Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Cabbage Patch Kids have been reborn, and Ms. Pac-Man is back to gobbling up ghosts.

Toy companies have gone retro and are banking on memories of Shrinky Dinks, Care Bears and the Easy Bake Oven to spark sales. Nostalgic toys — a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s — are resonating with parents and grabbing the attention of a new generation.

“Young parents who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s want to share their memories with their kids,” said Julie Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association. “They have an instant connection with the brand. It really strikes a chord.”

Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears, My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake are listed on the National Retail Federation’s top toys for girls this holiday season.

For manufacturers, the reintroduction of a toy or a revamped version of a classic is not a risky investment.

“They are almost guaranteed hot sellers,” Ms. Livingston said.

That’s evident by some of the half-empty shelves at local Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Target stores.

EToys, an online toy store, had shoppers pre-order Cabbage Patch Kids in the summer. But the feature was so popular the site had to stop offering it.

“There’s obviously a demand,” said Sheliah Gilliland, spokeswoman for EToys. “The whole retro and nostalgic trend has been big.”

The site has not sold out of the dolls.

Play Along, a toy company in Florida, reintroduced the original Cabbage Patch Kids this year. The one-of-a-kind dolls have been sold since they sparked the buying frenzy in 1983 during which parents fought each other for the last doll on the store shelf.

Various toy companies manufactured the dolls throughout the years, and they lost their momentum.

Play Along decided to bring back the original dolls, complete with their original yellow packaging, and focused on the dolls’ uniqueness — from the color of their hair and eyes to their dimples and adoption papers.

Next fall, Play Along will create Cabbage Patch Kids that can be personalized. The dolls will come with blank birth certificates and adoption papers. Play Along President Jay Foreman hopes gift givers will search for the exact hair and eye color of the recipient and then customize the doll with his or her name.

“We’re going to try to re-create some of the excitement,” Mr. Foreman said. “Parents might have to go to four or five stores to find the right doll — that puts a little bit of the fun back into it.”

Play Along also reintroduced Care Bears in 2002, appealing to collectors and the tween and teen market. A few months later, the company introduced an updated version of the bear line appealing to a younger crowd.

The Care Bear business has grown every year, Mr. Foreman said.

Play Along began in 1999 with a Britney Spears doll line and has continued to manufacture other licensed toys.

“I’m really convinced we are in a very special 20-year cycle,” said Mr. Foreman. “Twenty years ago, there were some incredible toy lines.”

More companies are capitalizing on the trend.

Despite the onslaught of graphic-heavy video games from Xbox to Playstation, simple games like Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and Sega Genesis have found prominent space on store shelves.

“There’s no complicated plot lines or tricks,” said Anne-Marie Feliciano, a spokeswoman for Jakks Pacific, which makes plug-and-play games like Ms. Pac-Man and owns Play Along. “You score as many points as possible or try to get to the next level. Simplicity really sells.”

Instead of a bulky console, the games are housed in a small control that plugs directly into the TV. For example, 10 classic Atari games like Asteroids and Pong are built into the joystick.

Well-known brands have been tweaked and in some cases modernized technologically to appeal to today’s children but keep the same premise.

Hasbro’s Lite Brite, developed in 1967, introduced a flat-screen version this year and a four-sided cube in 2002.

My Little Pony, introduced in 1983, went off the market in the early 1990s. Later that decade, the brand was brought back but targeted to older girls. The concept didn’t work.

Last year, Hasbro brought back the original line, appealing to young girls between the ages of 3 and 6.

The Easy Bake Oven has never disappeared. While the oven that makes mini-cakes and brownies still exists, Hasbro upgraded the concept last year with its Easy Bake Real Meal Oven, which makes everything from macaroni and cheese to pretzels.

“We changed the oven to reflect contemporary times and to reflect the generation of today,” said Audrey DeSimone, a spokeswoman for Hasbro. “In the toy business, you are playing to the imagination and whim of children.”

Toy company officials say a child’s imagination is exactly what they are appealing to.

“We’re getting back to traditional play patterns,” said Harold Chizick, director of marketing communications for Spin Master.

The Toronto toy company makes the Shrinky Dinks Maker, an oven that cooks the plastic art project and shrinks it.

Shrinky Dinks has been on and off the market since it was invented in 1973.

“In my mind, I think Shrinky Dinks have evolved to be like clay or paper,” said Betty Morris, who invented Shrinky Dinks. “As long as someone offers something to do with it, there are so many things that can be made.”

The Shrinky Dinks Maker was created in fall 2001, and more than 1 million ovens have been sold since, Mr. Chizick said.

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