The stuffed animals connect young kids to the web using a secret-code tag attached to each one. When kids type in the code at Webkinz.com, they are given a virtual pet that looks just like the stuffed one. Since launching last year in Canada from gift wholesaler Ganz, Webkinz have swept like wildfire through U.S. elementary schools down the Eastern Seaboard.
More than 1 million sold
By November, more than 1 million Webkinz had been sold via specialty retailers and independent gift shops including Hallmark and Learning Express, but the holiday pushed that number "significantly higher," said Susan McVeigh, communication manager at the family-owned company. The average customer 6 and older -- with 8- to 11-year-olds especially keen on them -- owns more than two pets.
And that success has come without advertising. Instead, Ganz relies on sales reps, retailers, media outlets and devoted young customers to spread the word. Local newspaper stories and bloggers' first-hand accounts made up the majority of the media until the 2006 holiday season, when Webkinz received national exposure on "Good Morning America," "Regis & Kelly" and "Rachael Ray."
Dozens of homemade videos on YouTube and other video-sharing sites have been created mostly by young, trend-following fans eager to show off their collections. (Of course, there are also efforts such as "The Webkinz Murderer," apparently created by a weary sibling of one Webkinz-happy customer.)
Steve and Chris Tini, husband and wife owners of Sweet Be's Candy & Gifts in suburban St. Louis, are typical enthusiastic retailers. They first "adopted" their own basset-hound Webkinz more than a year ago, "fell in love" with it, and soon began carrying the full Webkinz line, which numbers around 39 regular-size animals, plus another 20 Lil'Kinz. Their goal is to be the premier Webkinz retailer in their area, often building promotions and store events around them, including an in-store Webkinz Club and a Halloween Webkinz costume party that drew 500 people.
"We just came back from a show in Atlanta, and everyone is so excited about it," Ms. Tini said. "The kids just love them, and parents love them too because they're fun and safe. ... The challenge for retailers is going to be keeping them in stock."
On the Webkinz site, kids can clothe and feed their avatar pets, paying with "KinzCash" they earn by playing games and winning at quizzes. In a kind of junior MySpace play, children can instant message Webkinz friends, inviting them to play or visit their virtual rooms. The "safe" messaging catch is that youngsters can only "write" messages by choosing from lists of stock phrases -- for example, selecting "you are" and "very nice" to send a compliment to a pal.
"This will be an increasing trend going into the future, as toy manufacturers attempt to use what is appealing about the internet (engagement and interactivity) to keep their products as current and relevant to today's 'digi-native' kids as possible," NPD analyst Anita Frazier said in an e-mail.