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Perhaps worn from the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, frazzled consumers are seeking refuge in peaceful, snowy hamlets-most only 4 inches high.

This holiday season, almost every major retailer is peddling some kind of miniature decorative village. Whether porcelain, plastic or lighted, these collectibles can be found everywhere from upscale department stores to mass merchandisers to pharmacies.

Department 56, Eden Prairie, Minn., has long dominated the decorative village business. The 20-year-old company's pieces have become collector's items. For years, retailers carried the designer's Snow Village, New England Village, Dickens Village and others.

Department 56 had revenue of $184 million in 1993, and controls more than two-thirds of the collectible giftware category.

Most upper-end department stores still carry Department 56 merchandise; R.H. Macy & Co. carries only Department 56 pieces. The designer this Christmas unveils the first four pieces of its latest creation, the Disney Village.

Disney Village includes pieces like Mickey's Christmas Shop, and has a suggested retail price similar to Department 56's other lines: about $50 to $100 per piece.

The makers of Fitz and Floyd collectibles will be on hand at several of Dayton Hudson Corp.'s Marshall Field's stores for the first time this year, helping customers select and assemble village pieces heavily advertised in Field's holiday catalogs. The first 20 shoppers at each event receive a free figurine.

In recent years, retailers have started designing their own collectible pieces, freeing themselves to build holiday promotions around the figurines.

The Emporium, San Francisco, this season introduced its eight-piece Pueblo Encantado, an adobe village reflecting the 22-unit department store chain's Southwestern roots. Each piece costs $6.

Noting customer traffic such collectibles produce at their department store competitors, mass merchandisers have begun adding cheaper versions of similar villages.

"I think there's a greater number of villages being sold, especially the cheaper variety at discount stores," said Tim Schugel, comptroller, Department 56.

Following last year's successful introduction, Dayton Hudson's Target Stores chain is adding three new pieces to its Bedford Falls Village, based on the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life."

The Emporium, Dayton Hudson and Macy's support the items mainly with print ads, designed in-house.

Kmart Corp., Troy, Mich., sells seven versions of its $29.95 complete Christmas villages year-round, supported in weekly circulars produced by Meridian Retail. Customers have come to expect the pieces, said a spokesman, "like lights or garland."

Leah Rickard contributed to this story.

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