woensdag 5 september 2007

Internet pet: These loveable stuffed animals take Beanie Babies to another level

What's lovable, fuzzy all over and Internet-savvy? It's Webkinz -- the new plush animal toy that comes with a secret code, unlocking a World Wide Web of fun for kids.

Twelve-year-old twins Alex and Sydney, who own a cow and a hippo, could not pass up the opportunity to peruse the Webkinz display rack at Kirlin's Hallmark in Davenport for more. "A friend of mine had one, so I wanted one," Sydney said. "They're adorable."

"We split the cost on the first one to see if we'd like it," said Alex.

Explaining how the toys work, Sydney said, "There's this thing (online) that tells you if they're sad or happy or need food."

Alex chimed in. "Yeah, and you can buy clothes for them online, too. Except you don't buy with real money. You get bonus points."

Webkinz, meant for children from age 6 up to the tween years, come in two sizes. Each stuffed animal comes with a secret code revealed at purchase that provides a year's worth of Internet access to the Webkinz Web site, www.webkinz.com.

Once online, kids can formally adopt and name their pets; play games; take quizzes; read stories; enter contests; earn points to "buy" their pets toys, furniture, food and clothes; and chat.

Winning a 2007 Toy of the Year Award from the Toy Industry Association (TIA) and an iParenting award for Webkinz, the people at Ganz came up with an inexpensive way -- less than $10 -- for kids to take responsibility for a pet while safely having fun online.

"The only chat functions are prewritten constructed messages from pull-down menus," said Susan McVeigh, communications manager for Ganz. "There is no direct communication with anyone."

Sally Engles, Kirlins' store manager, agreed. "You cannot type any of your own words; the word choice has to come from the menus or online dictionary. If you do use a bad word, it's highlighted in red and you can't go any further."

Webkinz.com offers clear warnings about its specific guidelines and says it will permanently terminate abusers and cheaters without warning.

Tom Lawrence, co-owner of Ryan's Hallmark in Moline, said he was concerned about safety when his daughter bought a Webkinz. "I was mostly concerned about the Web site, but after logging on with her, I found there was no way anyone could get her personal information. The site's tools are the biggest plus -- spelling games, trivia games -- I just love the educational aspects," he said.

"I enjoy the safety of the site," said Alex's and Sydney's mother, Kris, who declined to give their last name. "I feel the kids can go online, and I can walk out of the room. I don't feel that way with some of the other public Web sites that are out there."

The toys' popularity brings back memories of the Beanie Baby obsession, when people would follow UPS drivers around with the hope that their delivery was on the truck. "It's not that bad," Ms. Engles said, "but since Christmas, we get a new shipment of these every 10 days."

"We had a hard time keeping them in stock, but we have two display racks now," said Gloria Yates, store manager at Ryan's Hallmark. "We even have a Webkinz Club here at the store and are going to have a Webkinz party this fall."

With all its accessories for both girls and boys -- trading cards, knapsacks, charm bracelets and purses -- the Webkinz world keeps growing.

"I think the toy's done so well because it's a concept where kids have everything they've traditionally loved -- a collectible; it's pretend; it's fantasy -- but you also have the Internet," said Ms. McVeigh of Ganz. She added that there's plenty to interest both girls and boys. "There are games, tournaments, even movie scripts kids can act out."

Kids actually like the hands-on lessons, too.

"It shows you how to manage your money," said Danielle, 11, "and you have to buy food for them or grow the food in your garden. When you want to buy something, you can't just go out and buy it -- you have to save for it."

Webkinz have been available since April 2005, and there seems to be no end in site of its popularity, or at least not any time soon.

"They've been great for sales," Ms. Engles said, "but it also makes us happy knowing we're selling a product that makes everyone happy -- especially parents."

via qconline

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