NEW YORK (AP) -- Santa isn't set to arrive for seven more months, but it sure looks like Christmas right now at the nation's toys stores.
Thanks to the lineup of much-awaited ``Star Wars'' merchandise and continued demand for anything tied to Pokemon and Furby, toy shops -- both big and small -- say business is booming during what is typically the slowest time of the year.
That's good news following a disappointing 1998, when a shortage of blockbuster hits caused sales of toys to fall.
``I can't believe how many people are here,'' said Stephanie Klein, on a recent visit with her son to FAO Schwarz in New York. ``This is the time of year that you aren't supposed to wait in line.''
Spring time usually is quite slow for toy retailers, who make the majority of their money during the fourth quarter as consumers buy gifts for the holidays.
Sales a year ago were particularly soft, after movies such as ``Godzilla'' and ``Mulan'' were big disappointments at the box office and failed to spur toy sales.
But this year, merchants are getting a big sales jolt in the off-season. In recent weeks, there have been reports of crowds jamming stores and checkout lines running 10-people deep -- hardly typical for May.
Adding fuel to the buying-frenzy: a healthy U.S. economy that is giving Americans extra money to spend, combined with a wider assortment of must-have toys than in years past.
``These popular toys are the catalyst to draw them to the store,'' said Alan Marcus, a spokesman for FAO Schwarz. ``But many are buying something else once they are in the store.''
That's what Gina Diaz did this week while at FAO's New York store. After grabbing a few ``Star Wars'' action figures for her nephews, she also bought some Play-Doh and a Barbie doll for her nieces -- both impulse purchases.
``I usually avoid toy stores except for Christmas,'' said Diaz, who is from the Bronx borough of New York. ``But I came for the ``Star Wars'' stuff and I decided to get a few other things while I was here just for fun.''
The new ``Star Wars'' merchandise -- from action figures to spinning lollipops -- hit store shelves on May 3.
While the first wave of buyers has been made up mostly of adult collectors, retailers anticipate demand to really soar once the film hits theaters on May 19 and children then want the toys they've seen on the big screen.
Merchants are also confident that traffic will continue through the summer as toymakers stagger the release of new ``Star Wars'' products over the next few months.
Also luring shoppers is the Pokemon craze, which hasn't slowed a bit since taking off late last year. More than 2.6 million of the $30 Nintendo Game Boy video games based on the fantasy Japanese cartoon have sold, and the hot-selling trading cards tied to the show's 150 animal characters are scarce nationwide.
``We are at the point that the cards are so popular that kids even want them in Japanese,'' said Bart Kaplan, manager at The Toy Box, a small toy shop in Thornwood, N.Y. ``I sold out of 600 packs in four days. It was incredible.''
Furby, meanwhile, remains the best-selling doll on the market. Since Christmas, more than three million have sold and retailers continue to bring in the talking, furry dolls from Asia by plane to keep up with demand.
New to toy stores -- but attracting crowds on the West Coast -- are Tech Deck Fingerboards, miniature tabletop skateboards that look like the real thing but are operated with fingers rather than feet.
``Everyone was worried about what this year would be for the toy industry,'' said Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy industry consultant. ``But it has turned into a really amazing year and Christmas is in seven months.''
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