Barbie may not be the most popular girl under Christmas trees this year.
Dolls with big hair, urban chic clothing and names such as Cloe, Jade and Sasha are likely to be the hottest toys this holiday season, while interactive educational toys with flashing lights and animation are also proving popular.
"Everybody wants bells and whistles. Toys have to do stuff," said California-based toy buyer Colleen Ho, as she trawled the displays at Hong Kong's annual toy and gift fair, Asia's largest since the SARS outbreak with 4,600 displays and up to 60,000 visitors.
Toys for this Christmas were ordered long ago, but buyers are searching for the next hot trend among Chinese producers who make up to 70 percent of the world's toys for export.
Searching among colourful skateboards, plastic puzzles and knock-off versions of blonde plastic dolls, buyers said they had yet to spot the next big toy trend, leaving any last-minute Christmas must-haves off this season's shopping list.
Last year's big Christmas hits were Harry Potter toys, following the runaway success of books and films about the boy wizard. Past winners have ranged from the aluminium Slinky to the plastic Mr Potato Head along with Sony Corp's video PlayStation console and the Cabbage Patch doll.
The US National Retail Federation, which represents 1.4 million retailers, expects total US holiday sales to reach $217 billion this season, up 5.7 percent from last year, bolstering hopes of a sustainable recovery for the world's largest economy and the largest buyer of Asian exports.
Jeffrey Lam of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries sees toy exports from China and Hong Kong increasing by about four percent this year to about $6 billion.
"This Christmas should be on par with last year. The US market is actually quite stable," Lam said.
SPECIALISED CLOTHING FOR DOLLS
MGA Entertainment's Bratz fashion dolls, which come with specialised clothing sets for events like a first date, shopping sprees or beach outings, should prove particularly popular with young girls, Ho said.
Much of their success comes from integrated merchandising, with girls able to buy clothes and accessories to dress themselves like real life versions.
Especially popular among the Bratz collection is the Bratz Formal Funk Super-stylin' Runway Disco, a fashion show playset with makeup counter, dressing room and smoothie bar.
Colourful handheld computers made by Leapfrog that teach spelling and tell stories are also expected to be top sellers, according to Lawrence Chan, executive vice president of the Toy Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong.
Chan also saw strong demand for PowerTouch Learning system, an interactive learning device from Fisher-Price, a unit of the world's largest toy maker Mattel, that teaches reading skills.
Overall toy orders from America's three largest toy retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Toys R Us and Target Corp, have been slightly higher than last year, said Chan.
"The difference is the placement for orders is coming in later, creating a lot of production headaches for short term deliveries," he said.
Chan blamed the SARS virus which brought visitor traffic to Hong Kong and China to a standstill during the spring, when buyers traditionally place their Christmas orders.
But with global consumer confidence returning, buyers are back in Asia looking to spot the next big trend.
"People want all the things with flashing and lights. No wood, no fancy things," said one Dutch toy buyer after inspecting a line of styrofoam Boogie boards.
With much of Santa's workshop now based in southern China, the combination of traditional toys with embedded electronic chips has boosted buyer's expectations for high-tech items.
"There has to be electronic displays, animation, lights, dancing and music," said Ho.
(Agencies via Xinhua October 23, 2003)