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Hottest gifts: From cuddly Care Bears to fancy flat screens

Retro all the rage in toy stores

By Tal Mekel

Strawberry Shortcake  -- the first ever scented doll -- debuted in 1980.
Strawberry Shortcake -- the first ever scented doll -- debuted in 1980.

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Top five predicted holiday toys for 2003 season
For girls:
3.Leap Frog
4.Dora the Explorer
5.Care Bears

For boys:
2.Game Boy related
3.Video Games
4.Hot Wheels
5.PlayStation related

Source: National Retail Federation

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) - Many years, one holiday gift stands out from the rest, thanks to word of mouth, ubiquitous marketing and persistent kids. Some shoppers will stop at nothing - whether it's trampling others, driving miles out of their way or paying much more than market price - to get their hands on the year's hottest gift.

Some of the big names of the past include Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983 and Tickle-Me Elmo in 1996, but toys aren't the only items that can captivate the American shopper. Michael Jordan's signature shoes caused a mad rush in the late 1980s, and when DVD players went under the $200 mark, they too were hard to find.

So far in 2003, no single superior gift has emerged, but there are plenty of candidates.

This shopping season, a journey to the mall might feel more like a trip down memory lane, as updated versions and snazzy packaging create comebacks for many past favorites.

Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Care Bears, Transformers, He-Man action figures and those Cabbage Patch Kids cover the shelves at stores like Toys "R" Us and FAO Schwarz. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is one of many places offering Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.

"People who grew up with these toys in the 1980s are now becoming parents and bringing them back to the market for their kids," said Patrice Duker of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a 44,000 member trade association that promotes the shopping center industry. "Also, the mood in the country is such that people are going back to what they once knew and enjoyed."

And people know G.I. Joe, which made its debut in 1964. Hasbro's military action figure gears up for battle every year and fights for a spot under the Christmas tree.

"Action figures and military games seem to be hot items," said Jackie Fernandez, a partner at Deloitte Consulting's consumer business and retail service group. "Anything that seems to be kind of combat-related seems to be moving well, in line with what's happening around the globe."

Another perennial favorite, Mattel's Barbie, introduced in 1959, dresses up as a ballerina for 2003. But she faces competition from Playmates' Disney Princess dolls, based on the studio's famous characters, including Cinderella, Ariel and Snow White.

Kids who prefer a doll with 'tude to ballet and fairy tale stars will probably prefer MGA Entertainment's Bratz dolls, a series of dolls and accessories with a more urban, hip look, FAO Schwarz's Teresa Parsons said.

"That's a big thing this year," Parsons said. "Kids like to see dolls that look like what they are seeing on MTV or the Disney Channel, a little more trendy."

The Bratz Wintertime Wonderland dolls are hip, stylish teens dressed for weather as cool as they are.  The dolls are sold separately for $29.99 each.
The Bratz Wintertime Wonderland dolls are hip, stylish teens dressed for weather as cool as they are. The dolls are sold separately for $29.99 each.

This year, video game junkies can choose to carry Nintendo's new Game Boy Advance SP, become part of the game with Sony's EyeToy interactive addition for the PlayStation 2, or return to classic games like Asteroids and Centipede with the compact update of the Atari system.

Former virtual toys Neopets come to life as Thinkway Toys'

voice-activated toy pets inspired by their counterparts on the Internet. Toy Wishes magazine lists them among this year's hottest toys.

By the way, experts don't envision a repeat of 1996's national stampede for Tickle-Me Elmo dolls. However, the furry red Muppet's latest version -- he dances the Hokey Pokey -- is expected to sell well.

Gadget guide

Improved technology and falling prices could propel electronic gadgets to the top of many shopping lists.

At the higher end of the gift-giving scale, sleek plasma screens and the less-expensive LCD monitors are becoming more affordable, though wide flat screens can still cost several thousand dollars.

"We expect to see significantly higher sales in all categories of flat TVs," said Ron Baime, senior vice president of nationwide consumer electronics retailer Circuit City. "The prices are getting much better ... they don't take up half the living room and they really appeal to all the members of the family."

The EyeToy USB camera utilizes motion-tracking technology to physically involve PlayStation 2 users with their games.
The EyeToy USB camera utilizes motion-tracking technology to physically involve PlayStation 2 users with their games.

For some gift-seekers, a new cell phone might be the answer, at a few hundred dollars or less. New U.S. regulations -- just in time for the holidays -- allow cellular users to keep their phone number when changing wireless providers. Retailers believe many consumers will take advantage of the new rule and perhaps upgrade their cell phones while they are at it.

"A lot of people kept their cell phones for a long period of time because they couldn't change their number," said Scott Blum of Internet shopping site Blum also pointed out that many new cell phones come with built-in digital cameras and PDAs.

Retailers also expect hot holiday items to include digital cameras, portable mp3 players, DVD recorders and portable DVD players.

Tooling around

Signaling a trend this year, home-improvement giant The Home Depot joined retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Lands' End by releasing a holiday catalog -- its first ever -- but highlighting power tools, not clothes and accessories.

Although tools are always a popular gift, current low interest rates and a proliferation of home-improvement TV shows may spur sales.

"People have more disposable income from refinancing their homes ... things for the home, appliances and do-it-yourself hardware are all up from last year's spending," said Deloitte's Jackie Fernandez. "Whatever media events are out there always have some kind of impact on the consumer."

Shopper Charles Harris said he had home improvement on his mind.

"I would like a chainsaw to do some work in the back yard," Harris said during a visit to an Atlanta mall with his wife and daughter. "Home is a man's castle, so you certainly want to make it worthwhile." (Gallery: My must-have holiday gift)

Personal touch

This year's nostalgic theme isn't just for toys. Sweaters, handbags, robes and hats emblazoned with monograms imitate decades-old fashion styles familiar from movies like "Grease" or TV shows like "Laverne & Shirley" and "Happy Days."

"Initialing and personalization has gone through many cycles, and what's old is new again," said Anne Keating, senior vice president of Bloomingdale's. "It can go for children's gifts, it can go for man and wife gifts ... it's a little more thoughtful."

Some shoppers are unmoved by gadgets, toys or clothes. While shopping at an Atlanta mall, Norma Miller, 43, crossed her fingers for a life-changing gift.

"For myself, an engagement ring," she said. She added that it doesn't even have to be a diamond ring.

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