The list of all Christmas lists undoubtedly is Santa's fabled roster of who's naughty and nice. Followed by the seasonal icon of the giving spirit--the scribbled, crossed-out, folded and refolded gift list. But lately, another kind of list has emerged as a holiday tradition.
Each year now, before you can snap a Thanksgiving wishbone, promotional top-toy lists begin appearing. Surveys and appraisals claiming to discern the season's best toys, the best-selling toys, the blockbuster toys, even the most dangerous and most violent toys, are as prolific as shopping mall Santas.
National magazines, including every major parenting and child-oriented periodical, celebrate their annual toy lists on their November covers alongside teasers for advice on handling toddler tantrums and raising grateful children. Best-toy guidebooks are published in the nick of time to steer holiday shoppers to toys worth buying. Nonprofit groups release lists shaped by their do-good agendas or in-house reviews.
Getting into the act this year, Web sites tout daily picks of the hottest new toys. "Everyone has jumped in," says Ann Davin, spokeswoman for Duracell, the battery manufacturer that for 12 years has annually conducted its Duracell Ultra Kids' Choice Toy Survey (www.duracell.com/toysurvey).
While good intentions motivate some toy listers, the bottom line often is the key that opens these lists and influences which few of the thousands of products are selected and promoted as the top toys. Indeed, how the top 20 best-selling toys fare in November and December determines the annual fate of the multibillion dollar toy industry, which sells more than half of the annual volume of toys in those months.
Last week, the NPD Group, leading marketing information analysts, reported that during the bellwether week of Thanksgiving this year, retail toy sales totaled an estimated $1.2 billion, of which the top 20 best-selling toys garnered $101 million, a 19 percent increase over last year. Biggest sellers? Mattel and Hasbro toys combined captured 90 percent of the top 20 sales. Even toys appearing on lists that aren't top-20 bestsellers benefit, however, by promoting their selection like seals of approval.
While Duracell has a vested interest in battery-operated toys, Davin says of the 29 toys selected this year for its nationwide, seven-day play tests by children at YMCA after-school programs, half were not battery-operated. The youngsters get the final call. Among the top 10 toys Duracell's "kid experts" picked: Tiger Electronics' Pokemon Challenge game, with Mattel's Hot Rocker remote-control car, Hasbro's Bop-It Extreme, DaMert's Brain-O-Matic board game and Tiger Electronics' Laser Tennis.
"The fact that eight of the 10 they selected operated with batteries recognizes that kids like the functionality of the battery-operated toys," says Davin. "Our conclusion is that kids want to be both physically challenged and mentally challenged, and there's a nice blend of toys on our Top 10 list."
While there's some overlap of top toys on the lists, there's a larger diversity of products because selection processes differ, with some lists taking a "scientific" approach and others just following hunches.
For its 11th annual "1999 Toys of the Year" list featured in its November issue, Parenting magazine used professional toy critics, children, parents and teachers as its "play testers" to narrow its choices to toys such as Folkmanis' Black Lab Puppy Puppet in the "3-5 year" category, and Oregon Scientific's Zip the Robot in the "5 years and up" category. The magazine tweaked its "birth to 1 year" category winners to items such as Playskool's Stackeroo and Discovery Toys' Picture Perfect Melody Mobile by observing babies playing with the toys at day-care centers. Meanwhile, its staff focused on consumer factors ranging from assembling the toy to its sturdiness and playability.
"Then we look for the things that really stand out and will challenge and delight kids. And usually they tend to be things that are striking in their simplicity," says Janet Chan, editor in chief of Parenting magazine. "The goal for us isn't to pick the big sellers but to pick the toys with legs--meaning what the child will delight in and learn from, but more important, will come back to again and again."
But with more toy lists competing for media and consumer attention, judgments aren't always reserved for the toys. Increasingly toy critics' harshest criticism is aimed at the other toy lists.
"It is very easy to put out a list. You get a bunch of toy releases and toys that you like and you pick them," says Chan, who dismisses some of the competition as influenced by advertisers or guided by adult sensibilities. "Better than that is, you put a bunch of toys in a room with a bunch of kids and you pick the ones the kids seem to like."
Joanne Oppenheim believes many top-toy lists suffer shortcomings that undermine their value and integrity. The author of several books on child development and play helped start a newsletter on toys and children's products 10 years ago when her daughter, Stephanie, complained there were no independent sources of parenting information for new mothers like her. The newsletter evolved into the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer organization based in New York that in November published its "Edition 2000" guide.
"Everybody has a toy list now. And the thing about it is that a lot of consumers don't know who is behind those lists, or what kind of thought is behind them," says Oppenheim, who takes pains to emphasize her toy list's objectivity and independence. "Many of the toy lists accept fees from manufacturers. We think that colors the water."
And you're dreaming sugarplum fairies if you think toy manufacturers and retailers themselves are listless this time of year, adds Oppenheim. Toys R Us's "Hotter Than Hot Picks," featured on its Web site, www.toysrus.com, is based on brisk sales and currently is promoting holiday blockbusters such as Mattel's Millennium Princess Barbie and Toy Biz's lineup of Kinder-Garden Fruit and Flower Babies. Atop eToys.com's 1999 "Hottest of the Hot" list of daily bestsellers are toys such as Hasbro's Lite-Brite and Tiger Electronics' Furby Babies.
In mid-October, PlayDate Inc. conducted its first "PlayDate '99," a media showcase of the season's "top" toys as predicted by top executives at toy and game retailers. Among its winners: Pokemon cards and figures, Playmates Toys' Amazing Ally and Mattel's Toy Story 2 lineup.
"What they are telling you is who's got the highest toy sales, which I suppose is interesting if you want to buy the best sellers," says Oppenheim.
The Oppenheim Portfolio, on the other hand, tests toys in house, and then in children's homes for two weeks. Parents are then asked if the child is still using the toy, if they would buy it, if they would recommend it to a friend. The result? A toy list that it posts on its Web site (www.toyportfolio.com) that tends to shun many of the hottest items that show up on other lists. Instead, it selects toys such as Learning Resources' Pretend & Play Teaching Telephone for preschoolers and Hoberman's Expandagon Hoberman Kit for school-age kids. "Everyone knows about Pokemon," says Oppenheim, but kids don't live on fads alone."
Neither do special-interest toy listers. The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association's annual "Holiday Picks" on its Web site (www.astratoy.org), for instance, is counterintuitive to what's hot and faddish, instead promoting toys such as Wild Planet's Night Vision Goggles and Neurosmith's Music Blocks.
To compile its list, ASTRA surveys its 386 retail members, mostly independent toy store owners. "These are not something parents will be seeing on TV or hear their children wanting because they see advertisements," ASTRA's executive director, Janet Koerner, says. "We have these wonderful products that people who shop the local specialty toy stores know about and its kind of like their little secrets."
Because specialty toy stores often are limited by their shelf space, their owners "put a lot of thought into the toys they select," says Koerner. "There is nothing scientific about it. They just tell us what they like."
Dedicated to stopping the influence of violent toys on children, the Bethesda-based Lion & Lamb Project (www.lionlamb.org) annually releases two lists. The Dirty Dozen is its choice of "12 violent toys to avoid" and the Top 20 lists "toys that transform children's war chests into toy chests."
The point, says Daphne White, Lion & Lamb's executive director, is to get parents to think about the values toys are promoting. "All toys are educational," she says. "The question when you buy a toy is, what is it you want your child to learn?"
Selected for the Dirty Dozen list this year: Hasbro's Star Wars Battle Droid Blaster Rifle and ReSaurus' NightStrike Duke action figure, among others, that White says promote violence. "Think about what message the toy is giving your child. If the toy's purpose is to shoot another toy, think what message about peace on Earth it is giving?"
On Lamb & Lion's Top 20 "good toy" list? Binary Arts' Whizmo and Klutz's Foxtail Sonic, among others. White is so committed to nonviolence in toys that she won't include any among her Top 20 that are manufactured by a toymaker that also makes violent playthings. And she gives preference to smaller toy companies that espouse the nonviolent policy.
Other lists also adhere to their own sets of standards. "We try not to pick toys that are a gajillion dollars," says Erin Van der Bellen, chief researcher with the Consumer Unit at WRC-TV. The station this year broadcast daily toy recommendations on "Liz Crenshaw's Toy Story" segments during the sweeps rating period over Thanksgiving week and put them on its Web site, publish.nbc4.com/tvsd/news4/consumer/toys99.shtml. "We don't do any guns and we don't do any mean toys."
But as book publisher and TV stations get into the holiday list act, Stevanne "Dr. Toy" Auerbach continues to conduct a year-long, one-expert search of toy shows, catalogues and stores for toys that meet her tests of beauty, utility, educational value, safety and cost. Unlike the toy lists that "are tied to the larger toy companies," she says she tries to select a toy from every company, large or small, when making choices for her Web site's (www.drtoy.com) 100 Best Children's Products of 1999 list.
"I am always looking for the newest innovation and have many from small and unheard-of companies (no ad or marketing budgets)," says Auerbach, co-author of the new book "Toys for a Lifetime: Enhancing Childhood Through Play."
Drawn to the understated and innovative as well as the classic and nostalgic, Auerbach says she reviews products from the points of view of the professional, the child, the parent and the teacher--and always asks, "Is it worth the money? Is it safe? Is it worth the time to play with? Will the child learn?"
And winners such as North American Bear's Muffy VanderBear and Chicco's Planet Discovery on her 1999 list? "I see them first and, after Dr. Toy says 'Great! Eureka! A winner!' they all jump on," she says of the crowd of toy listers now competing with her three annual lists--Best Toys, Best Classic Toys and Best Vacation Toys.
Which raises the question of whether there are too many toy lists? Parenting magazine's Janet Chan laments that by trying to rectify the problem of too little information for parents, perhaps too much is being provided. "There is a glut of child-rearing advice on parenting," she says. "Friends, radio talk show hosts, pediatricians . . . . So it is really a matter of culling what the best information is for parents. And toys is a perfect case in point."
CAPTION: Three toy testers at a YMCA after-school center play Star Wars Episode 1: Galactic Battle Strategy Game. Also pictured: Sonny the Seal, a ring-toss game, and Bullzerko, a pinball maze game.