Friday February 18, 12:43 pm Eastern Time

FEATURE-Pokemon still the rage in 2000

NEW YORK, Feb 18 (Reuters) - It may be the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, but it looks like it will again be the ``Year of the Pokemon'' in the toy business.

While other products, like those coming soon from the popular Harry Potter books, could threaten Pokemon's supremacy, the Pokemon phenomenon, fueled by a new movie coming this summer and an ongoing slew of new characters, should continue.

The juggernaut, which helped retail sales in December, has turned the Nintendo Co. Ltd. video game and cartoon character into a billion-dollar merchandising phenomenon directed at grade schoolers.

Burnham Securities analyst David Leibowitz said he would not bet against Pokemon at this point, even though there is a great deal of anticipation in the toy industry about Harry Potter products.

Leibowitz is also cautious about any toy craze. ``With a phenomenon like this, they usually don't slow down -- they go over a cliff.''

Still, since Pokemon is still relatively new, it hasn't attained the perennial popularity of Mattel Inc.'s (NYSE:MAT - news) Barbie and Hot Wheels products or Hasbro's Inc.'s (NYSE:HAS - news) Tonka and Playskool brands.

These companies continually freshen their product lines with new introductions, but the aggressive introductions of new Pokemon characters and products takes the freshening to a new level.

Pokemon, for example, ended last year with more than 150 collectible characters, and is set to add 100 characters this year, industry sources said.

``It's still the franchise to beat in the category,'' Leibowitz said. ``There is nothing at Toy Fair to indicate that Pokemon has serious competition through the first half of the year.''

Hasbro, the maker of Pokemon toys, displayed its marketing muscle with new Pokemon products during this week's American International Toy Fair in New York.

Besides the popular trading cards, Hasbro is introducing board games, coins, teddy bear-like ``plush'' Pokemon dolls and the Pokemon Battle Stadium, a computerized game where Pokemon figures ``fight'' against one another.

Pikachu, the yellow Pokemon character with the lightning bolt tail, and his rival, Meowth, will be interactive plush toys this year, sharing many of the features of Tiger Electronics' Furby.

Lana Simon, a spokeswoman for Hasbro's Tiger division, said Pokedex electronic organizers that track the training and evolution of Pokemon characters are also hot sellers.

Tiger is also releasing remote control cars, handheld games, keychain toys, walkie talkies, and a quiz game that creates stickers.

Besides Hasbro and Nintendo, another company that is also a big beneficiary of the ongoing Pokemon craze is New York-based 4Kids Entertainment Inc.(NasdaqNM:KIDE - news), which handles the licensing of Pokemon products outside Asia.

Toy store owners and buyers from big toy store chains from around the world converged on Toy Fair 2000, and their continued interest in Pokemon made clear the phenomenon is alive and well.

``The (Pokemon) licensing is real strong,'' said Peter Atkinson, managing director of Australian carnival operator Bensons Trading Co. Pty. Ltd.

``Pokemon really opened up the marketplace for the kids to collect things,'' said Paul Goldberg, general manager of Southern Hobby Chicago of Wheeling, Ill.

Japanese-influenced cartoons, or anime, are also expected to benefit from Pokemon's popularity and this could help Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, Goldberg said. Atkinson, the Australian carnival operator, also said he has high hopes for toys based on Dragon Ball Z.

But Jose Oduber, the owner of Aruba-based Travesuras Kids Store, said that, for now, children cannot get enough Pokemon.

``That's what's selling,'' Oduber said of children's taste in toys on the Caribbean island. ``It's everything. It has been a good item for us,'' Oduber said.

He said Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network has helped spread the Pokemon craze to Aruba.

Goldberg, the Chicago collectible toys wholesaler, also noted that television networks have helped spur the toy collectibles market.

``We are seeing tremendous influence from television shows,'' Goldberg said, adding that action figures and trading cards are getting the most significant boost.

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Article is quoted from Yahoo News and is not edited in any way.
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