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Justin Bieber merchandise hits hot holiday toy lists

By Ylan Q. Mui
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 1:31 AM

Toy developer Jay Foreman has carefully charted the rise of Justin Bieber on what he calls "the heat index."

First he spied the swooshy-haired 16-year-old singer cropping up in tiny photos in the corners of teen magazines. Then Foreman watched him take over entire pages with centerpiece spreads. When he heard late-night comics taking potshots at Bieber in their monologues, he knew it was time.

Justin Bieber was ready for a doll.

"I just know it when I see it, you know?" Foreman said. "That their personality can carry billions of dollars worth of this type of product really says incredible things about their appeal."

Foreman's company, the Bridge, placed a rush order this summer for roughly 1 million Bieber dolls to hit store shelves in time for the holiday season. Toys R Us predicted demand would be so great that it flew the dolls in from Asia, rather than wait for them to arrive by boat. The dolls landed in stores this month and sold out in some locations. The product is slated to become available at other retailers early next month.

"We've got the fever!" said Lisa Harnisch, a vice president at Toys R Us. "He tops all the Google trends. He dominates the Twitter chatter and has sold-out concerts. With this type of opportunity, we knew we wanted to capitalize on it."

Every year, there is intense competition for the elusive title of the hottest holiday toy. This year's contenders include Sing-a-Ma-Jigs, whimsical, colorful creatures that play music when squeezed. There's Paper Jamz, electric guitar look-alikes that play perfectly with just a touch. And the Kinect Xbox video game system is challenging the dominance of Nintendo's Wii.

But the Bieber doll requires no explanation or instruction manual. Few toys can inspire the fervor that he stirs in his fans. They have clicked endlessly on the YouTube videos of him singing around his house - in the bathroom, holding a toothbrush, wearing his jammies - that propelled him to stardom. They have listed "Bieber" as their middle names on Facebook and plastered their Twitter accounts with his photos.

"Omg there's a Justin bieber doll!!!!!?" tweeted a user named kim_luvs_JBiebs. "Another thing added to my Xmas list!!!!!!!!!!!"

Jennifer Lynch, 20, and her college roommate decorated their dorm room at Miami University in Ohio with Bieber posters and were recently awaiting shipment of his biography (heavy on photos, light on text) and a life-sized cardboard cutout. On Tuesdays, Lynch and her sorority sisters post Bieber news and notes on each other's Facebook walls as a pick-me-up.

Never mind that he's only 16 and Lynch is almost of legal drinking age. She is infected with Bieber Fever. Lynch estimates she has spent $100 on Bieber paraphernalia. That's not including the doll, which has a suggested retail price of $18 to $28. She's hoping it'll be under the Christmas tree this year.

"Yeah, he's younger," said Lynch, of Alexandria. "But it doesn't hinder our love for him."

Foreman has witnessed this phenomenon before. He's the man behind the Spice Girls dolls (11 million sold), the Britney Spears doll (7 million sold) and the wildly successful Hannah Montana doll (17 million sold). Foreman predicted young girls will play with the Bieber doll, a Ken to their Barbie, while older girls like Lynch will display it in their homemade shrines to Bieber.

"The idea of having that experience of going to a store and getting a product, getting a piece of the artist, is all part of building the connection," he said.

Bieber's licensing agent, Bravado, a division of Universal Music Group, granted Foreman's company the rights this summer to Bieber's famous face. The Florida-based toymaker rushed the doll into production - orders are normally placed a year ahead - to make the holiday deadline.

The good news: A factory that Foreman works with in China had a mold for a male body on hand, speeding up the process. The bad news: There wasn't enough time to give Bieber brushable hair instead of molded plastic. Next year, Foreman promised.

Launching the dolls this holiday season was also critical for the business of Bieber. He was discovered through YouTube in 2007 by veteran music executive Scooter Braun and released two platinum albums, but he has yet to turn his fan base into big money. He hasn't cracked Forbes's annual list of 100 top celebrities, in which the lowest paid star is Jennifer Love Hewitt at $6.5 million.

But that could change quickly. Bieber sold nearly 700,000 concert tickets in three months of touring this year, according to Pollstar, raking in more than $33 million in ticket sales - not as strong as Bon Jovi but ahead of John Mayer and Metallica for the year.

Just as important is the rapidly expanding universe of merchandise on sale at his concerts and on the Internet: T-shirts, posters and tote bags that can become just as lucrative for a pop star as the actual music. For this holiday season, he also has lent his name to a nail polish line and is rolling out perfumed dogtags at Wal-Mart. Next year, there is a movie release on the calendar, and Braun hinted at a possible clothing line.

"You gotta plan it like chess," he said. "There's a broader picture, and people, I think, are seeing one thing at a time. We're looking at the grand scheme of an overall career."

How many dolls Bieber can sell is directly related to how long his career will last. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Buzz cuts both ways and can evaporate as quickly as it materializes.

"You and I both don't know what the freshness date is going to be on Justin Bieber," said Richard Gottlieb, an independent toy consultant. "There's a short shelf life in that world."

Case in point: At the Toys R Us in Fair Lakes shopping center on a recent morning, the Bieber dolls were stacked in a double-sided bin in a prominent aisle. In the other half of the bin was last year's hot holiday toy, the Zhu Zhu Pets hamster.

Let the battle begin.

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