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Robotic hamsters are holidays' unlikely new craze

By MAE ANDERSON, AP Retail Writer Modified: November 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm •  Published: November 27, 2009
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Hornsby said he was hoping to sell three to four pets per store per week, but was secretly hoping for eight. The result, Hornsby said, was exponentially higher, though he wouldn't say how much.

"The rate was so astonishing everybody had to go back and pinch themselves," Hornsby said. Toys R Us pulled all of the test data to make sure it wasn't being manipulated, Hornsby said.

That gave a running start to Cepia's national rollout in August.

Ads on cable stations Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney XD have proved to be catnip to kids.

"My daughter saw a commercial for them on Nickelodeon or one of the kid channels and instantly wanted it," said Tara Purdy Callender, 21. Her daughter's 6th birthday is on Nov. 25 and "all she wants is Zhu Zhu pets," lamented Callender, whose search has been fruitless so far.

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KEEPING UP WITH DEMAND

For parents, the hamster hunt is intense. A Facebook fan site tracks parent's search for the toys. Hornsby said he recently got a call at 4 a.m. on his cell phone from a mom asking for hamsters. Calls have also been received at the store's Chinese base from parents trying to go straight to the source.

"They're calling because they're upset and they feel we're not doing a good enough job getting merchandise on the shelves," Hornsby said.

But with retailers being extra cautious with orders this year following the dismal holiday season last year, the maker has had to scramble to make enough to catch up to demand.

Toy analyst Jim Silver at Timetoplaymag.com said it was late fall by the time Cepia and retailers realized how popular the toys were, and by that time it was difficult to increase production.

"You can't just go to China and flip a switch," he said. But in the past three months, the company has added three more factories in China.

"We're all working so hard right now to try to fulfill this," Hornsby said. "Retailers are airlifting in millions of products," a rare and expensive move for stores.

Even if the product remains impossible to find for the holidays, the craze sets Cepia up for a strong 2010. Hornsby estimates the company will sell $100 million in Zhu Zhu Pets by the end of the year. It's always hard to tell how long a toy will stay hot, but based on bookings, he says that will grow to $350 million to $400 million by the end of next year as production ramps up.

BMO analyst Johnson agreed 2010 will be big for Zhu Zhu Pets.

"I don't know what Chinese New Year is coming up, but as far as toys are concerned next year will be the year of the hamster."

Hiccups: Zhu Zhu pets and Black Friday