The hottest toy this holiday season isn't Elmo, a ticklish red monster. It’s a fake hamster.
Known as Zhu Zhu Pets, the artificial rodents have some advantages over the real thing. They do not stink, chew electric wires, or run around their cages making noise at night. In fact, they do not need cages.
Children are delighted at how they coo and scoot about unpredictably. Parents are delighted not to have to clean up after them. And at $7.99 each, the hamsters are recession-friendly.
The trouble is, Zhu Zhu Pets are so popular that stores cannot keep them in stock. The critters are routinely sold out at the likes of Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart and Target, though more will hit the shelves the day after Thanksgiving, when deal-seekers wake up early to shop for bargains. In the meantime, the hamsters are being sold at a premium on the Internet.
The five different battery-operated hamsters — Chunk, PipSqueak, Mr. Squiggles, Num Nums and Patches — are mainly coveted by girls, according to toy industry professionals. This possibly makes sense; Jim Silver, editor in chief of TimetoPlayMag .com, pointed out that girls also own the majority of live hamsters.
Boys, it appears, are wild this year for Bakugan Battle Brawlers, a game that uses cards and action figures hidden inside small spheres. The goal is to be the first player to capture three of your opponent’s cards, known as Gate cards. (The name comes from the Japanese words “baku,” meaning “to explode,” and “gan,” meaning “sphere.”) Yet as popular as Bakugan is, the hamsters are upstaging that game and everything else in toy land this season.
“It clearly is the hottest phenomenon of the year,” said Gerald L. Storch, chairman and chief executive of Toys “R” Us. “There’s no doubt about that.”
After seeing a commercial in October for Zhu Zhu Pets, Tracey Henry of Safety Harbor, Fla., decided to buy one for her 6-year-old daughter, even though the girl wanted a real hamster for her birthday. Ms. Henry considered a fake hamster a better idea, so she went to Toys “R” Us.
“The shelves were empty,” she said, “and there were these signs that said, ‘Limit four Zhu Zhu Pets per day.’ ”
Ms. Henry, who writes the blog SuburbanDiva.com, returned home and began calling local toy stores and scouring the Web sites of Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart and Target, with no luck. In the end, she bought a Zhu Zhu Pet on Amazon, marked up to $34.99.
“We got the yellow one,” Ms. Henry said. “We should rename it ‘greenback.’ ”
The nation’s stores, which have become familiar with these sorts of tales, are trying to round up enough hamsters for the holidays.
Toys “R” Us said this week that it would have tens of thousands of Zhu Zhu Pets in stock on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But consumers will have to drink coffee with their turkey if they want a hamster: Toys “R” Us stores will open on Thanksgiving at midnight, and the first 100 customers in line will receive a ticket for a Zhu Zhu Pet, with a limit of one for each household.
“Others may try to make a lot of noise out of a few hamsters,” Mr. Storch said, “but we have by far the most inventory and opportunity to find Zhu Zhu at any retailer.” (Next month, Toys “R” Us plans to offer an exclusive $100 Zhu Zhu Pets set that includes — brace yourself — two hamsters, an exercise wheel, a fun house, a car and garage, an adventure ball and a sleep dome.)
Melissa O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores, declined to comment on the chain’s Black Friday hamster plans, though she said the chain had more Zhu Zhu Pets on the way.
“At this time, we’re even air-shipping them in some markets,” she said. But she warned that when the hamsters do arrive, “a lot of them don’t spend the night in a store.”
Indeed, Cepia has found itself increasing hamster production and fielding phone calls from parents desperately seeking Zhu Zhu Pets, as well as their slightly pricier accessories, like a ramp with slide and a garage with car. There is even a surfboard.
Ms. Hornsby said the hamsters take their name from “zhu zhu,” or “little pig” in Chinese, which the folks at Cepia thought was fitting, given that hamsters are known for making messes.
Mr. Silver of TimetoPlayMag .com said a toy hamster had not been this hot for at least a decade, when Americans became enamored of one that danced to “Kung Fu Fighting.”
Cepia is relatively new. Founded in 2002, it has 16 employees in the United States and 25 in China. Ms. Hornsby, the marketing director, said Zhu Zhu Pets were the company’s breakthrough toy. “This is definitely our big fish,” she said, forgetting the hamster lingo for a moment. “Every day, we are humbled by what’s going on.”
The creators of Bakugan have more experience with this sort of craze. Bakugan, a Japanese import that some industry professionals have likened to the Pokémon phenomenon, was a hit last Christmas. The must-have addition to the toy line this year is Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid, which, at $39.99, enables children to connect several game pieces to form one intimidating creature. Toys “R” Us has an exclusive 7-in-1 Bakugan, New Vestroia Maxus Helios, also for $34.99.
Harold Chizick, vice president of global communications and promotions for Spin Master, the creator of Bakugan, said the toys were all the rage because children liked collecting the cards and action figures just as much as battling. There is also a hit Bakugan Battle Brawlers anime television show that has fueled sales. “We have increased manufacturing and expedited shipment to be here for the holiday season,” Mr. Chizick said.
While it is the second Christmas for Bakugan, Mr. Silver of TimetoPlayMag.com noted that “when you have a hot item like this, usually Year 2 is bigger than Year 1.” That is primarily because the toy companies are able to ramp up to meet demand the second year.
Josh Green, chief executive of Panjiva, which tracks water-borne goods, said shipments of Zhu Zhu Pets to the United States skyrocketed for the three months ended in October.
But a warning to mischievous children everywhere: Mr. Green noted that shipments of coal were also up, by 6 percent, over last year.