Furby frenzy fueling face-offs

Published: Saturday, Dec. 5 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

Furby mania is spawning Furby maniacs.

Parents desperate to buy the furry electronic doll for their children are turning on each other in Furby melees across the country.Yes, the fur is flying.

• Fury erupted at a Wal-Mart in Lynn, Mass., when customers who had waited overnight found out there were only 30 Furbies in stock.

• Two women were injured in a Furby stampede at a Wal-Mart in Illinois.

• Furby shoppers in Denver knocked over displays and trampled bystanders.

• Arlington, Texas, shoppers became abusive and started cursing Wal-Mart employees when they learned there weren't any more Furbies in stock.

Aimed at children ages 6 and up, Furby is a bug-eyed, furry electronic critter, who resembles Gizmo from the movie Gremlins. With a 200-word vocabulary in its own "Furbish" language, Furby speaks and interacts with other Furbies. And it sneezes, snores, laughs and dances when you tickle it or clap your hands.

Created by Tiger Electronics, an Illinois division of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro, Furby retails for $30 -- if you can find one.

After an article in the September issue of Wired magazine touted it as the hot toy of the year, Furby mania exploded. Since its introduction at F.A.O. Schwarz in early October, Furby has been flying off the toy-store shelves.

"As soon as this hit, it was red hot," said Mark O'Hanian, district manager for K-B Toys.

At the 19 K-B Toys stores in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, thousands waited in line for 6 a.m. store openings last Friday (Nov. 27), including some who arrived as early as 2 a.m. The 200 Furbies at each store sold out within an hour.

"Every year there's something hot, and then every two or three years, there's something really hot," O'Hanian said.

"It's great for Hasbro," said company spokesman Wayne Charness. "They're being gobbled up as quickly as they reach the store shelves."

But will shopping-line violence spoil Furby's success?

No way, says Lana Simon, a spokeswoman for Tiger, which envisioned Furby as a follow-up to its hit Giga Pets toy of last year.

"We're excited," Simon said. "It's a really cool toy."

She added, however, that Furby's creators do frown on maulings at the mall.

"I guess any reasonable parent would tell their child, I'll try the best I can, but if I don't get it now, we'll get it later," Simon said. "It's unfortunate that people leave those thoughts at home and go out to the stores and misbehave."

"Parents should act like grownups and be mature, and if kindergarten kids acted like that, they'd have to have a time-out," said Dr. Gregory Fritz, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital.

Although parents may feel that how much they love their children is reflected in how hard they fight for a particular toy, "that's crazy," Fritz said. "It's misguided. Children will probably enjoy going sledding with the parent more than they'd enjoy having some particular toy."

One possible explanation for the intensity of the Furby frenzy is that Furby arrived in stores late in the year, O'Hanian said. Tickle Me Elmo, for example, was available in July, of 1996, while Furby didn't appear until October.

As Furby shortages grow, the toy's black-market price is rising.

A sale Monday on eBay's Internet auction site fetched $188.50 within two minutes for a bride-and-groom Furby couple.

Individual Furbies are selling through the Internet for up to $85 apiece.

Tiger has shipped more than 1 million Furbies so far, and expects to ship up to 2 million by Dec. 31.

To meet demand, Tiger has ordered additional shipments by air from China.

"We're making the product as fast as we can," Simon said.

David Leibowitz, a toy-industry analyst at Burnham Securities in New York, said that Tiger is not to blame for the Furby shortage.

To curb inventory costs, toy retailers, such as Toys "R" Us, have been ordering fewer toys in advance. That gives manufacturers less time to produce and ship their products.

"You cannot expect manufacturers to build anything on spec," Leibowitz said. "The retailers have just compounded the problem by not placing large enough orders."

The Furby phenomenon follows past holiday toy crazes, such as: Cabbage Patch Kids, 1983 and 1984; Mighty Morphins Power Rangers, 1993; Nintendo 64, 1995; and Tickle Me Elmo, 1996 and 1997.

"I would say this equals the Cabbage Patch or the Elmo craze," O'Hanian said.

As for finding a Furby, O'Hanian is telling customers, "We're going to have some more before Christmas, but we're not sure when, and we're not sure of the quantity."

For the Furby-less, Gene Gilligan, executive editor of Playthings magazine, a trade publication, suggests considering some other "really nice toys."

Gilligan's favorites this season include: Spice Girls dolls, from Hasbro's Galoob; Blue's Clues plush dolls from Mattel; and that perennial bestseller, Barbie, from Mattel.

Leibowitz's favorite non-Furby bestsellers include: Teletubbies, from Hasbro; and Lego's Mindstorms, a $200 computer robotic system.

Other hits this season include Nintendo's color Game Boy system and a $100 interactive Winnie the Pooh from Mattel.

But don't forget, Fritz said, "Material things are just symbols of parental love. They're not in themselves anything all that remarkable."

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