Surprise Hits: Webkinz -- a toy fad with the virtual touch

One of the greatest smash hits of the decade has been one of the most mundane products of the decade. Webkinz are simply stuffed animals. What's so great about a stuffed animal?

Well, there's more to these animals than meets the eye -- and it's not because they're transforming robots from another planet. Webkinz, produced by the Ganz Corp. (more on them in a moment), are sold with attached tags bearing unique secret codes. A child receiving the Webkinz can go online, logs onto the Webkinz site, and use the code to access a virtual version of the new pet, who lives in a virtual world where kids can care for it, play games with it, take quizzes, and interact with other kids.

The fluffy, stuffed internet pets were introduced in April 2005, and additional brand extensions -- sorry, pets -- are often added to the lineup. The collection includes cows, lions, pigs, and horses, along with unicorns and even Ganz-invented creatures like the Googles, Tiger Snake, and Zingoz. Ganz also sells a line of smaller, less expensive Lil' Kinz, which also offer a secret code to the purchaser. And the stuffed-toy giant is diversifying beyond stuffed animals, selling children's outfits, lip gloss, and bookmarks.

The privately held, family-run Ganz Corp., based in Toronto, has offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Much like Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Dolls before them, Webkinz are a fad toy aimed at the most marketable of demographics, tweens, whose parents have gotten in on the action as well. Webkinz was the sixth most-searched topic for the under-25 demographic in 2007, according to internet search statistics -- and the top search for the 35-44 demographic.And like its predecessors, Webkinz enjoyed high demand on the secondary market; when Ganz retires a Webkinz model, its eBay price goes up, in some cases as high as $1,400 apiece.

Again, though: what's so great about a stuffed animal? What distinguishes Webkinz from everything else? The online virtual world is the main selling point: it's among the most-visited childrens' internet sites, and it provides children with games and educational activities. Of course, some Webkinz-kids' parents find themselves annoyed to discover their children spending more time in the virtual Webkinz world than the real one in the backyard.

If Cabbage Patch Kids had been around in time to harness the web, would that fad have been even more popular? It's an interesting question. Fads come and go -- even with the internet backing it up -- and it shouldn't surprise us when, one day, the almighty Webkinz get consigned to the toybox of oblivion.

Mark Fightmaster is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio and owns absolutely no Webkinz, but has a daughter who does. Mark's wife Valerie loved the Care Bears, he was more of a Super Toe/Super Touch kind of kid.

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.

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