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Robotic cat surprise toy hit of the holidays

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Tiger Electronics' Meow-Chi spins in place and plays songs while its eyes light up with various shapes.

A plastic cat that whistles incessantly has beaten out the radio controlled snake, the sock puppet from a bankrupt dot-com company and a talking dump truck to become the surprise toy hit of the holiday season.

Shoppers snatched Meow-Chi, a robotic cat, off store shelves in the final weeks before Christmas, and toy retailers characterized it Thursday as the sleeper of the season.

The retailers K-B Toys and Zany Brainy say they sold out of the plastic cats in most of their stores. Other chains, including F.A.O. Schwarz and Toys "R" Us, said they were pleasantly surprised by the sales of Meow-Chi.

"The ones we got we sold out immediately," said Lisa Orman, a spokeswoman for Zany Brainy, a chain of 188 specialty toy stores. "It was totally unadvertised, but customers were calling in, waiting for them to arrive."

Market researchers have not yet released aggregate figures on toy sales, and Roger Shiffman, the president of Tiger Electronics, a Hasbro division that makes Meow-Chi, said he did not know how many units of the toy had been sold. But Shiffman said the company shipped "hundreds of thousands" of the robotic cats.

On the Web site jointly run by and Toys "R" Us, Meow-Chi, which retails for $25, was among the top sellers this week. The silver and pink versions of the toy were both in the top 15 Thursday, behind older favorites like stuffed Elmos and heavily discounted Barbie dolls. The black version of Meow-Chi was at No. 89.

Meow-Chi does not walk around, but spins in place and plays various songs. Its eyes light up with hearts and other shapes, and with various chirps the toy signals whether its "mood" is joyous or foul. The more children push Meow-Chi's buttons, the better the toy's mood, and the happier Meow-Chis feel, the more songs they sing. (Since the toy has no off switch, that could be either a reward or a punishment.)

"It reacts to lights, sounds and touch, and the more you care for them the happier they all are," said Chris Byrne, editor of Toy Report, a weekly newsletter. "Mine all hate me. I start them up and they growl at me."

To Janet Henry of Kennebunkport, Maine, the toy seemed like the perfect gift. In August, Henry took possession of a real cat, Helen, after Helen's former owner, Christopher Canatsey, decided his cat deserved a larger spread than the dimensions of his New York City apartment. Henry decided Meow-Chi would be a perfect gift for Canatsey.

But when Henry checked the Toys "R" Us and the K-B Toys stores in Portland, both were sold out. So she began a daily ritual of calling the stores to check for new shipments.

"It was the Wednesday before Christmas and in the last shipment from K-B Toys there were 42 Meow-Chis," Henry said. "And I got one of them."

Meow-Chi was not heavily promoted by Tiger Electronics because officials said they originally intended to release it next year. But Shiffman said it was shipped in time for some retailers to put it out for Christmas.

Shiffman said it sold well in part because there is a natural constituency for a toy cat. "There are a lot of cat lovers out there," he said.

Byrne said several toy companies will have robot cats out next year, but Tiger benefited from being first to market with Meow-Chi, and the strong sales of Poo-Chi, an electronic dog that was one of the best-selling toys of the year. Children who already had Poo-Chi wanted Meow-Chi so they could watch the two toys interact, Byrne said.

There will be consequences to Meow-Chi's success. Next on the way: robotic birds from Tiger and possibly others, Byrne said. "You are going to see a lot more robotic animals coming."