NEW YORK (Reuters) - Coming off a year in which U.S. toy sales fell 2 percent, toymakers and buyers at the 109th American Toy Fair in New York are looking for the elusive runaway hit that failed to materialize in 2011.
The industry has reached back to the past hoping Ninja turtles and caring stuffed bears from the 1980s, accessories that play with the hottest gadgets of today and a cuddly dog that has scored fame on Facebook, will turn around flagging sales this year.
"Although the down economy still presents many challenges, at the end of the day, kids will always want the latest and greatest toys. Technology and value will continue to be key factors in purchasing decisions," Jeremy Padawer, EVP of Marketing for Jakks Pacific Inc.
In 2011, gadgets like iPads and smartphones were top consumer sellers, and toy companies big and small are betting on "AppCessories," playthings that come to life when hooked up to popular devices such as Apple Inc's iPad, iPhone and iPod, to woo tech-savvy kids who have grown up playing on their parents' smartphones or their own gaming consoles.
"It's a nice way to bridge the generation gap because a lot of these games are games that adults are going to have fun playing too," said Adrienne Appell, toy trends specialist with the Toy Industry Association, which runs the four-day toy fair and expects more than 33,000 people. That is up almost 4 percent from last year.
For example, Mattel Inc showed off its "Apptivity" line. It included many items such as the Hot Wheels Apptivity Car that allows kids to use iPads as race tracks. Mattel said a special anti-scratch technology on the vehicle ensures iPad screen surfaces go unscathed.
"In keeping with today's tech-savvy families, this new category merges physical toy play with tablets," said Chuck Scothon, senior vice president of marketing at Mattel's North America unit.
Hasbro Inc has its "zAPPed" gaming platform. Privately held rivals such as Spin Master, Crayola, WowWee and Discovery Bay also had offerings in the appCessories arena.
But hits from the past, as well as toys made from basic fabric and stuffing, also vied for attention.
Nickelodeon and Playmates Toys revealed a new line of action figures, vehicles, ninja gear and other toys inspired by Nickelodeon's new CG-animated "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which is set to premiere in the Fall. The turtles first hit the small screen in 1987, according to their official website.
American Greetings Corp is relaunching another 80's hit, Care Bear plush dolls, which are celebrating their 30th anniversary.
Other plush toys were on display as well.
Gund, one of the oldest plush toy makers in the United States, unveiled what could potentially be a runaway hit with dog lovers.
It launched the first plush version of the "Boo," a Pomeranian that has over 3 million Facebook fans. Priced at $20, the plush toy won't be available in stores until spring, but thousands have already preordered it on the company's website.
"We saw Boo on Facebook. We thought it will translate really well," Vince Smart, vice president of marketing at Gund, a division of Enesco LLC. Gund contacted Boo's owner, who has chosen to be anonymous, on Facebook.
Cuddle Barn launched Beaver Plush, a collection of plush characters that come to life by singing popular songs. The 12-inch plush beaver features Justin Bieber's hit song "Baby," and a baseball cap tilted to the side.
Then there is Lego, the Danish toy maker whose colorful building blocks do well even during weak economic times.
Lego unveiled three new DUPLO concepts that were designed specifically for the U.S. market. It includes items such as "Read & Build", a series of preschool board books and a collection of DUPLO bricks that, together, hope to make 'read to me' time more fun. Lego also displayed a new line for girls and a host of toys themed on movies such as "Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit," and Marvel and DC Universe super heroes.
Shopper dynamics are still impacted by the economy, but we haven't seen any alarming trends in consumers trading down," said Soren Torp Laursen, president of Lego Americas.
There was also no dearth of toys supporting good causes.
MGA Entertainment is supporting the fight against cancer by launching new hairless versions of their hit doll brands, Bratz and Moxie Girlz, while Growums gardening kits from Preferred Commerce Inc encourage children to grow their own vegetables and eat healthy.
There was also a huge selection of toys based on movies, especially the two films from Marvel that are coming out this year: "The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spider-Man."
Reporting By Dhanya Skariachan; Editing by Bernard Orr