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It's a Webkinz World for kids

September 30, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

When 11-year-old Jennifer Meyers gets home from school, she checks on one of her pets to see if it's hungry, healthy and happy.

After giving her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, a bath and feeding it a bone burrito last week, she noticed he wasn't feeling well and gave him a piece of candy.

That didn't go over well with Tinkerbell, and another lesson was learned.

Fortunately Tinkerbell is a virtual pet, modeled after one of Jennifer's 33 Webkinz - plush stuffed animals.

Webkinz were introduced in April 2005, but demand soared for the toys after last Christmas, when word spread from children who received them as gifts and discovered the online world that came with them. Each toy comes with a tag containing a code that gives its owner access to the online Webkinz World for one year.

For each of Jennifer's plush Webkinz, she has gone online, secured a virtual pet, given it a name and gender, and created a room in her virtual house. As caregiver for these virtual pets, she must take care of them or they can become ill as Tinkerbell did. His visit to the clinic, which was free and required no wait, resulted in the need for a $50 pill, much to the horror of the Western Heights Middle School sixth-grader.

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Owners of Webkinz, or smaller versions called Lil'Kinz, can earn KinzCash in this online world by playing games and doing chores. They spend this virtual money on food, clothes, furniture, wallpaper and other items for their virtual pets and home.

"It's like having a kid. You have to give in to their needs. You have to feed them," said Jennifer, of Hagerstown.

Webkinz also have taught Jennifer "how fast money can go and how to make it," said her mother, Sharon Meyers.

Webkinz's online world also allows owners of the toys to play games and chat with other Webkinz owners online.

Children can only chat online in the Webkinz World by using phrases provided by Ganz, the family company in Ontario, Canada, that created Webkinz.

Ganz experimented with letting Webkinz owners use their own words, but company officials weren't happy with the result and removed that feature for now, said Susan McVeigh, communications manager for Ganz.

Prohibiting users from entering personal information, such as their names and phone numbers, is basic Internet safety when working with children, McVeigh said. Parents and children need to feel comfortable using the site, she said.

Toy Industry Association members voted Webkinz the 2006 specialty toy of the year this past February. Reyne Rice, the association's toy trends specialist, said Webkinz stimulated business for the specialty market and created a new business model - a toy with an online component.

"The kids of today have always grown up with a computer mouse in hand. So having an Internet component is just expected with these kids," Rice said.

Ganz doesn't advertise the toys but relies on word of mouth, McVeigh said. That's probably what took the toy so long to gain popularity, she said.

Jennifer has helped spread the word, getting friends like Cheryl Cosens, 11, of Hagerstown, interested in the toys and online world.

"It's really fun. I like to play in the arcade," said Cheryl, who goes online with Webkinz five days a week.

The main customers for Webkinz are young girls, though some adults and boys have gotten them too, according to Wanda Mowen, store manager for Matthew's Hallmark in Valley Mall, and Darlene Strock, co-owner of The Village Country Peddler on West Franklin Street.

While the Hallmark store has been selling the plush toys since last fall, Country Peddler began selling them in June because Strock and co-owner Ted Eichelberger kept getting requests.

Since the store started carrying the toys, Country Peddler has had more foot traffic as well as shipping orders from California and Virginia.

Also, the Webkinz brand is expanding with products such as purses in which to carry the pets. In addition to accessories for the plush pets, there are trading cards and lip gloss.

Regular Webkinz cost around $12.50 to $15, while Lil'Kinz cost around $9 to $10, according to an informal survey of 10 Tri-State-area stores.

To learn more about Webkinz, go to www.webkinz.com and click on "Take a Tour."

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