NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Move aside Barbie, drop that Wii. The hottest toy this Christmas is an interactive hamster that drives a car and squeaks happily when petted on the nose -- and doesn't break the bank for parents.
These fuzzy, electronic toy hamsters have featured on many lists of the season's top toys and are flying off the shelves at major outlets like Walmart and Toys "R" Us at about $8 each -- but selling for up to $100 on sites like Amazon.com and eBay.com.
A website www.wheretobuyzhuzhupets.com has even been set up for frantic parents trying to ensure they have the must-have pet under the tree next month and of course the pets have their own website www.zhuzhupets.com.
Demand for the low-maintenance pets that don't poop, stink or die is so high that toy stores can't keep up with orders.
"We've been providing them to customers from behind the register, because as soon as they come in .. the doors open and Zhu Zhu Pets customers are waiting for their little hamsters," Toys "R" Us spokeswoman Adrienne Giordano told Reuters Television.
"For the past decade we've seen a number of hot toys that replicate this type of trend with Tickle Me Elmo, the Wii, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the '80s."
The hamsters, available in characters Mr. Squiggles, PipSqueak, Chunk, Patches and Num Nums, have about 40 different sounds and can scurry around in their own playsets, making a toilet-flushing noise when they enter the bathroom.
Children can add accessories like a car, a skateboard and a wheel to their hamster world.
Adrienne Citrin from the Toy Industry Association said Zhu Zhu Pets fitted into a category of toys proving popular this year that focused on the economic downturn and did not cost parents a fortune.
"There are a lot of great toys out there for families that are under $10, under $20, so you're seeing a huge variety, and kids are loving toys that they can collect," she said.
"I think shoppers in every arena from toys to apparel to cars - people are evaluating their purchases. But toy manufacturers saw this coming, and toys that they introduced this year were even more affordable than ever."
However Zhu Zhu Pets did not come from one of the major toy brands or from a movie, but are made by Cepia LLC, a small, seven-year-old company in St. Louis, Missouri.
But Cepia, with a senior management team boasting decades of toy industry experience, executed a clever marketing plan.
During the year, the company hosted hamster-demonstration events at major league baseball games across the United States, visited children's hospitals, and also courted mommy bloggers, sponsoring some 250 "hamster parties" at bloggers' homes.
Reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith