Hello Kitty is at the top, but how much higher can she claw?

Hello Kitty at the top but claws to stay there...While the world's most-popular feline may be ready to scratch out the eyes of that mean Tokyo-based correspondent who claimed she's on her ninth life, Hello Kitty's profits remain purrfectly "strong," says Janet Hsu, president of Sanrio's Global Consumer Products division. The product list of Hello Kitty items certainly seems to grow weekly -- including this week's introduction of a Demeter fragrance line to be sold in Urban Outfitters and other outlets.

Hsu, who oversees the North America operations of Hello Kitty for Sanrio, says that 2009 was the strongest year for Hello Kitty sales in North America and Europe, seeing gains of 30% and 20% respectively. In Japan, overall Sanrio sales may have been down 3% but Hello Kitty sales were up 9% last year. Sales growth has come largely through the introduction of new, more adult products -- such as high-end jewelry -- and an aggressive licensing program. Sanrio's future strategy is to go where the people are -- targeting the as-yet untapped and heavily populated countries of China and India.

But is the lovable white cat with a red bow and no mouth who keeps Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga on her cell's speed dial indeed the victim of "Hello Kitty fatigue" in her native Japan? After all, it's been more than 35 years of working her claws off and building up what is now a $5 billion-a-year worldwide business? Who could blame her if she wanted to take it easy and perhaps retire to a sunny window sill in the south of France?

"Not happening," says Hsu, of the notion that Hello Kitty could be headed toward that big rocking chair in the sky. Yes the ubiquitous cat may be making some shelf room for other Sanrio characters, but she continues to hold center court. Even with the Demeter fragrance line that launches this week, there's Hello Kitty with her special apple scent. (Hello Kitty loyalists know that she is "as tall as five apples, weighs the same as three apples, and one of her favorite foods is Mama's apple pie." Despite other characters being present as well -- there's the scent of My Melody that's kind of like the smell of an almond pound cake and the fragrance of the Little Twin Stars (Kiki and Lala) that's of citrus fruit -- this is principally the Hello Kitty show.

The cat with the cult-like following will also be appearing on Brunswick bowling balls in the next month or so. Sanrio is committed to "get children up and moving," says Hsu. And out of regard for the recession and less expensive ways of spending family time together, watch for Hello Kitty Monopoly and Yahtzee games.

Sanrio almost doubled overseas licenses last year and plans were announced to set up an office in Dubai this month to stimulate company growth in the Middle East. So don't write the kitten off just yet.
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