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Sunday, January 3, 1999 Published at 17:06 GMT


Toy Story: The Christmas hits

Furbies have become the Christmas Number One

BBC News Online's Andrew Yates reports on what was hot in the UK toy department this Christmas.

They are cute, cuddly and have a mind of their own and they promise to drive weary parents round the bend.

They are Furbies, and these gurgling, giggling and belching toys have become a Christmas best-seller.

Queues formed in toy shops up and down the country to buy the amazingly life-like pets, which cost around £30 and are so advanced they use chips like the ones which powered the first Apple computers.

BBC's Denise Mahoney looks at children's pestering power
But with only 350,000 Furbies available in the UK before Christmas, some children are bound to end up disappointed.

The scarcity of Furbies spawned a burgeoning blackmarket in the toys. Furbies changed hands for hundreds of pounds as desparate parents tried anything to please their kids.

Obscene prices

"It is obscene when people ask £300 for a Furby. I think anybody who pays that has got less sense than money. And you don't even know where these things have come from. There are a lot of immitation Furbies around," said Gerry Masters, secretary of the British Association of Toy Retailers.

However Mr Masters believes the headlong rush for Furbies is still not as bad as the hysteria Tele Tubbies created in 1997, where parents formed all-night queues to get hold of the much sought after dolls.

That is because the Christmas toy battle proved to be even more heated than usual, with a large number of play things vying for children's affections.

Bouncing back

The Furbies faced strong competition from a more traditional form of entertainment.

[ image: Yo-yo's almost bounced furbies from the top spot]
Yo-yo's almost bounced furbies from the top spot
It has proved to be yo-yo-yo rather than Ho! Ho! Ho! this Christmas.

The humble yo-yo has taken the UK by storm this year. Retailing for anything from a few pounds to the top of the range models, which are made from aluminium normally used to build aircraft and being sold at Hamleys' famous Regent Street toy shop for £110, the yo-yo has proved a popular present for kids of all ages.

"The volume seller has been the good old yo-yo. A lot of retailers are saying that the yo-yo is the number one seller when they are short of Furbies. I think demand will continue to be strong. It is the 70th birthday of the yo-yo (next year) and competitions and world championships are planned," said Mr Masters.

Bags of fun

Then there are Beanie Babies. The US craze for the loveable bean bag cuddly toys crossed the Atlantic.

[ image: Shoppers have used underhand methods to buy Beanie Babies]
Shoppers have used underhand methods to buy Beanie Babies
Many shops rationed sales of Beanie Babies to one per customer because demand was so great. But rationing caused devious customers to try underhand tactics to get hold of the toys.

Some parents wore reverseable jackets to try and fool shop staff, turning their coats inside out when after purchasing their first Beanie Babie in an attempt to buy more. Others resorted to stopping people and offering them money to go in and buy the prized bean bags.

The Britannia, adorned in the Union Jack, and special Christmas Beanie Babies proved to be the most popular buys.

Perennial favourites like Action Man and Barbie also featured prominently - remaining popular with children and nostalgic parents alike.

And the Telly Tubbies, which topped the charts in 1997, had another good year.

Other favourites

Other top 10 toys included the C-Watch, described as a time keeper with attitude, the Scooter Robot, a radio controlled robot that can talk in three different voices and carry a tray, and Baby Born, an advanced doll.

Outside the Top 10, interactive toys have been especially popular. Dancing Babies also proved to be a hit. Popularised by the US television comedy Ally McBeal about a frustrated single twenty-something, they originated on the Internet when they were commissioned by a software company, Kinentix, to advertise its products.

[ image: The toy industry has had a mixed Christmas]
The toy industry has had a mixed Christmas
Dancing Babies have become a cult on the web, spawning a host of new sites devoted to the infants who gyrate to popular tunes.

And now Dancing Babies have moved from online to on the shelves.

Surprisingly, educational toys also proved popular.

"People are now very concerned that their kids get into computers as soon as possible - because it is so important," said Mr Masters.

Recession looming

Beyond the Christmas hype there are real fears that toy shops face a tough time ahead.

The UK toy market is worth more than £1.6bn a year, but the UK economy is heading for a sharp slowdown and retail sales have fallen as workers become more concerned about job security.

[ image: Internet toy sales have increased sharply]
Internet toy sales have increased sharply
With almost two thirds of sales occuring in the run up to the festive period, Christmas is vital. However retailers appear to have had a mixed time of it this year.

"It is not a bad year overall. Smaller retailers have been blessed by things like Beanie Babies and yo-yo's throughout the year. In some areas of the country, the toy sector has bucked the trend experienced by other retailer sectors. But up in the North it is a bit tough due to fears about loss of jobs," said Mr Masters.

Some customers are also waiting to buy cut price toys in the sales. "Even the kids are getting canny, only wanting a few toys now and waiting for the January sale," said Mr Masters. With some stock moving slowly, the sales this year could prove to be bigger than ever before.

But shoppers looking for a cheap Furby are likely to be disappointed. Demand is likely to remain strong for sometime to come and retailers will not cut prices.

Toying with the net

Whatever happens next year to toy sales, it is clear that the Internet is becoming more important to the industry.

The example of the Dancing Babies shows how the Internet can have a significant influence on the wider toy market.

And the Beanie Babies official web page (run by the manufacturer Ty) has generated a staggering amount of interest, recording billions of page views.

Some limited edition, or 'retired' Beanies Babies now change hands for thousands of dollars in Internet auctions.

May the force be with you

But just as battle-weary parents relax after their festive shopping spree - bets are already being taken on what will be next years Christmas hit.

A new favourite has already emerged. Sales of Star Wars toys are likely to take off. The new prequel to the Star Wars trilogy is likely to prove a box office smash - and industry giant Hasbro is introducing a vast array of new toys to titilate youngsters.

So as the festive period is upon us there is only one thing to say - good luck next year and May the Force be with You.

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Internet Links

The Furby official website

An unofficial Dancing Babies website

British Association of Toy Retailers


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