Parents running in circles for Zhu Zhu pets

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

For decades, Russell Hornsby has pitted his small, family-run company against corporate titans such as Hasbro and Mattel, trying to conjure up the magic of the must-have Christmas toy. The basement of his home in St. Louis is filled with could-have-beens that he created and loved, even if sometimes no one else did.

Until now.

Hornsby bet big this year on a toy version of the one pet that he figured kids loved and parents hated: messy, squeaky, small-brained hamsters. He called them Zhu Zhus. You know what happened next.

Parents stood outside in the cold in the wee hours of Black Friday for the chance to bring one home. One mom programmed the Toys R Us phone number into her cellphone so she could check availability on her way to work. EBay opportunists are selling the $10 toys for $50 or more. Wal-Mart is flying the hamsters in from China on 747s and expects to stock close to a million more by Christmas. Industry experts estimate that Hornsby's company will rake in $70 million, more than triple original projections.

"We are completely humbled by it," said Natalie Hornsby, one of Russell Hornsby's daughters, who handles marketing and brand development.

A hot toy does not emerge every holiday season. There are perennial favorites such as Barbie and Legos, and even Guitar Hero. But only rarely does a toy engender mass hysteria, said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of trade publication TimeToPlayMag.com. He equates Zhu Zhu pets with the Furby and Pokemon crazes, both nearly a decade ago. Before that, Tickle Me Elmo, and once upon a time, Cabbage Patch dolls. "When you really look at it, it's like owning a hamster," Silver said, with one important exception. "It doesn't die, and you don't have to have a funeral in the backyard."

Zhu Zhus are among the top-five toys with the biggest sales growth this year, ranking alongside staples such as G.I. Joe and Crayola, according to market research firm NPD Group. However, Anita Frazier, an NPD analyst, calls it more of a fad than a trend and predicts the limited product line will be difficult to sustain over time. But for this year at least, the Hornsby family has hit it big.

Hornsby, who has been in the toy business for 35 years, founded his first toy company in 1989 called Trendmasters. He developed the successful Rumble Robots, small figures that fought each other. In 2002, he started a new company named Cepia with two of his daughters, Natalie and Ashley. Its most popular toy had been a light-up bear called Glo-E.

In the spring of 2008, Natalie Hornsby said, the family put on their thinking caps to begin the first of several brainstorming sessions. Natalie often wears a red Where's Waldo cap or a purple Mad Hatter hat for such meetings. Her dad is partial to a golfing cap. They debated the hamster.

They estimated the market for live pet hamsters at 45 million people. Hornsby watched hours of YouTube videos of hamsters running in a wheel, heading down a slide, just sitting there looking pretty darn cute. Gerbils were briefly mentioned as a companion but quickly dismissed. Hornsby felt hamsters in his gut.

Zhu Zhu is Chinese for, loosely translated, little piglet, Natalie Hornsby said. She said one of the keys to the Zhu Zhus' popularity is that they mimic the unpredictable nature of hamster behavior. Engineers programmed random responses into the toy. Usually it will climb up the ramp and go down the slide just fine on its own. But sometimes it gets stuck, and its head teeters out in an adorable fashion, and the child must give it a boost.

"That's a huge reward for the kid," Natalie Hornsby said. "It's not just a watch-me toy. We want to encourage the child to be active."


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