By Dhanya Skariachan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Toy companies trying to win over choosy U.S. shoppers are under more pressure than ever to offer parents something their children will play with after Christmas, according to two industry veterans.
"With the economy the way it is, they are still going to spend on their kids," said TimetoPlayMag.com Editor-in-Chief Jim Silver, "but they are horrified of buying a toy, spending $50, and having it tossed in the closet after 10 minutes."
Silver and Christopher Byrne, the website's content director, have been compiling a list of hot toys for about a decade.
Their closely watched "Most Wanted" list released on Tuesday mostly features playthings that they believe can hold a child's attention. Items range from iStar Entertainment's $10 yo-yo like FyrFlyz toy that lets kids put on a light show to a $100 learning tablet "LeapPad Explorer" by LeapFrog Enterprises.
"Parents want value, and value can come at $10 or a $100," Silver told Reuters, adding that toy companies are increasingly offering marquee brands at a wide range of prices to win shoppers at the high and low ends.
Many are also using technology to boost the perceived value of a toy.
For instance, Spinmaster put 3-D graphics and animation on the trading cards in its Redakai game, while a stunt car by Canada's Thinkway Toys is powered by light. Both made it to the top toy list.
The list, compiled for the website http://www.TimetoPlayMag.com, gets close scrutiny from executives and analysts ahead of the holiday shopping season, when some toy companies make about a third of their annual sales.
U.S. retail toy sales are up just 2 percent from a year earlier for the 12 months ended July, according to market research firm NPD Group.
With such modest growth, cut-throat competition is a given.
Toys R Us, the world's largest toy store chain, has already broadened its assortment of exclusive products and plans to spend more on television ads this year, while discounter Wal-Mart Stores cut prices on dozens of toys to $15 and resumed its layaway plan for them after a five-year break.
Sears unit Kmart is trying to win sales by revamping its website, offering layaway and carrying toys they expect to hold a child's interest.
"You want your child... to open up the gift and just smile ear to ear, but at the same time, especially if you are the parent, you want that child to be playing with the toy all the way through January, not all the way through dinner and over with it," Julia Fitzgerald, chief marketing officer for Sears' toy business, said in an interview.
IN BRANDS WE TRUST
Toys from prominent companies such as Mattel Inc, Lego, Hasbro and MGA also made Silver and Byrne's list.
From Mattel are "Angry Birds Knock On Wood," a tabletop version of the highly popular game app for the Apple iPhone; the "Monster High Dead Tired" doll line that features offspring of famous monster characters themed on a pajama party; and the Hot Wheels wall tracks.
MGA's "Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Doll" with bendable, plastic hair, and Hasbro's Nerf Vortex blasters that shoot plastic discs instead of foam darts also impressed Silver and Byrne.
Smaller toymakers also made their mark.
For instance, WowWee is betting big on Lite Sprites, a line of playsets that allow kids to play with color and light with the wave of a wand.
One of Byrne's favorites comes from Cepia, whose Zhu-Zhu pets were the hottest toys of 2009.
Asked why he was so taken with the company's new "DaGeDar" collectible toys for boys, Byrne said: "I loved collecting, I loved competition and I was always in detention for bringing toys to school."
(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)