Is Next Hot Toy Back in the Cabbage Patch?

If you couldn't get your hands on a Cabbage Patch Kid during the toy store frenzies of 1984, now's your chance.

They're back -- joining other retro favorites, including Ms. Pac Man, in the sweepstakes to relive glory days as holiday season hits the stores just can't keep stocked on shelves.

"It's typical," says Jim Silver, editor in chief of Toy Wishes magazine. "Toys are a fashion business. … Things are in style and then they go out of style and they come back."

But while it's always been popular for toy companies to revive familiar brands years after they've dropped out of sight, the trend has accelerated up in recent years, industry analysts say. Recently, toy companies have had success bringing back old standbys like Shrinky Dinks, Care Bears, Pac Man, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony -- though often with new bells, whistles and electronics.

As a result, it's not just kids pestering their parents about toys they want for the holidays. Often, it's the other way around.

"[Parents] have fond childhood memories of those products themselves," says Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist with the Toy Industry Association. "It's like the smell of crayons. Gosh, everybody remembers the smell of crayons and Play-Doh. And it's just wanting to share that with your kids, that same happiness."

This year, toy makers hope another slate of old favorites will strike the same chords. While analysts say it's still too soon in the shopping season to identify this year's breakout toys, Silver's magazine predicts new versions of Cabbage Patch Kids, Ms. Pac Man, Tamagotchi, Elmo and Barbie will be among the "hot dozen" that will become scarce in stores by mid-December.

"Cabbage Patch is going to sell 2 [million] to 3 million this year," Silver believes. "That will be $40 million to $50 million. That's a large number. … I think there will be shortages some time this December."

Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, says that while Cabbage Patch Kids aren't yet scarce, they do appear to be selling at a brisk pace. And she admits to warm feelings toward the dolls herself: After buying them for her kids the first time around -- before the dolls "went into hiding" for a generation -- she now is finding them on her grandchildren's holiday lists.

And Weber senses similar feelings in customers who come in for the dolls: "It really brings moms and daughters together because it's something they shared," she says.

Too Soon to Say

Also on Toy Wishes' hot dozen list, released in early October, are non-nostalgia toys -- including Hasbro's VideoNow Color, a personal video player for kids, and Vtech V.Smile, an adaptation of video games intended to educate toddlers.

But Silver and others admit they don't yet know if their predictions about which toys will sell out this year are correct, or whether toy sales in general will recover from a slight slump in 2003. Anita Frazier, an entertainment industry analyst for NPD Group, a sales and marketing research company, says toy sales through September have been flat even compared to last year, but that may not be the story by the end.

"It's still too early to tell," she says, "because there's so many new toy releases in the holiday period, and typically 50 percent of toy sales are done in the last quarter of the year."

Silver says soon he expects to get a better sense of whether his magazine's predictions on hot toys are correct.

"You know by Sunday, Thanksgiving weekend," Silver says. "I like doing that store check that Monday after Thanksgiving, and you can see what's left."

Not So Hot?

But just because something is dubbed a "hot toy" doesn't mean it's really that hot after all, some evaluators stress. They caution the lists might be functioning hand in hand with industry hype campaigns, meaning today's latest version of Elmo could become tomorrow's Furby.

"That year when Furby came out [in the 1990s], it was the must-have toy … [and] you could find them at rummage sales six months later," says Marianne Szymanski, author of "Toy Tips: A Parent's Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices."

"We see all the toys sit and collect dust," Szymansky says. "The kids want it because they hear about it. It's just like keeping up with the Joneses. … They may be excited about getting it, but they won't necessarily play with it."

Szymanski, whose independent Web site includes research on how kids respond to toys, notes the results frequently don't match the toys that turn up on the so-called hot lists.

"Some of the toys that were on these lists did not even pass our [durability or interest] standards," she says. "Kids weren't really loving them, and weren't really learning from them, and they didn't really play with them."

Szymanski says she looks for toys that kids are less likely to grow bored with. Some such toys among the 428 evaluated on her site, she says, include Gadget Headz, a device from Crayola that recycles old crayons into toy race cars; Robosapiens, a robot toy from Wow Wee; and Aqua Doodle, an inkless drawing system from Spin Master Toys.

She stresses that with any toy -- whether found on a hot list or her site, cutting edge or retro -- should be checked out and matched to the tastes of individual children.

"Not all of the hot toys are for every child," she adds. "You know what's best for your kid."