SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — This is the year to teach the increasingly spoiled, entitled American child the value of a U.S. dollar.
The hottest toy this holiday season is the quasi-robotic pet hamster, the $10 Zhu Zhu. It has become the most popular toy in this year of economic strife because it is cheap and cuddly, it moves through hamster tunnels, drives a car, and makes cute noises. It is especially a hit with very young kids.
So as the Zhu Zhu Pets become scarcer and the prices skyrocket on Amazon.com Inc.
and Craigslist, it will be an exercise in restraint for many parents not to pay the over-inflated prices for the adorable stuffed hamster, which masquerades as a robot. Don’t do it.
First of all, calling the Zhu Zhu, which means little pig in Chinese, a robot is a bit of a stretch. Some might justify paying much higher prices, now ranging from an average of $40 on Craigslist in Silicon Valley to as high as $170 on eBay for a set of four, because it is a “robotic toy.”
“Is any toy with a motor now a robot?” David Calkins, an engineer who builds robots and organizes the RoboGames competition, wrote in an email. “Where to draw the line? I had a motorized hamster ball 20 years ago. I wouldn’t have called it a robot.” (Calkins is organizing another robot competition; information is at Suicidebots.com.)
This brings up the esoteric question, what exactly is considered a robot? Anything with a motor and sensors? An autonomous device that must follow Isaac Asimov’s laws? But I digress, you can read Calkins’ opinion on that here.
Sean McGowan, a highly regarded toy industry analyst at Needham & Co., puts it more succinctly. “I don’t want to minimize the creativity, but it’s not like there is a lot of rocket science to this thing,” he said. “It’s designed to make it look like there is a lot more tech in here than there really is. This looks more advanced than it really is.”
Even Cepia LLC, the small private company that makes them, says they have “quite simple technology.”
The Zhu Zhu has a motor, a bump sensor, and it responds through switches to a series of plastic codes that are built into its Habitrail system. Cepia’s spokeswoman said Zhu Zhu Pets were built to be “unpredictable like a real pet.”
Knowing that the Zhu Zhu Pets are correctly priced at around $10, parents should not give into the urge to pay through the nose for one, just to prevent meltdowns under the Christmas tree. Just tell your kids that this season’s trendy must-have toy, the Cabbage Patch Doll and Furby of the future, is not worth the inflated price. They need to wait until the stores have them again for $10 or less.
Yeah, right. That will work.
But for those willing to spend at least $40 for electronic toys, there are plenty this year with more technology for the money, such as the Alive Plush toys from Hong Kong-based WowWee or Hasbro Inc.’s
FurReal kitty cat. All of these electronic toys have more motors and sensors for the price than the Zhu Zhu, but will not fool anyone that they are real. Their low-cost motors make as much noise as the animals themselves, and they have very limited functions.
Unpredictable and trendy
Toys are an unpredictable and trend-driven area, and the better robotic toys have always been the most expensive, even as technology costs have dropped over the years. They have more software that gives them instructions and therefore more behavior.
Remember Pleo, the robotic dinosaur? Ugobe, the company that launched the $350 robot in 2006, founded by Furby co-creator Caleb Chung, went bankrupt in April. It sold its assets to the company that manufactured the Pleo: Jetta Co. Ltd. of Hong Kong, which appears to be selling the baby dinosaur again at Pleoworld.com. While it was a decent price for an autonomous robotic pet, the lovable bot got caught up in the credit crunch. The Sony Corp.
Aibo dog, which danced to music and learned behavior, was even pricier, around $2,000, before Sony pulled the plug in early 2006.
“If you’re a robotic toy manufacturer, you’re left with under $50 toys that have to be much simpler, to keep costs low,” said Neena Buck in the Industrial Liaison Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She said it’s a tough business model for a robotics company when they get into toys. “Prices have to be low, margins thin, and they have to sell large quantities. So far, the only company, to my knowledge, that has done well with this model is WowWee.”
Natalie Hornsby, director of marketing strategies for Cepia in St. Louis, Mo., said in an e-mail that there will be millions more available before Christmas. Her father, Zhu Zhu Pets creator, Russell Hornsby worked at Mattel Inc.
in product development and also founded Trendmasters, the maker of Rumble Robots that shut its doors in 2002. Hornsby is in China until the first of the year, working with the manufacturer to meet the insatiable demand for the Zhu Zhu Pets.
So parents, if you are among those with screaming brats who control you, if the shelves don’t get restocked in time, maybe you can draw inspiration from a shtick by comedian and late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.
“They’re stupid,” Kimmel said in a recent bit on his show about the Zhu Zhu. “They’re basically Matchbox cars with hair on them.” He wisely advised kids to “forget about them and go clean your rooms.”
At least until the next shipment comes in.
View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/just-say-no-to-zhu-zhu-holiday-mania-2009-12-03