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No Hit Toy to Brighten Retailers’ Christmas

With Christmas less than two weeks away, the toy industry has no runaway hit — leaving many toy shoppers bored and complicating how stores sell holiday inventory.

CNBC.com

“We are not seeing people clamor for any single item,” Stephanie Lucy, vice president for toys at Target , said by e-mail.

The hitless season has retailers stocking less, leaning on classic items rather than new ones and possibly discounting less in the final days before Christmas. And with no Tickle Me Elmo or Zhu Zhu Pets to draw crushing crowds to the toy aisles, most retailers are being careful not to get stuck with unsold toys.

“As retailers look at consumer confidence numbers, they are skeptical about consumers’ willingness to spend this holiday season, and they are trying to avoid getting caught with too much inventory,” said Josh Green, chief executive of Panjiva, a supply-chain data company.

LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer, Hot Wheels Wall Tracks, Lalaoopsy Silly Hair dolls and some Lego sets are sold out or hard to find in many parts of the country, but that is mainly because of consistent demand rather than growing waves of frenzied shoppers.

In fact, more than half of parents recently surveyed by UBS and America’s Research Group said they felt there was no must-have toy this year, and more than one-third said it was hard to find toys and gifts because nothing was new. Both responses were higher than those in the survey last year, when Squinkies, Paper Jamz and Zoobles were among the most talked-about new toys.

Part of the doldrums this year stems from retailers’ conservatism. After loading up on toys in 2010, major stores like Wal-Mart “ended up with a pretty substantial toy overhang that had to be liquidated in the January time frame,” said Eric Johnson, director of the center for digital strategies at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who studies the toy industry.

Retailers have cut down on toys overall — imports of toys in August and September, important months for building holiday inventory, dropped by 9.8 percent compared with last year, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Panjiva.

Yet not every product is being cut. Shipments of Legos into the United States in August, September, October and November rose about 155 percent from the same period last year, while those of Hot Wheels rose 43 percent and Barbie merchandise rose 17 percent, according to an analysis of Customs data by Panjiva.

Meanwhile, shipments of the heavily marketed new items such as Angry Birds toys or Lalaoopsy dolls — none of which has amounted to a breakthrough hit, though they are hard to find — came in at much lower levels than last year’s hot toys.

“Couple that with the increase in shipments of the classics, and it’s a sign that regardless of the talk, when retailers are actually placing orders, they’re doing so with a very classic mind-set,” Mr. Green said. “One sign of caution is betting on products that people know and understand.”

The good news for many retailers is that the smaller supplies are leading to early sellouts, and, in some cases, higher prices. Gerrick Johnson, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets, said his rough tally shows that in December Wal-Mart has had 12 of the most popular toys in stock less than 40 percent of the time, while Target had them on shelves 50 percent of the time, and Toys “R” Us had them in stock about 60 percent of the time. (Toys “R” Us said last week that it was bringing in new supplies of top sellers, like the LeapPad, in time for Christmas.)

With such low inventory levels, Mr. Johnson said, “as we get closer to the holidays, you’ll see less and less price promotion.”

Adding to the higher prices, Wal-Mart does not seem to be as aggressive about low prices on toys this year, said Eric Johnson of Dartmouth. “Three or four years ago, Wal-Mart was coming out year after year with these jaw-dropping prices, and just pounding everyone,” he said. But this year, Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest retailer, does not appear “to be using toys as a loss leader,” he said.

Tara Raddohl, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said by e-mail that it keeps “a close eye on other retailers and adjust our prices proactively for customers so they don’t have to do homework to get the best prices.” However, she said, unlike last year, inflation on the manufacturing side has led to “some price increases.”

Wal-Mart “will do all we can to hold off on price increases as long as possible,” she said, “but there are times when, due to market conditions, we have to pass along price increases.”

Even without giant price cuts, Wal-Mart’s toy sales have eaten into those of Target and other retailers because of another sign of the economic times: layaway.

In October, Wal-Mart brought back layaway, which it discontinued in 2006, saying that its shoppers were on such tight budgets that they needed to pay a bit at a time for gifts like toys and electronics. Company executives said the program has been more popular than expected, particularly in toys. Target acknowledged that its toy business had been affected by the Wal-Mart program.

“Wal-Mart’s layaway program has certainly hurt us in November,” said Kathryn A. Tesija, Target’s executive vice president for merchandising, in a call with analysts last month. “Toys is off to a slow start, and I think that’s going to be a bit of an uphill climb for us this year, although we’re still optimistic about the rest of the fourth quarter.”

Though some products are sold out, and some have higher prices Mr. Johnson of BMO Capital Markets said that over all, retailers had set their expectations so low that they had created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Even if consumers do show up and spend, we think there’s little opportunity to capture upside, as both retailers and manufacturers have been quite cautious in terms of procurement of toy inventory,” he said. He predicted toy sales would be about flat this year compared with last, adding, “that’s about as weak as it gets for the toy category.”

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