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Hot toys 2018: Pooping unicorns, endless unboxing and matted fur balls

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Lacy Turner’s phone lights up with an alert whenever the year’s hottest toys are back in stock. Heather Swanson looks in on a Facebook group where eager parents post their tips for tracking down a must-have doll or game. And when her husband is traveling on business, Teri Parrish Spivey sends him into stores across North Carolina for the toys she can’t find in their hometown near Raleigh.

Wherever they are looking, the frantic search is often for a unicorn that poops slime.

Say hello to the Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn — perhaps the perfect representation of what it is to be a toy in 2018. Your basic Poopsie retails for around $50 but can fetch as much as $100. It’s all good to these shoppers, who are feeling poised to spend — and spend big — this holiday season. A Poopsie comes with an element of surprise: not knowing exactly which version of the unicorn awaits inside the packaging is all part of the draw. And the Poopsie isn’t just a unicorn pal: Feed her, set her on her glitter potty and wait for a, ahem, surprise.

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The beloved unicorn is also a symbol of what it is to shop in 2018. Toys aren’t just toys — they come with a dose of interaction, an experience to be explored and shared. Take the L.O.L. Surprise! Bigger Surprise, an amped-up version of its predecessor that requires “unboxing” dozens of individually wrapped trinkets. Or the Scruff-a-Luv, a matted ball of fur that kids must wash, dry and style into a groomed pet. Or Pomsies, a plush animal that reacts to touch and tells you when it feels tired, cold or hungry.

And in the great tradition of holiday toy shopping, parents will do just about anything to secure the goods.

Turner, for example, spent weeks tracking down each of the nine variations of the Harry Potter Mystery Wand for her 9-year-old daughter. The wands match nine characters from the famous book and movie series, and it isn’t clear from the packaging which wand shoppers will find inside.

“We suffered through a few Dracos before we completed our collection,” Turner said, referring to the Draco Malfoy wand. “Right now, we’re just trying to find a lot of the pooping unicorn.”

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Mystery packaging — often dubbed “blind packs” — may be one trick toymakers employ to push customers into buying several of the same product. And it’s a trick toy analysts predict is here to stay. In fact, toys that can distinguish themselves with mystery packaging may well climb to the top of sales charts faster than their competitors, analysts say.

“I think we’re going to see more and more companies taking the lead on coming up with much more creative packaging,” said Juli Lennett, the NPD Group’s senior vice president and industry adviser for toys.

Toys are a major driver of holiday sales, which are expected to break records this year on the heels of a strong economy and heightened consumer confidence.

Plus, retailers of all kinds are hungry for a piece of the $3.3 billion U.S. toy market. Supermarkets, bargain outlets and department stores alike are eyeing the first holiday season without Toys R Us as a major boon. Meanwhile, Amazon, Walmart and Target have all increased their toy inventory — and are racing to give shoppers the cheapest, easiest shipping options for delivering those toys before the holidays.

But even with toys stocked just about everywhere this year, they can still be tricky to find.

“If you wait too long, if you’re waiting two weeks before Christmas, you’re just going to get the slim pickings,” Lennett said. “You’re going to have to settle for what’s left.”

Toymakers are keen on making packaging part of the play. L.O.L. Surprise Dolls, for example, took off as parents started filming their children unwrapping the goodies wrapped inside and posting the videos on social media. Last year, one 13-minute YouTube video of a woman opening the toy was viewed 7.1 million times in just five weeks.

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Yet the videos also show the less glossy side of sitting a small child down to unwrap dozens of tiny trinkets. Some of the clips showcase parents enthusiastically showing off each new prize. But it isn’t hard to spot their children’s growing boredom as they go through the motions of “unboxing” over . . . and over . . . and over. By the end, the kids seem more wiped out than wound up.

Those two factors combined — surprise mixed with some kind of interaction — have sent certain toys surging to the top of shopping lists. To unwrap the Treasure X, for example, kids have to follow a map and dig through the toy’s 10 layers to find the booty buried inside.

The trend is no doubt supported, analysts say, by the shopping habits of Generation Z — kids who tend to have a different relationship with brands from that of millennials, their slightly older counterparts. Gen Z shoppers like creating their own toys and experiences.

“All too often, kids now, they get a toy, and it’ll get played with for two seconds,” Turner said. “I like the idea of something they have to do or have to make. I think it gives them a little more pride in it, too.”

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Still, even parents who have been hunting for Poopsie unicorns since the start of the school year know their kids may not be impressed for long. Turner opted to spend her money on a smaller and cheaper version of the Poopsie toy after her daughter shrugged at her Pomsies.

“I just hope we’ve picked the right toys,” Turner said. “All of a sudden, there might be something else that hits, and everybody wants that. It’s a risk putting all your eggs in one basket for your kid.”