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US Sales of Toy Guns Went 'Pop' Last Year

But, overall, the toy business enjoyed an all-time boom in '94

THE six-shooter does not pack the wallop it once did.

Long a staple at toy stores, the toy gun has seen sharply lower sales over the past year, thanks in good measure to retail boycotts. ''It's the only decline I've seen since I've been at the company, which is eight years,'' says Daniel Shure, president of Strombecker Corporation.

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Chicago-based Strombecker, which has about a 70 percent share of the cap-gun market, saw gun sales plummet 25 percent to $35 million in 1994, Mr. Shure said at the world's largest toy fair, held annually in New York. Industry-wide, wholesale toy-gun and weapon sales fell from $220 million in 1993 to $187 million in 1994, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA), the industry trade group.

High noon for toy-gun makers came last fall when police in New York killed a boy holding a toy gun and wounded another, believing that the guns were real. Toys 'R' Us Inc., Bradlees Inc., Kay-Bee Toys, and other stores soon after halted toy-gun sales.

But Shure says he is confident that the toy gun will rise again. ''As long as soldiers, policemen, and cowboys are going to be role models, the demand is going to be there,'' he says.

The toy business overall enjoyed an all-time boom in 1994 -- up 7.2 percent to $16.4 billion in wholesale revenues over the prior year, fueled by Power Rangers and other action toys.

Off year for video games

Another industry giant, video games, had an off year, TMA reports. The industry sold $3.8 billion wholesale in video games last year, a dip of almost 2 percent.

The president of industry giant Sega of America, Thomas Kalinske, says the numbers are down because it was hard to repeat the phenomenal success of 1993. Video games connected to television sets are also seeing greater competition from a new generation of CD-ROM computer games. But Mr. Kalinske says he expects pure video games to continue to far outpace computer games for the foreseeable future.

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Computers are not going to replace a machine dedicated to games, Kalinske said in an interview. ''The standards of PCs have to get up to our standard.''

For a parent, the choice today is between sinking $2,000 into an all-purpose, state-of-the-art home computer to play games as opposed to spending about $100 for a typical Sega unit, which only plays video games, he says.

As video-game manufacturers battle it out with the latest generation of computers, other toy manufacturers are crowding into video's domain by fusing high-tech with traditional toys.

Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, board-game manufacturers both owned by Hasbro, are slowly introducing computer versions of traditional favorites such as Monopoly and Scrabble, but sales are still modest, officials say.

''It's nothing that's terribly enticing to us,'' says George Ditomassi, Hasbro's chief operating officer. ''I don't think standard board games translated into electronics are as exciting for children.''

But as CD-ROM becomes more widespread, Mr. Ditomassi envisions a new generation of board games fusing old rules with wild new graphics and sound. With such technology, a Monopoly player instructed to ''Go to Jail, Do Not Pass Go,'' might actually experience the sights and sounds of prison on the computer.

The big obstacle to date has been a development cost of about $1 million per CD-ROM game, Ditomassi adds.

Movie and TV toys

An area of booming growth in the toy field is tie-ins to movies and tv, and many toymakers are rushing into themes they hope will be popular years from now.

Micro Games of America, which is based in North Hills, Calif., is actively promoting a line of toys connected with the Star Wars movies, not so much because of their past popularity, but because three more sequels are expected later this decade, says associate product manager Kristin Schlotthauer.

Game companies are also trying to reap some of the lucrative rewards of the licensing craze by selling rights to their own products. TSR Inc., maker of the cult-favorite Dungeons and Dragons game, now generates 5 to 10 percent of its total revenue by licensing to everyone from button companies to filmmakers shooting movies based on their games, according to sales director John Danovich.

That amount is expected to rise to half of the company's business over the next few years, he says. ''Licensing 20 years ago was more of an advertising function than anything else,'' he says. Today ''it's a lot of money, an awful lot of money.''

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