It has been a few years since the must-have toy of the holiday season was based on a character. "Tickle-Me Elmo" giggled and shook its way to pop-culture status in 1996. Two years later, kids everywhere wanted Furby, the chattering creature that spoke its own electronic language. It sold 4 million units in just a few months.
Prepare yourself to meet another new character this fall. The team behind Furby is back with a new company called Zizzle, and it's soon launching a musical toy that'll be heavily promoted by retailers, starting with a debut party at the Toys 'R' Us (TOY) store in New York's Times Square on Sept. 29. Other big retailers including Wal-Mart (WMT) and the Sears unit of Kmart (SHLD) will be carrying it, too.
The new toy is called iZ -- pronounced "is" -- and it's being hawked as a musical toy for the iPod generation. Expected to sell for $40, iZ stands nine inches tall, sports three legs, two huge eyes, trombone-shaped ears, and a bulbous light-up nose. It looks like a rejected character from a student animation film. But when moved different ways, all those body parts create music that the toy's creators say is different every time.
"EXECUTIVE TOY, TOO." Inside is a high-quality audio speaker, and with a standard stereo cord, iZ will accept music from any music source, be it a CD player, PC, or MP3 player such as Apple's (AAPL) iPod, which causes iZ's eyes to bounce and its nose to light up and change colors, all in time with the music.
This combination of features -- creating music but also responding to recorded music -- leads iZ's creators to expect the product to appeal to a wide age demographic, says Zizzle Chief Marketing Officer Marc Rosenberg. "It's a fusion of music and toy play for younger kids. Older kids will like it as a speaker to play their music through."
That potential for wide appeal isn't lost on retailers. "Kids will find this fascinating to play with, but it's almost an executive toy, too," says John Sullivan, senior vice-president at Toys 'R' Us, who oversees the retailer's electronic toy sales as well as its online unit. "It's certainly unique. We have yet to carry something that appeals to so broad a range of people."
GIGGLES GALORE. It all starts with iZ's belly button. Pressing it starts one of seven beats. Turning the right ear starts one of seven rhythms. The left ear carries seven melodies. Other sound effects come from a switch, and kids can change the music as it plays by altering the tempo, adding sound effects -- iZ speaks its own language of hip-hoppy gibberish, usually at random -- but it also has sounds like a scratching effect or cymbals or drums. It will have some hidden body-function sounds as well, sure to make kids giggle.
Zizzle is a startup based in Bannockburn, Ill., about an hour's drive north of Chicago. It was founded by Roger Shiffman, 52, who helped make Furby such a hit for Tiger Electronics and then sold the company to Hasbro (HAS) in 1998. Shiffman stayed on with Hasbro for more than three years then retired. He came up with the name Zizzle after weeks of brainstorming with Rosenberg and consulting with marketing agencies.
He launched Zizzle this year with Rosenberg and other colleagues from his days at Tiger, and it wasn't long before the concept for iZ landed at their door. "An inventor friend of ours brought it to us," Rosenberg says. "He said he'd heard we were getting back into the business and wanted us to see it." And yes, it has always had the same strange appearance throughout the development process.
GET MOVING! IZ will be Zizzle's first product, but the company won't kick into high gear until 2006 when it produces a line of action figures connected to a forthcoming movie -- Rosenberg declines to say which one -- for which it has secured a master toy license. Zizzle also has plans for a line of handheld electronic games. "Our retailer partners really pushed us to launch iZ as fast as we could. But we have lot [more] planned for 2006," Rosenberg says.
But iZ won't have the stage all to itself. Hasbro plans to relaunch the Furby line this fall as well. The toy season is going to be off to a noisy start this fall.
By Arik Hesseldahl in New York