Thursday February 10, 11:02 am Eastern Time

Toymakers Showcase Lines for 2000

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Will talking dogs or dolls be the must-have toys of 2000? How about Web-linked games or Harry Potter action figures?

Only a few toys will ever become nationwide selling sensations, but the scouts are ready to start figuring out which may be this year's hot toys. The hunt begins this weekend in New York when the nation's toymakers and retailers gather at the American International Toy Fair.

What will surely catch their eye: The plethora of high-tech toys that have vast interactive capabilities as well as lots of extensions of popular toys of years past, including Pokemon, Furby and Barbie.

``Technology is everywhere. That's a given these days,'' said Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy industry consultant. ``But there are a lot of other fun things out there that may pique their interests.''

Last year was a strong one for the toy industry, recovering from a disappointing 1998. Toy stores were crowded throughout the year -- not just during Christmas -- thanks to a number of popular items that enticed shoppers.

Among the big hits was anything linked to the popular Japanese cartoon Pokemon and the new ``Star Wars'' movie. Even the interactive Furby dolls, introduced in 1998, flew off store shelves, with more than 12 million units sold last year.

But now toymakers are challenged to keep the excitement going, something analysts say may not be too easy.

Jim Silver, editor of the trade magazine The Toy Book, said this may be a tough year for the toy business because there aren't any movies creating a buzz, like ``Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace'' did in 1999.

In addition, he said, there aren't many toys being talked about as the gotta-get items for 2000.

``It is not just about selling toys during Christmas. What exciting toys are they going to put out there that will bring people to the store during the other nine months of the year?'' Silver said.

Still, toymakers are confident that they have new and interesting products to show at Toy Fair, which begins on Sunday.

Technology again plays an important -- and fast-growing -- role. Many manufacturers are stepping up their offerings of ``smart toys,'' most of which are embedded with computer chips or link with computers.

Mattel's (NYSE:MAT - news) newest dolls are called Diva Starz, four figurines dressed in hip clothing that move their heads, eyes and eyelids, and can speak with whomever is playing with them and to each other. Fisher-Price has a yet-to-be-named robotic dog for preschoolers that responds only to her owner's voice.

A number of manufacturers, including Playmates, Mattel and Hasbro (NYSE:HAS - news), are featuring interactive baby dolls, which can react to sound and touch. Some also speak, and their speech improves the more a child plays with them.

Toymakers are also making a push into cyberspace with a number of new toys that connect to the Internet to be updated with new games and activities.

Radica's Norm Nutman is a sports trivia game that can tap the Web for fresh data. Hasbro's eSpecially My Barney is a plush purple dinosaur that can link online to get new games, songs and nursery rhymes.

``We are starting to see the toymakers get more and more advanced when it comes to technology, and they are making playtime so much more exciting for kids,'' said Byrne, the toy industry consultant.

But new technology isn't the only thing that will be showcased at Toy Fair.

As is always the case at the toy expo, many manufacturers will feature toys tied to popular past hits.

The Pokemon mania continues in 2000. Toy Biz has collector marbles representing the 150 Pokemon characters. Wizards of the Coast is expanding its widely popular Pokemon trading cards with 82 new cards and an instructional CD-ROM to help kids learn how to play the card game.

Tiger introduces a new companion to Furby with Shelby, an interactive doll that lives in a shell. It can speak to other Furby and Shelby dolls, and also expands its vocabulary as children play with it.

The latest addition to the Barbie craze is Mattel's Jewel Girl Barbie, who wears trendy fashions and has a more realistic body, including wider hips and a belly button -- the first time ever a Barbie has had one.

Sesame Street's Elmo will be back again with Let's Pretend Elmo by Fisher-Price. Kids can pose the red, furry doll like a monster or an airplane, and he will emulate the sounds of that thing.

And there won't a be shortage of toys tied to popular movies and television shows. Toymakers like these products because they receive free advertising from the heavy publicity that these shows get.

Tiger Electronics has an electronic tabletop game based on the TV show, ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'' Playmates will have action figures, plush dolls and electronic toys based on ``The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,'' due out this holiday season.

Mattel was awarded Thursday the much sought-after rights to make dolls, action figures and high-tech toys based on Harry Potter, the widely successful book series that is being made into a movie.

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