National Business

Webkinz: Stuffed animals take on virtual lives of their own

When the little girl found out that Apricot Lane in Kansas City's Town Center Plaza had sold all of its Webkinz, she threw herself on the floor and cried, right there in the store.

"She had been to three different stores," said owner Sheri Bell, recalling the girl's tears. "They save up their allowances for them. I can't even tell you the devastation on their faces. It's horrible."

A lot of grade-schoolers feel like crying when they learn that stores are virtually Webkinz-less at the moment, all sold out of the tiny, $11 stuffed animals made by Canadian toymaker Ganz. Some stores don't expect new shipments until the end of April, if even then.

This isn't a weird plush passion. Though a lot of Webkinz just went on spring break with their owners, the toys aren't the entire draw.

Each comes with a secret code granting access to the interactive Webkinz World of virtual reality.

That's where the toys come alive in cartoon form. Kids adopt them, then build lives for them _ feeding them, dressing them, furnishing rooms for them.

"You can do lots of stuff with them," said 8-year-old Katharine Chester, a third-grader and proud owner of three Webkinz.

Not since Beanie Babies have parents and retailers seen a craze like this. Ganz reports sales of more than 2 million Webkinz since April 2005. Some of those Webkinz cats, dogs and frogs showed up in Easter baskets around town earlier this month.

"It seems that everybody has one now," said Melissa Goldenberg in Leawood, Kan., whose three daughters own about a dozen Webkinz. "You go to a birthday party and that's what people are giving and getting."

Retailers had no idea they were about to ride a wave of hysteria when they put Webkinz out last year. Last August at Apricot Lane, owner Bell had a basket of them. They sat, unsold, for weeks. She soon thought about donating them to charity.

Then, before Christmas, sales picked up, and they soared higher after the holidays.

"If I knew then what I know now ..." said Bell, who calls Ganz every day to track her next shipment.

About a month ago, the phone started ringing at Ferrell's Hallmark Gold Crown store in Lenexa, Kan.

Do you have Webkinz?

"We've had an order in for over a month, and we can't get them in," manager Lola Belknap said. "The demand is bigger than what the factory can take care of."

Katharine Chester was the first student that computer teacher Chris Trotta saw playing with a Webkinz.

"What is that?" Trotta asked as Katharine started spending after-school computer club time playing the games at

It was a new virtual world for kids, joining the already popular Club Penguin, where kids play with virtual penguins. Today, the Webkinz and Club Penguin sites each boast more than a million visitors every month.

In Webkinz World, kids earn virtual Kinz cash to spend on their pets by playing arcade games, answering trivia questions and taking jobs from the Employment Office.

Seeing how engaged Katharine became in Webkinz World, Trotta, like other teachers around town, bought some for the school. Tommy Boy the cat, Jumper the frog and the others live in a bin marked "Webkinz" in the computer lab.

"I'm always looking for things for girls," Trotta said. "Around the age of fifth grade, it seems that girls tend to lose interest in just-fun computer things.

"They still use computers for schoolwork and such, but they don't just use it for fun activities. And boys are involved forever in computer games."

Turns out, though, that Webkinz are just as popular with the boys. During a recent session of Trotta's computer club, 9-year-old John Rosher played in Webkinz World with his frog, Toado.

John wanted a Webkinz, "because everybody had them."

He showed off nine rooms in Toado's house, including the game room he furnished with an air hockey table.

"Dude, where'd you get that?" a boy sitting nearby asked, pointing to a tropical plant shooting sparks in one of Toado's rooms.

John had just won $175 worth of Kinz cash by making hamburgers, a job that boosted his Webkinz spending account to $1,603.

"You have $1,000, John?" 9-year-old Izzy Laskero asked from two computers down. "I have $8,000!"

"I don't know how you guys get all this money," Trotta said, overhearing the exchange. "Don't you have to feed your pets?"

Yes, they do. In Webkinz World, children have to set spending priorities. New shoes or food for the pet?

A virtual Webkinz gets sick when ignored. It's Health/Happiness/Hunger meter plummets.

When store owner Sheri Bell's daughter got her first Webkinz before Halloween last year, she stuffed it with her favorite foods _ virtual cookies, cakes, hamburgers.

"But one day she signed on and his face was blue with a thermometer in his mouth, and she had to take him to the clinic," Bell said.

Parents applaud life lessons like that delivered in a virtual world they say is kid-friendly and kid-safe.

"I feel like they're learning a lot of tools," Goldenberg said. "Right now, it feels like a safe thing for them to be doing."

Even, she said, when her daughters send e-mails to their friends in Webkinz World. Chat-room exchanges are limited to pre-composed messages, benign as "I hope your day is completely cool!" Messages can be sent only between friends who know each other's secret user names.

Trotta, the teacher, likes that games on the site with names like Wheel of Wow and Quizzy's Question Corner are non violent.

Still, some parents are more excited than others. Josh Reid, the father of three grade-school girls, works at Chic A' Dees Trophy in Overland Park, Kan., where names are put on a waiting list for the next Webkinz shipment.

Reid hasn't bought one for his daughters. "We try to keep an eye on what they take in their brains," he said.

"It's like anything else. It's something a parent can purchase and sit their down in front of the computer for a couple of hours and not worry about them. It'd be something neat for a parent to share with their kids. But I don't think that's happening."

Oh, but it does. And some parents get so hooked on the Webkinz games through their kids that they log on when the kids aren't around.

"I didn't realize how much I have been playing the games on there until today, when their Web site has been down all day!" one cyberspace blogger confessed.

Adults, too, are fueling a hot secondary market for Webkinz. Adults who beat the kids to the stores are selling the animals on eBay, sometimes for twice their retail value. Late last week the online auction site listed more than 10,000 Webkinz items for sale.

One man recently bought $366 worth of Webkinz at Ferrell's Hallmark in Lenexa. That's why that store's manager and others are considering purchase limits.

"We don't want adults buying them to sell them on eBay when there are so many kids saving up their allowances," Apricot Lane owner Bell said.

And oh, what a child won't do for a Webkinz.

One little boy in Belknap's Hallmark store pulled a $20 bill out of his pocket to buy one.

"You must have worked hard to earn that,'" she told him.

Yes, the boy said.

I had to fold my mother's underwear.