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CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Kathy O'Brien couldn't find the perfect dollhouse for her daughter Caitlin's 18-inch dolls last Christmas, the mother made one herself. The portable, fold-up house was an instant hit with Caitlin and her friends who came to play.
"Over the next month...every one of the girls left and said, 'Mom, can you ask Mrs. O'Brien where she bought that?' and I said, 'Well you know, maybe there's something here,'" O'Brien said.
Now, in time for the holiday shopping season, she is debuting the dollhouses at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair this weekend. O'Brien, an architect who sold her family's house in suburban Chicago to launch her new dollhouse business, hopes the exposure will translate to sales.
Organizers say this is the only toy show in the United States that is open to the public, and they're expecting more than 20,000 visitors looking to test new products and perhaps buy them ahead of the Black Friday hoopla next week.
The 150 exhibitors, a mix of large and small toy companies, will be competing in a market where consumers increasingly watch what they spend.
"There is a movement out there right now for families to buy more quality and less quantity," said Mary Couzin, president and founder of the event, now in its ninth year.
Holiday sales are critical for the more than $20-billion-a-year industry, with nearly 50 percent of annual toy sales generated in the fourth quarter. Sales from January through September of this year were down 2 percent from the same period last year, according to NPD, a market research company.
"There's not going to be just one toy this year that jumps out," said Reyne Rice, a toy trends expert.
Several products at this year's fair rely on technology, namely apps and the iPad, including the Spin Master's AppMATes, which are figurines inspired by the Cars 2 movie that digitally interact when placed on the screen. And there's GameChanger, which merges traditional board games with iPads.
One new toy launching at the show is the Marvel Slinger, yo-yo like devices that pick up collectible discs with Marvel characters.
For the kid who loves Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards, there are the 3D Redakai cards that move when kids turn them. Floppets, which are collectible, wearable little pets that can attach to just about anything, cost under two dollars.
And for the child who just likes a laugh, there's the Doggie Doo. The object of the game is to collect the puppy's mess.
"Boys love burping and farting," Rice said. "And that's just funny to them. It's like body humor."
One of the younger toy inventors hoping to make a splash at the show had his aha moment while playing with Legos.
Greyson MacLean, 12, a sixth-grader from Hartland, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, said he has loved Legos since the moment he could hold the plastic bricks in his hands without swallowing them. But building wasn't enough. He wanted to add details to his creations without ruining the blocks with permanent stickers, so he invented BrickStix.
"BrickStix are removable, reusable, re-stickable cling decals for Legos," he said. "The best part about them is that they just allow you to turn any little stack of bricks into anything you can really imagine," such as an animal, a flower shop or a fire station.
After launching about a year ago, the $5.99 packets are now sold worldwide, and the family business is making money, said Greyson's mother, Amy MacLean.
"I'm kind of hoping to make enough money, you know...to be paying for my own college," Greyson said. "And, you know, I'm also kind of hoping to pay for my sisters' college too."
Editing by Colleen Jenkins