'Top Secret' Elmo Is Out of the Box

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A decade after Tickle Me Elmo first incited consumer frenzy with his infectious giggle, the furry red creature with the toothless grin is back and laughing harder than ever.

The new T.M.X. Elmo -- the "X" standing for the toy's 10th anniversary or "extreme" -- was unveiled yesterday on "Good Morning America" and promotions at Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. The toy had been shrouded in secrecy, part of a marketing campaign to generate buzz. Retailers were required to buy the product sight unseen, and the 40 people privy to its development had to sign confidentiality agreements. Even Elmo's box is stamped "Top Secret."

"Everybody asks me . . . 'What's the next Tickle Me Elmo going to be?' " said Neil Friedman, president of Mattel Inc.'s brands division, which owns Fisher-Price, the toy's manufacturer. "This is in fact, the next Tickle Me Elmo. It's 10 years later and 10 years better."

The launch marks the unofficial start of the holiday toy wars. About half of all toy sales occur between October and December, according to Anita Frazier, an analyst for consumer research firm NPD Group Inc. She projected holiday toy revenue at about $11 billion.

Elmo has long been among the season's top sellers. Last year's version grooved to the song "Shout." Others have done the chicken dance and the hokeypokey. But none has inspired the craze that surrounded the original Tickle Me Elmo, released in 1996 by Tyco Toys, which Mattel later bought.

The new Elmo is not really made for cuddling, though its box says it is suitable for children 18 months and older. Under its fur, it has a hard, mechanical body that bends and rolls into a ball during fits of laughter. Tickle its feet, stomach or chin and it slaps its knee (or where its knee would be if it had one), doubles over, falls on its back and kicks its legs before breathlessly rising, begging for more.

"Again! Again!" it says.

KB Toys Inc. sells the toy for $39.99, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. prices it at $34 to $39.97, according to officials at both companies. Friedman said initial reports showed strong sales, and he expects Elmo to be among the top 10 holiday toys. It was out of stock on Wal-Mart's Web site but going for as much as $305 on eBay yesterday evening.

"It will be the toy of the year," said Ernie Speranza, chief marketing officer for KB Toys. "I'll give you a better one. I think it'll be the toy of the decade. How's that?"

The company hopes T.M.X. Elmo will restore some of the toy's original cachet. It was designed not to be too high-tech -- no iPod hookup or media player, Friedman said -- and reminiscent of the original.

Mattel has been planning its launch and development for the past year and a half and is not anticipating shortages, he said.

At the KB Toys in Silver Spring's City Place Mall, 6 of 12 of the toys in stock were sold by noon yesterday and two more were on hold. One woman, who declined to give her name because she was supposed to be at work, tickled its stomach and declared it hilarious.

"Go Elmo, go Elmo, go Elmo," she said as the toy rolled on the table, laughing.

Ellie Childers of Fairfax stopped in to buy her 6-year-old grandson a toy car and walked out with a T.M.X. Elmo for her 8-year-old grandson's birthday today. She said Elmo sort of reminded her of her grandson.

"This is what children do," she said. "They laugh; they fall down. . . . It's very much a child."

Not everyone was enamored. Greg Allen, of the blog http://daddytypes.com , posted yesterday:

"Ten years, and this is all they can come up with? A doll that still only does one thing: waves his arm and falls on the ground?"

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