Cabbage Patch dolls, Transformers and Trivial Pursuit -- together they represent holiday season hype and hysteria unlike anything ever seen in the toy market.
There are crowds of shoppers lining up outside stores when they learn that a new shipment of "hot toys" has arrived. There are cheap "knock-off" copies of the higher priced originals being sold. And there are reports of some out-and-out counterfeit toys, although officials say there's no evidence of that in the Washington area.
There is also the safety question raised about some Cabbage Patch imitations that smell like kerosene and were initially described as flammable. Federal safety officials now say the copies don't appear to be hazardous.
"Toy hysteria started last year with Cabbage Patch," said Doug Thomson, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA), a New York-based trade group whose members account for 90 percent of U.S. toy sales. "And it is worse this year."
Moreover, the Washington area appears to be even more excited about toys than other parts of the nation. John Hall, the toy buyer for Lowen's, 4814 Elm St., Bethesda, said Washington-area consumers are willing and able to buy expensive toys.
Cabbage Patch dolls, for example, sell for about $35 or more; Transformers, which are robots that can be changed into cars or other things, cost $10 to $50; and Trivial Pursuit, the board game, goes for $24 to $34.
"I have talked to buyers all over the country," Hall said, "and they say their sales have been fair. But here in Washington our sales have been good."
The excitement among consumers over the toys stems from media reports of the toys' popularity and from the difficulty of finding them in the marketplace, Thomson said.
"People get the idea that the only way they can get the product is to go to the store and fight for it," he said. When a scuffle develops and someone is injured -- as Katherine Van Hart was on Dec. 2 at Bradlee's in Fairfax City -- news of the incident is repeated, he said, and "you get the feeling that it is happening everywhere."
In fact, customers typically have been orderly, said Joy Miller, toy buyer for Sullivan's, 3412 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
But there are lines whenever the store gets a shipment of Transformers or Cabbage Patch dolls, she said. When Sullivan's opened at 10 a.m., Dec. 8, there were 100 people queued up outside hoping to buy one of 48 Cabbage Patch dolls that had arrived. The first woman in the line had been waiting since 4 a.m., Miller said.
The previous Saturday, about 75 people were lined up outside Sullivan's for 300 newly arrived Transformers. "We didn't advertise that we had a new shipment," Miller said. "People found out by asking at the store, and we sold out of Transformers in about one hour."
This kind of environment, toymakers said, has resulted in an unusually high number of knock-off toys -- imitations that are similar to the original but make no claims to be the real thing.
"The knock-off is an acceptable, though not an enjoyable part of our business," Thomson said. He said that some toy firms specialize in "looking for opportunities to ride the trend. Their whole strategy is to see what the successful people are doing and then try to do something similar for a lower price."
Thomson estimated that there are probably 25 robot knock-offs in the marketplace this year, as entrepreneurs "ride the coattails" of Transformers made by Hasbro Bradley Inc. and GoBots by Tonka. Coming up with an imitation robot is simple, Thomson said, because "all you have to do is take a GoBot or a Transformer and ask yourself how you could change it, rename it and still have it do the same thing."
Cabbage Patch dolls apparently are even easier to knock-off than robots.
"You can copyright the name Cabbage Patch and the signature of Xavier Roberts, who created Cabbage Patch, but you can't copyright the principal look of the doll or the idea that it is an adoption," Thomson said. "Now the Cabbage Patch lawyers say they have copyrighted the look, but the look is a pinched face and I doubt very much that they would ever be able to prove that a pinched face -- or a round face -- is copyrighted."
Cabbage Patch lawyer Jerard Dunne disagrees.
Dunne, who has been working more than a year to get imitations off the market, said the original doll has been "accepted by the copyright office as a sculptured work of art." He said he has filed about 200 lawsuits in various cities where Cabbage Patch look-alikes have been found. Sixty to 70 percent of the imitations are knock-offs, he said, and the other 30 to 40 percent are counterfeit dolls being sold as Cabbage Patch.
No lawsuits have been filed in the Washington area. Nor have there been any clear cases of counterfeit toys being sold here, according to local and federal officials.
Henry Lee, director of the compliance office of the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said investigators have been sent to three locations -- two vending stands and one store -- in recent days to check out reports of counterfeit Cabbage Patch doll sales. But they all turned out to be look-alikes rather than counterfeits, he said. "If you didn't ask, you might think you were buying a Cabbage Patch doll," Lee said, "but if you asked, they told you that it wasn't Cabbage Patch."
Counterfeiting is going on, however, the toymakers said, and there is more of it this year than before -- for the same reason that there are more knock-offs: "Because this year there are products that are so exciting and that are getting so much attention that it provides the knock-off artist and the counterfeiter an opportunity he wouldn't have otherwise," Thomson said.
He said counterfeiters and copiers "usually go to Taiwan or Hong Kong and say, 'Make me one of these,' and they can get them immediately." Copies then are imported and sold primarily through independently operated stores, flea markets, street stands, gas stations and "toy stores that open two weeks before Christmas," Thomson said. He said it is difficult to get imitations into legitimate year-round toy stores, chain stores and major department stores because they don't want to take a chance that their goods might be impounded.
The other big Cabbage Patch question that has emerged this season concerns the safety of the look-alikes. Federal officials have seized hundreds of Cabbage Patch copies that smelled like kerosene and that were thought to be flammable. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has tested about 100 dolls seized in various parts of the country, said yesterday that the dolls passed the federal toxicity and flammability hazard tests.
Cabbage Patch isn't convinced.
"I've got one of the counterfeit dolls," said Dunne, "and everytime I smell it, I get a headache. I know I wouldn't want my 4-year-old sleeping with it.