Webkinz — The Price of Popularity


Here’s the way the telephone calls usually go. The phone rings, and when I answer, the voice on the other end is hesitant, apologetic: “Hello. I was just wondering … I know you probably don’t have any … I’ve called all over …”

By now, I know.

“Are you looking for Webkinz, ma’am?”
“Yes, yes, I am! How did you know?”

Then there’s a little pause.

“Oh, I see. This isn’t the first phone call you’ve had about Webkinz, is it?”

No, it’s not. Not the first, not the tenth, not the hundredth. And I don’t have good news for her.

“I’m afraid that we are all out of Webkinz. Not a single one left in the store, nothing.”

“I see.” The resignation in her voice is palpable. She needs one for her little girl’s birthday, or as a gift for her nephew, or even to add to her own collection. But there are none to be had.

“And you’re not expecting a shipment in the near future?” she asks wistfully. When I tell her that the next expected ship date is some four to six weeks away, she sighs gustily into the telephone, thanks me, and hangs up.

Webkinz, in case you have been marooned on a desert island recently, or have no contact with young children, are cute little stuffed animals from a toy company called Ganz. Now, the fact that they are cute is neither here nor there; most stuffed animals are cute. Webkinz are also reasonably-priced, at CDN$12.00 for the “babies” and CDN$14.99 for the “parents” (just raised from $10 and $13 respectively), but there are plenty of inexpensive plush animals on the market that don’t get a zillionth the press.

What Webkinz do have is a virtual-world playspace, inhabited by cartoonish avatars of the “pets” themselves, and amazing word-of-mouth advertising. The child (or adult — these are not purchased solely for children, by any means) uses a unique PIN number to gain his or her pet entry into the website, where the pet can live, play, and do chores with his or her young owner. Doing these things, in turn, earns the owner KinzCash, which can be used to purchase such items as toys, furniture, and clothes for the pet.

The whole thing is sort of reminiscent of the Tamagochi craze — but way cuter. Children can interact with a representation of their favourite stuffie in a completely new way — including a constructed text-chat function that allows them to formulate sentences from options in drop-down menus, and chat with their friends. This “canned chat” restricts text options, thus making children using the site safe from predators.

The problem lies in the popularity of the things, alas. The maker of Webkinz toys, Montreal-based Ganz, cannot supply enough to meet the demand — which increases the risk that, by the time their inventory levels recover, the fickle interest of the toy-buying public will have moved on to something else.

Although I sincerely hope not, since I’ve got a huge restocking order scheduled to arrive in June.

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