Remember the Epilady?

During the Christmas season of 1989, it was THE gadget gift idea of the year: a cordless, $50 appliance designed to de-hair or depilate legs more efficiently than shaving, less painfully than waxing. With a big marketing push, and a great deal of wishful thinking on the part of consumers, the Epilady ended up on a lot of gift lists that year.Only problem was, actually using one was about as painful as childbirth, except without the big payoff at the end. So now, only a few years later, you can find one for as little as $10 at discount stores - or for 50 cents at a garage sale.

And so it goes with gadgets. Here today, on a remainder rack tomorrow. Surely, from holidays past, you remember the Salad Shooter. And the Fry Baby. And the Clapper.

Nearly every holiday season, there's at least one - a flashy, heavily advertised gimmick that becomes the trendiest gift idea around. That's because the holidays are the time when U.S. marketers unleash their farthest-out contraptions on us - and consumers respond by making their inventors into millionaires.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Many appliances that start out as expensive novelties or innovative time-savers - Crock-Pots, bread machines, Dustbusters, Cuisinarts - end up becoming mainstays.

But many others become one-time wonders, destined to be relics of their era: Salad Shooters (circa 1992). Electric toothbrushes (late '60s). Waterpiks (the '70s, of course).

And if it seems you see more of this stuff this time of year than any other, you're right, retailers say.

"During the Christmas shopping season, we'll sell more items along those lines than we'll sell in the next six months total," said Gloria Cowan, manager of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. store at Six Flags Mall in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth.

It's a matter of both supply and demand, said Dr. Larry Gresham, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, home of the Center for Retailing Studies.

Anticipating heavy shopping crowds, retailers and manufacturers stock a far wider display of goods during the winter holiday season, which typically accounts for a large percentage of the average store's yearly sales.

And shoppers - ever on the lookout for an out-of-the-ordinary gift - happily oblige, snapping up millions of Salad Shooters or Waterpiks, and sending manufacturers looking for the Next Big Thing.

"I think everybody's looking for something different at this time of year," agreed Sharna Gillihan, who owns Goferz' Personal Services, a Fort Worth personal shopping business. "You know, `What do we buy Uncle Bob? He has two of everything.' So you end up buying him something that eats batteries."

And hence we get things like this year's entries: machines whose entire reason for being is to bake miniature pies, or fry potato chips, or turn out Texas-shaped waffles or bake potatoes.

Obviously, many of the new gadgets are destined for obscurity. Already, retailers report the potato-baking machines and the electric piemakers are setting no sales records.

But why do some others - bread machines being the most recent example - gain staying power?

The answer is based in the simplest of marketing concepts, Gresham said. Products that fill a fundamental need, and sell for a fair price, will stick around. Products that are more trouble than they're worth, that have limited use or are overpriced, will die quickly.

Take the Salad Shooter, for instance. "I think a lot of people were buying them as gifts, but they wouldn't really want one themselves," Gresham said.

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One way of gauging a product's longevity is whether it has been rated by Consumer Reports magazine, the venerable shoppers' guide published by the nonprofit Consumers Union. The magazine staff decides yearly which products it will rate, and while the bulk of the list is big items like refrigerators and VCRs, it occasionally looks at hot appliances, said media liaison Rana Arons.

For instance, the magazine recently rated breadmaking machines. The machines first went on the market a few years ago as an expensive novelty, but now have become standard fare, with a number of brands available.

Of course, the ratings merely tell readers whether the product works as advertised; they don't try to judge the inherent value of, say, a food dehydrator or a pastry-shell baker.

"We don't tell people what to buy; we don't presume to make those decisions for them," Arons said. "If they eat hot dogs every day or rice every day, then it might be a good idea" for them to purchase a hot-dog cooker or a rice steamer.

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