parents pushed, shoved and stampeded to grab Cabbage Patch Kids for Christmas?

In the mid-1980s, every toymaker wanted a megahit like Cabbage Patch or Lazer Tag. But those days are gone.

Manufacturers gathered in Manhattan for the industry's trade show last week were looking for stalwarts, not superstars.

After a bout with burnouts that dragged down profits, toymakers are concentrating on creations with lasting appeal like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Little Mermaid and perennial favorites Barbie and G.I. Joe.

"The blockbuster concept has evolved from "What's the must-have toy this Christmas?' to "What's the hot property that has staying power?'

" said Harry Pearce, chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America, the trade group that sponsors the annual Toy Fair.

Past failures, more than the sluggish economy, are to blame for the new conservatism. Many companies devastated their bottom lines by shooting for the moon year in and year out.

Cabbage Patch Kids were a classic example of the runaway hit phenomenon. Coleco Industries sold $540-million worth of the dolls in 1984 and $600-million in 1985. Then, when the fad wore off, sales plunged to $230-million in 1986, and Coleco found itself in trouble.

The company, which had devoted much of its resources to Cabbage Patch products, began losing money, ended up in bankruptcy court and eventually went out of business.

The search for superstardom led to other big flops. Several companies tried to mimic the success of Teddy Ruxpin, the plush talking bear, but the popularity of high-tech dolls with big price tags soon fizzled.

Those wasted efforts and bloated expenses helped make 1987 a terrible year for toymakers. Hasbro's profits fell, and Mattel, Tonka Corp. and many smaller companies suffered losses. Worlds of Wonder, which created Teddy Ruxpin, landed in bankruptcy court and went out of business last year.

The toy industry has since rebounded _ sales of toys other than video games were up 5.6 percent last year _ but the industry has learned its lesson.

Toy company employees escorting reporters and retailers through Toy Fair showrooms emphasized past winners as much as their possible future hits.

Barbie is the star at Mattel, having racked up $840-million in sales in 1991 _ half the company's total revenue. At Hasbro, G.I. Joe dominates the company's line for boys.

Barbie, who is 33 years old, and G.I. Joe, 28, are old-timers. Mr. Potato Head, part of Hasbro's Playskool line, is 40. But they are youngsters compared to the nearly 80-year-old Tinker Toy, also a part of Playskool.

There are plenty of other veterans still in there pitching: Etch-A-Sketch by Ohio Art Co., Parker Bros.' Monopoly game and Milton Bradley's Game of Life, Colorforms and Lego blocks.

Newer toys, even big successes, tend to have shorter life cycles.

Remember Transformers, Hasbro's enormously successful line of robots in the 1980s? After racking up some $1-billion in sales over eight years, Transformers now are being shipped to overseas retailers only.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, manufactured by Hong Kong-based Playmates, are also on the wane, although they still managed to bring in $400-million in sales last year after peaking at $500-million in 1990.

The Cabbage Patch line, now 9 years old, is still selling well, although it is a shadow of its former self. The dolls and Teddy Ruxpin are now part of Hasbro.

Toymakers' caution comes not only from the sorry lessons of the 1980s, but from new management. New chairmen have taken over at Hasbro, Mattel, Lewis Galoob Toys and other companies in recent years.

"Managements are more conservative and circumspect about their projections," said Paul Valentine, an industry analyst with Standard & Poor's Corp.

That doesn't mean there won't be another megahit. But it may be a surprise when it arrives.

"You can't plan for it.



. Something may come out of left field," Valentine said.