Turnaround for toys?

NEW YORK — The toy industry is betting on ninja hamsters, hidden cameras, a dancing mouse, and toy versions of e-readers and smart phones to drive sales in 2010.

The industry this week is showing off the toys it hopes will be Christmas bestsellers at the 107th annual New York Toy Fair, held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The event, which concludes today, features displays by more than 1,000 toy companies and is expected to draw 32,000 visitors over the four days.

The mood at the show is one of subdued optimism, as manufacturers and retailers congratulated each other on a better-than- expected fourth quarter. Toy sales were down 8 percent for the year, at $21.47 billion, but there was a sales surge in the fourth quarter and the number of toys sold was up 4 percent for the quarter over the prior year period, according to research firm The NPD Group.

“We’re feeling pretty good about 2010,” said Neil Friedman, president of Mattel Brands. “We have a lot of great toys.”

The companies at the show range from the nation’s largest toy makers, such as Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc., to companies including South Hackensack, N.J.-based Scribblemats, which sells reusable coloring mats and other activity toys.

Scribblemats owner and ”chief scribbler” Andi Thea said she also is feeling optimistic about 2010, noting that some of the stores she sells to have told her they believe the worst of the downturn is behind them.

The ability of toy manufacturers to accurately predict what kids want, and what parents are willing to buy, has a direct impact on Wayne, N.J.-based Toys “R” Us Inc., the world’s largest toy-focused retail chain, with annual sales of $13 billion. Years when there are a number of hot, in- demand toys tend to be good years for Toys “R” Us.

In 2009, Toy “R” Us bet correctly that Zhu Zhu Pets, a battery- operated hamster toy priced at less than $10, would be a hit. This year, the company that made them, Cepia LLC, unveiled a Kung Zhu line of battling hamsters designed to appeal more to boys.

Toys “R” Us won’t comment on where it is placing its biggest bets this year, but Chief Executive Officer Jerry Storch said in a pre-fair interview that he believes “there are many strong product lines going into 2010.” Storch and the Toy “R” Us buyers have been seeing prototypes of this year’s line since last year.

“We always make a lot of educated bets on what products are going to sell and what’s going to be hot,” Storch said.

“We get it right more often than our competitors because we’re so focused on the toy market.”

A game changer in the toy world this year is the loss of the Sesame Street toy license by Mattel. That license was transferred to rival Hasbro, meaning that this year for the first time in more than a decade Mattel will not be producing a new version of an Elmo doll.

Instead, Mattel is pinning its hopes for a hot preschool toy on “Dance Star” Mickey, a doll that talks and dances to five different songs. The company brought “Dancing with the Stars” winner Donny Osmond to Toy Fair to promote the toy and to give a costumed Mickey character some dance lessons.

Mattel also is promoting the iXL “smart” toy for pre-schoolers, a device that looks a bit like a mini-iPad and lets toddlers read electronic books, listen to music uploaded by their parents, view photos and play games.

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