Toys rise above the recession: The unpredictable dictates of fashion can mean a nightmare for manufacturers and panic for parents. Nigel Cope reports

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THEY are packed four deep at the Sega and Nintendo counter on the third floor of Hamleys, Britain's best-known toy shop. Perspiring in the crush, parents, uncles and aunts are queuing to get their hands on Sonic 2, the top seller this Christmas in the video game market. If they wait long enough they will be able to tick off one item on a cherished one's wish list.

Down on the second floor it is a different story. Footweary present- seekers are searching in vain for the other big craze of 1992 - Thunderbirds. Fuelled by the re-release of the television show last year, the craze has caught everyone, including the toy industry, off guard. The die-cast models of Lady Penelope in her pink Rolls-Royce (FAB 1) and the model of Tracy island ( pounds 34.99) are like gold dust. 'As soon as we get stock in, it sells out,' said Peter Skinner, Hamley's marketing manager. 'We are getting calls from all over the country. Parents are desperate.'

The two crazes illustrate different features of the toy industry. The strength of the Sega and Nintendo boom shows how little the toy market is suffering from recession. Parents are clamouring to hand over pounds 30 a time for the video games plus up to pounds 130 for the console. The pre-Christmas rush - which accounts for about 60 per cent of annual toy sales - will push sales of video games this year up to a staggering pounds 500m.

The scarcity of the Thunderbirds toys illustrates how fashion-conscious the toy market is. It is a manufacturer's nightmare and, just as with Turtles two years ago, the market has been thrown into panic. 'We just didn't know it would be this big,' said Matthew Brown, senior product manager at Matchbox, which only acquired the licence to manufacture the toys in January.

Between them, video games and Thunderbirds will help keep toy sales in Britain just above the pounds 1bn mark. Toys, it seems, are the last things parents are cutting back on. 'Toys are almost counter-cyclical,' said Brian Ellis, managing director of Hasbro, the world's largest toymaker, with brands including Sindy and the World Wrestling Federation range.

'They are a cheap present solution because you can can get a lot of toys for pounds 100 but you don't get much mountain bike or hi-fi.'

But if video games have snatched pounds 500m of the market, up from pounds 200m last year, someone must have lost out. The big manufacturers say it is not them. Hasbro says sales are up about 15-20 per cent on last year. Tomy, which hopes to have a hot seller with its Char G remote control car, claims a 25 per cent increase. But the toys that compete in the same age bracket as the video games, typically 8 to 14-year-old boys, have suffered. Hasbro admits that its Games Workshop range of fantasy games has been hit by the video boom and Tomy says sales of its traditional boxed games are down about 30 per cent.

The real losers seem to be the smaller and medium-sized companies and the non-branded toys directly imported by retailers. 'People are sticking to what they know,' Mr Ellis said.

Toy makers also feel they are taking share from other sectors like mountain bikes, upmarket training shoes, hi fi and records and CDs, although this is disputed. Halfords, for example, says advance orders for mountain bikes are up 15 per cent on last year.

Toy shops, already enjoying a good Christmas, would have an even better one if they could get more Thunderbirds stock. It is like the Ninja Turtles all over again. The Turtles shortage in 1990 was largely the fault of the retailers, who did not think the sewer dwellers would catch on, and so under-ordered. This time the manufacturers are being blamed.

When the BBC first put the 1960s Gerry Anderson creations back on screen last autumn, manufacturers had not bid for the rights to make related merchandise. So although the programme gained 5 million viewers for its 6pm Friday slot (it is now being re-run at midday on Sundays) there was nothing in the shops.

Matchbox, the British company taken over by Tyco of the US in October, acquired the licence in January but had to start from scratch because the original moulds and tooling had been destroyed.

The long lead time on toy manufacturing meant that Thunderbirds products, all made in the Far East, did not start reaching British shops until September. 'We're shipping it as fast as we can,' Matthew Brown at Matchbox said. The company has had to ration retailers. 'Everyone will get something,' Mr Brown said.

A similar Gerry Anderson craze could sweep the board next Christmas. Stingray came back to television in the autumn and rumours abound about the return next year of another puppet hero - Captain Scarlett.

But Thunderbirds is just part of a huge nostalgia boom. Barbie dolls, first produced by Mattel in 1959, are selling well. Trolls - the diminutive plug-ugly creatures with long hair, are enjoying a revival. And old campaigners like Lego, Sindy and Scalextric are holding firm. Hamleys even says sales of jigsaw puzzles are up, although it cannot work out why.

Even in the games sector it is the hardy perennials that are tipped for success this Christmas. According to a survey by the British Association of Toy Retailers, the best-selling game this year is expected to be Trivial Pursuit Genus III, an updated version of the Kenner Parker original. Also going strong are Scrabble by Spears (from pounds 9) and Waddington's Junior Monopoly (about pounds 8). One of the few genuine newcomers to the top 10 is Atmosfear (around pounds 22) by Spears, a board game played in conjunction with a video.

Part of the reason for the old names coning back, or simply living longer, is that toy companies are becoming better at exploiting established brands. 'I think we have had to work a little harder and be a bit more innovative,' Mr Ellis said, citing the video game boom as the main motivator. 'There is now much more innovation within brands.'

With most traditional toys costing a fraction of the price electronic games like Sonic 2 can command, it is a trend many recession- hit parents might welcome.

(Photograph omitted)