A category with legs: Robo dogs let loose at retail
People have often called the toy biz a dog-eat-dog world-a phrase that’s sure to take on a whole new meaning this month, as a new litter of robotic mutts begins trampling its way into stores. Fisher-Price, Trendmasters and Tiger are all poised to unleash their own cyber pups this fall, and each will be trying to mark its territory with consumers in what’s shaping up to be the must-have toy for this holiday season.
‘The kennel, if you will, is going to be where it’s at for Christmas 2000,’ says Chris Duquette, the preschool and licensed plush buyer for KB Toys. KB has already seen encouraging results for the first two cyber dogs out of the gate, Tiger’s Poo-Chi and Manley Toy Quest’s Tekno. According to Duquette, sales for Poo-Chi (released in May) increased 10% to 20% at the chain for the month of July and early sell-through figures for Tekno (released in July) have also been strong. Duquette expects sales of both items to pick up considerably once their respective TV ad campaigns hit the airwaves (Tiger’s in late August, Manley’s to follow this month). The chain will carry both Fisher-Price and Trendmasters’ dogs as well, he says, and plans to introduce a special in-store boutique-pound in which to house all of the robotic pets.
With so many mutts moving into the marketplace, though, betting on which pooch will be the year’s top dog is likely to prove a confusing exercise for retailers and consumers alike. Despite what toycos may claim (and they are making several claims), there’s little to choose from in terms of the dogs’ functionality. Price, however, is another matter.
At the high end of the cost spectrum are Fisher-Price’s Rocket (US$99) and Tiger’s i-Cybie (US$150). Both perform a multitude of tricks that would make Siegfried & Roy jealous, and feature voice-recognition chips that allow them to respond only to the voice of their owners. ‘We think Rocket’s realism will differentiate it from the other dogs,’ says Laurie Oravec, a Fisher-Price spokesperson who notes that the dog can also scratch for fleas on command. Fisher-Price is targeting Rocket at pre- to elementary-school-age children. By contrast, Tiger will market i-Cybie (a less expensive answer to Sony’s US$2,500 Aibo), which it will release in November, to families and adults.
For the more moderate-priced dog shopper, there are Tiger’s Super Poo-Chi (US$45) and Trendmasters’ Big Scratch and Lil’ Scratch (US$59.99). While not as sophisticated as their more expensive counterparts, both will shake a paw and perform other like-minded dog tricks. Trendmasters’ Big Scratch and Lil’ Scratch includes a small and a large dog and comes with a dog bone that kids can use to transmit commands via IR waves. Like its predecessor, Super Poo-Chi won’t be able to walk, but will feature voice-recognition technology so kids can bark directives at it. Also in the same price bracket and VA chip-ready is Manley’s Tekno. Already the top-selling toy in the company’s history, according to president Brian Dubinsky, Tekno has managed to attract both older and younger kids, a feat which it’s been able to achieve partly through clever web marketing. On its site (tekno-robot.com), Manley has posted steps not included in the toy’s instruction manual on how to program Tekno to perform some more-shall we say-risqué functions that would appeal to more mature consumers.
‘We didn’t want younger kids to know how to program the dog to fart, for example. That was something we thought an older kid would get a kick out of,’ says Dubinsky.
Though flatulence isn’t part of its cyber DNA (yet), Tiger’s Poo-Chi-at US$25.99, the least expensive dog currently available-shows no signs that its popularity is on the wane. In its first seven weeks, Poo-Chi sold 250,000 units, which, according to Tiger spokesman Marc Rosenberg, is comparable to preliminary sales of the company’s last major hit Furby. The reason for Poo-Chi’s early success, Rosenberg explains, is that it has transcended its target market, kids four to 11, and is proving to be a popular item with college-age kids and even the elderly. ‘People who are older, like my grandparents, who can’t take care of real pets anymore, are really taking to them,’ he says.
Tiger will try keep the heat on Poo-Chi well into the new year by tying it into two QSR deals. Both promos will hit the first half of 2001. The first will see Tiger create a special Poo-Chi for a well-known animated canine theatrical property (hmm. . . will there be spots on it?); the second will center on Poo-Chi.
Tiger has already shifted into brand-building mode with Poo-Chi and plans to introduce extensions later this fall, including a cat called Meow-Chi (US$30) that will able to interact with Tiger’s other robo pets. Manley will also weigh in with its own cat, Kitty the Robotic Kitten, which it will release in Q4. Not to be outdone, this fall Trendmasters will release Muy Loco (US$29.99), a saucy, Latin robotic chameleon that can flick its tongue for flies and recite double entendres, like `how do you like your salsa baby? Hot! Hot! Hot!’ Sensing the coming herd of robo dogs, Trendmasters opted to create a robotic animal outside of the canine family to give consumers an alternative, says John Siener, a marketing manager at the company. Felines and reptiles notwithstanding, however, for this holiday season, Siener concedes that robo dogs are likely to be the cat’s meow.