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Consumer Reports

Retailers bemoan lack of 'must-have' products this holiday season | (KRT) The Christmas of 2003 is likely to go down in the record books as a non-event, hot item-wise.

No frantic searches for Tickle Me Elmo. No Furby riots.

But while retail watchers are wringing their hands at the lack of a hot seller, shoppers will likely be applauding because the experts are also predicting great deals for consumers this year. The lack of a few sought-after gifts this season is going to generate major price competition in both toys and electronics this season, analysts say.

"There are so many choices for kids," said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Toysellers started cutting prices in the weeks before Thanksgiving, Kavanagh said, with Wal-Mart, Target and Toys 'R Us fighting for a share of consumers holiday budgets.

Analysts for Ernst & Young list the lack of "must-have" products this year as one of the negatives for retailers in what is expected to be a good selling season. Various economists have predicted a gain in retail sales this season of 5 percent to 6 percent.

But two new surveys conducted last week, from the Conference Board and the Consumer Federation of America, say holiday gift spending may not match last year's levels.

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The lack of new products hasn't stopped retail groups from putting out lists of hot items for the season. The trend in toys this year is retro, according to the shopping center group ICSC. Toys from the '80s will be big because young parents want to remember their own childhoods, Kavanagh explained.

Tops on the ICSC list are My Little Pony Celebration Castle, Hokey Pokey Elmo and Mighty Beanz for kids; tweed clothing and fancy boots for adults; aromatherapy oils and scents; diamonds in fancy shapes and new colors; chandelier earrings; any home decor in copper, Beachy Sea Grass furniture; MP3 players, cell phones with built-in cameras and recordable DVD players.

The ICSC compiles the list by calling retail buyers and asking what they'll be promoting, Kavanagh explained, adding that the lists tend to represent items that stores will be stocking in large quantities.

"What's hot is what's promoted," Kavanagh said.

The lack of any hot items means consumers will pay more attention to retailer ads; they'll also give more Christmas ornaments as gifts, predicts Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

The reason for the lack of newness this year is fear of failure, Beemer said.

"Companies are afraid of shareholders," he said. "I think people who manufacture products are stupid."

The National Retail Federation polled 6,500 families to ask what they'll be buying for kids. Perennial favorite Barbie heads the its list for girls, followed by Bratz, Leap Frog and Dora the Explorer. For boys, cars and trucks are on top, with Game Boy-related items, video games and Hot Wheels toys following in order.

Back at the mall, Santa agreed that Barbie dolls were very popular with girls, while a few boys wanted the X-Box video game.

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© 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services