'Tis two weeks before Christmas, and all through the land, Pokemon toys are scarce, but much in demand.
Pokemon, short for "pocket monsters," are this year's holiday gift craze, leading school-age children and their parents to empty store shelves as soon as each new batch of Pokemon items arrives.
"We've been to all the KB Toys stores, Toy Works, Toys R Us, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. Nobody has it," said Shirley Viel, of Hyattsville. Viel and her husband, Kevin, were scanning the shelves at Toys R Us in Lanham last week for a coveted Pokemon Pokedex for their granddaughter Taylor. Pokedex ($24.99) is a hand-held electronic index with information about all 151 Pokemon characters.
"My daughter has been on the e-mail, e-mailing relatives across the country. They are nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere," Shirley Viel said.
Pokemon are 151 small and harmless creatures that originated in Japan and were introduced in the United States in the fall of 1998. They are collected as plastic figurines, beanbag toys and cards by children aiming to become Pokemon "trainers" or "masters." Parents find them less violent than some other recent toy phenomena, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The little Pokemon monsters have varying powers, with names such as Pikachu, a yellow creature who shoots bolts of electricity out of his pink cheeks; Squirtle, a water-spitting turtlelike creature; and Charizard, a flame-throwing dragonlike creature. They are owned by Pokemon trainers who pit them in battles for dominance. The animals may get injured and require recuperation at the Pokemon hospital, but they are never killed.
Pokemon was introduced to the United States by a Nintendo game and by a cartoon television show that chronicles the adventures of 10-year-old Ash Ketchum as he travels around an imaginary country, accompanied by his pet Pokemon Pikachu and friends Misty and Brock.
"It's huge. It's absolutely huge," said Jim Silver, editor of The Toy Book, a trade publication that monitors retail sales. He said the Pokemon category of toys, which includes dozens of products manufactured and merchandized by several different companies, has topped sales of other categories, such as Teenage Mutant Turtles during their monster year in 1989 and Power Rangers, which were the rage in 1994. Pokemon toys will bring in upward of $1.5 billion this year, he said.
Analysts credit Pokemon with having a ripple effect in the toy industry, revving up lagging sales of the electronic hand-held Gameboy by Nintendo with Pokemon games and adding a much-needed infusion of capital for Hasbro Inc., which makes everything from the cards to the board games.
And when Pokemon is scarce, shoppers will usually buy something else.
"It's safe to say it is going to be a Pokemon Christmas," said Diane Cardinale, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade association. "Pokemon is both dominating the toy market this year and also helping to improve its bottom line. If parents are out hunting for Pokemon and can't find it, they will select other items, so it helps other categories, as well."
The toys appeal to boys and girls from preschool through middle school. A movie based on the television show has grossed more than $80 million since its release last month.
The most popular of the Pokemon toys -- and the ones now more difficult for parents to acquire than a Pokemon master title -- include the plastic and bean-filled action figures ($4-$6) the Pokedex electronic game ($24.99), the Pokemon Monopoly ($20.99) and Master Trainer Game ($24.99) and the plush "I Choose You Pikachu," ($29.99) an eight-inch electronic version of the cutest and most popular Pokemon.
Prepackaged, multiple packs of Pokemon cards sell for $9.99. Individual "booster packs" sell for $3.29. Other items are pricier, and some places have upped the prices as shortages have persisted.
This has left parents and others in search of Pokemon taking increasingly desperate measures. They are lining up at stores before opening in hopes that the store was stocked overnight, calling stores for information on shipments and cruising the Web with fingers crossed, hoping to luck out with online shopping services.
Manufacturers were apologetic about the scarcity of the toys.
Jenny Bendel, a spokeswoman for Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro Bradley company that manufactures the Pokemon trading cards, said a new game for younger Pokemon trainers, Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game, priced at $9.99, will hit stores in the Washington area next week. Several parents browsing at the Toys `R' Us store in Lanham Thursday afternoon were delighted to find the games. But only a dozen arrived, and they were expected to sell out within a few hours.
"We have more than 300 people coming in every day asking for the toys like Pokedex, and we're all out," said Tim Hart, manager of the FAO Schwarz store in Georgetown.
The FAO Schwarz catalogue is no longer taking orders for Pokedex, citing a 1,551-unit backlog that may not be filled before Christmas.
At the Fadz store at Potomac Mills in Virginia, about 100 customers venture in each day with that same plaintive appeal to store owner Abraham Herzig: Do you have the Pokemon Pokedex? How about Pokemon Monopoly?
"I tell them we've got a few Pokemon jungle cards, hats, T-shirts, visors, pencils and some small toys. But not those things," Herzig said. "No Japanese Pokemon cards. No Pokedex. No Monopoly. Those are long gone."
The scarcity also has fueled a market for opportunists.
A salesman at the House of Beanie Babies in Frederick, Md., the only store where a Pokedex could be found last weekend, said he had only one of the toy left and was asking $60. "We're a small store, and we had ordered six for someone who needed five," he said. "We had to pay $55 apiece to get them."
The Viels of Hyattsville have already forked over about $400 for Pokemon toys, including a Nintendo 64 with Pokemon Snap, Pokemon walkie-talkies, slippers, a backpack, a watch, puzzles and a stuffed Pikachu.
But their quest for Pokemon, like Ash's, continues.
"We've got everybody we know looking for it," Kevin Viel said. "My niece in New Hampshire. My brother in Massachusetts. Cousins in Michigan. Finding Pokemon is a family project."