Pssst! Wanna buy a hot toy?
They don’t get any hotter this holiday season than a Zhu Zhu Pet. The electronic hamster has taken children’s hearts and minds by storm – and sent their parents fruitlessly sprinting from store to store.
But rather than deal with long lines or disappointed offspring, some hamster hunters are going another route: the underground Zhu Zhu Pets market. Hundreds of South Florida entrepreneurs are offering Mr. Squiggles, his friends and their accessories – such as rodent-sized cars and houses – on Craigslist, eBay and other online sites for double to quintuple their retail price.
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While parents may grumble, they’re buying.
“People are struggling to buy for the holidays in this economy. And here you have others who managed to buy a whole bunch of hamsters and are reselling them for four times the price,” said Karen Aguayo, a Miramar mother of 7-year-old, Zhu Zhu-crazed twins.
Her pique didn’t stop her from purchasing a $20 Zhu Zhu Funhouse for $45 online, after several futile store runs. “My kids are really good and they asked for only one thing,” Aguayo said. “You don’t want to break their hearts and tell them Santa couldn’t come through for them.”
The hamsters, normally costing between $8 and $10, were priced as high as $100 online this week, although $25 to $50 seemed to be the going rate. Feeding the fire is the fact that many major toy retailers – including Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target – are limiting the number of Zhu Zhu products that shoppers can buy, trying to spread out the supply.
Online sellers scrambled to reassure buyers Monday, as green toy site GoodGuide.com claimed it had found contaminants in the Zhu Zhus it tested. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced by the end of the day that the season’s hottest toy was safe, and GoodGuide confessed that its testing methods were incorrect.
The brief safety scare didn’t seem to dim interest in the toys.
Playing off desperation is perfectly legal, as long as the merchandise isn’t counterfeit or stolen. State law may prohibit jacking up the costs of blue tarps and hotel rooms as a hurricane approaches. But the Florida Attorney General’s Office said nothing prohibits overcharging for toys, and so far has received no Zhu Zhu complaints.
Underground marketing of hot toys isn’t new. Cliff Anicelli, editor of Playthings, a monthly magazine that covers the toy industry, remembers the same thing happening more than a decade ago with holiday blockbusters Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids.
“There is a whole shadow economy of people who speculatively purchase toys early,” he said. “It’s just that now, with the Internet, you can potentially reach millions of potential buyers rather than just the people in your town reading the classifieds.”
Anicelli said toy scalping may be more popular this year, as consumers look to generate income in a still-difficult economy.
Sarah Neuhalfen, an online-merchant novice from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., managed to snag five pets and accessories through serious Black Friday shopping. She decided to first try selling the lot for $300 rather than giving them to her 4-year-old daughter. So far, no takers, “but I hope I can make some money for Christmas,” Neuhalfen said.
Some recent listings sounded a bit furtive.
“I will pay $20 cash for all the Zhu Zhu Pets you have. I don’t care how you got them,” read one from Miami that was posted on Craigslist. A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Craigslist poster offered to meet prospective buyers in a Dania Beach, Fla., parking lot with his $249 stash: four hamsters and their wheel, slides, funhouse, tunnels, car and garage.
Neither poster returned the Sun Sentinel’s e-mails or phone calls.
Anicelli predicts that the underground demand for Zhu Zhus soon will fade, as their makers, Cepia LLC of St. Louis, now is contracting with four Chinese factories rather than one and pumping out 200,000 pets daily. Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst with Needham & Co., has predicted $70 million in sales this year and $300 million in 2010.
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