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These days, toyland has a digital bent

on December 24, 2013 10:19 AM

The children come day after day, lining up in the cold and snow on Main Street in Midland, Mich., to wait their turn to enter Santa’s house and whisper their Christmas longings to the jolly man in the red suit.

“Cell phone.”

“IPad.”

“Notebook.”

Sure, children still want trains and dolls and Legos and other playthings of the type that Santa might make in his North Pole workshop. But their passion for playing with toys seems to be diminishing at earlier and earlier ages.

A recent survey of 1,000 parents with children between 2 and 10 found that more than half planned to buy a tech item for their children this holiday season. About two-thirds of those planned to give a tablet or smartphone, according to the survey, which was taken for PBS Kids.

It is a confounding situation for toymakers, which, according to the Toy Industry Association and statistics compiled by NPD Group, have barely managed to eke out any gains in the past few years. And there is no super-hot, must-have toy this holiday season.

Instead, some in the industry are trying to get a piece of the tech action. For the first time, Toys ’R’ Us introduced hands-on tablet displays in many of its stores, including iPads and Samsung tablets. The company has even developed its own tablet for young children, the Tabeo e2.

But as the holiday shopping season is wrapping up, some parents have resisted.

The Easy Bake Oven, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, has been a strong seller at Walmart in recent weeks. Hot Wheels is having a good season, industry experts say, as are the Barbie Dream House and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even Mr. Potato Head is still around.

“In many ways, retro is being fueled by the virtualization of toys,” said M. Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, who has studied the toy industry.

“I think there’s a mindset in a lot of young moms that a physical toy is a good thing, it’s almost a backlash to the popularity of the app,” he said. “So they head down the toy aisle, and they find something they remember.”

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