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Pricey, tech-laden toys vie for shoppers' attention this Christmas

From animatronic bouncing ponies to arcade-style pinball machines, toy companies are offering a more sophisticated range of high-tech toys to tempt kids of all ages

AP , WASHINGTON

Shoppers pay for toys at a Toys ''R'' Us store in New York on Friday. From a US$250 battery-operated Ford Mustang Power Wheels to the US$500 Sony PlayStation 3, toys are becoming pricier as toymakers offer more high-tech gadgets and features.

PHOTO: AFP

You better watch out: This holiday shopping season could be one of the priciest ever as the most tech-laden and expensive gifts for kids of all ages, from the US$299 animatronic pony Butterscotch to a US$300 pinball machine, show up at your neighborhood store.

Even if Santa doesn't leave the elusive US$500 Sony PlayStation 3 under your tree, there's still Hasbro's US$249 Nerf Showtime Hoops, a basketball "gaming system" with an electronic scoreboard and a recorded voice that can announce whether your child has launched a "brick" or hit "nothin' but net!"

Or you can go to Wal-Mart Stores Inc to pick up a red Ford Mustang Power Wheels, a US$250 battery-operated car for children three years old and up. The Mustang is a Wal-Mart exclusive made by Mattel Inc's Fisher-Price division, though many other models can be found at other retailers, such as Toys "R" Us.

"Every Christmas season, [there are] more expensive toys," Scott McCall, Wal-Mart's chief toy officer, says.

This year, toymakers are pushing prices up even more, he added.

Toys have gotten more expensive for several reasons, industry executives and analysts said. The demand is there: Parents have shown a willingness to spend more on children's gifts. Meanwhile, toy companies are able to make more sophisticated toys because computer chips and robotics keep getting cheaper. The companies can then charge more for those high-tech toys.

Higher prices don't seem to be holding back sales.

"I would say that Butterscotch has exceeded our expectations," McCall said, referring to the newest member of Hasbro Inc's "Furreal Friends" product line.

Chris Byrne, a contributing editor for Toy Wishes, a consumer publication, said that expensive toys have always been available at high-end stores such as FAO Schwarz, which emerged from bankruptcy protection two years ago. What's notable this year is that mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Target Corp are stocking their shelves with more toys costing US$200 and above than they ever have.

One factor behind the trend is the global decline in the price of high-tech parts, such as computer chips and robotics. That allows toy makers to offer sophisticated toys at surprisingly low prices considering what the toys can do.

The "Butterscotch My Furreal Friends Pony," for example, is 91cm tall with moving eyes, ears, head and tail. The pony can whinny and snort and can be "fed" a carrot, and if children sit on her, she will "gently bounce," the company said.

"There's a lot of technology, chips and capacity sensors ... that the kid's not interested in ... but that makes the pony feel very real to them, and that's magic, and the Mom sees value in that," said Sharon John, general manager of Hasbro's Tiger Electronics division.

"Even five to six years ago, some of the stuff that we're doing ... for the prices that we're doing would have been technologically unfeasible," she added.

Butterscotch follows the animatronic Furreal Friends cat, dog and gorilla, John said. The idea for a pony came partly from consumer research.

"What little girl doesn't dream of having her own pony?" John asked.

For older children, the so-called "tweens" in the nine to 12 age group toy makers are offering higher-priced products that mimic adult high-tech gadgets, such as cellphones, DVD players and even video cameras.

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