- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

NEW YORK — “Batteries not included,” the phrase that stalled Christmas mornings of the past, could give way to a catchphrase of Christmas future: “Internet access not included.”

Many of the toys being introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York this week don’t require batteries but come with a Web site where participants can play with virtual images of the same toy.

For instance, Russ Berrie and Co. Inc. has released Sea Pals and Shining Stars, plush dolls of marine life and stars.

Users buy the toy and then go online with a code to create an online version of their doll. In the Sea Pals’ case, it all takes place in an online, interactive aquarium or the ocean, where users play games, chat with other “fish” or buy “hidden treasure” with “pearl points” earned in games.

The Sea Pals are slated to be in stores in May for about $10 each.

Shining Stars have been out for about a year under a similar concept. In addition to setting up an online star character, users can register a star in the International Star Registry.

The plush toys typically are released for a limited time, an attempt at making certain products harder to find and more exclusive.

Toy Fair is one of the largest conventions of toy manufacturers and buyers, where toy makers provide a sneak peek at the latest dolls, games and electronics that they hope will be the hot item for the next Christmas shopping season.

Tim Walsh, a toy specialist and author of the book “Timeless Toys,” said toy companies have to use the Internet if they want to compete for children’s attention.

“A community built on the Internet is one clever way businesses have figured out to catch the eyeballs of kids,” he said. “Kids spend a good amount of time online compared to watching TV. It’s a different generation as far as entertainment.”

Federal Communications Commission data found that broadband Internet access is available in 99 percent of the nation’s ZIP codes.

Mattel Inc.’s Barbie has a similar concept with BarbieGirls, in which children register a doll on their computer, like they would with a new MP3 player, and then use the doll’s image online to chat with friends or go to the shopping mall. BarbieGirls has about 10 million registered users, a spokeswoman said. Mattel plans to announce further upgrades to the online product later this year, she said, and may include content that requires a fee.

Ty has released Beanie Babies 2.0, which operates under a similar concept of using a code and going online to play games and chat. The new Beanie Babies cost about $6 to $7 and follow Ty’s successful doll-online product Ty Girls.

“Kids’ play patterns have changed,” said Tania Lundeen, senior vice president of sales at Ty. “It’s just another turn in the road for Beanie Babies.”

They are following the pattern set by Webkinz, which have been on the market since April 2005. Webkinz are plush dolls, similar to Ty’s Beanie Babies, that come with a code to get on the Web site, www.webkinz.com.

At the site, participants can set up a virtual world for their doll and buy products or trade goods with KinzCash or talk with other members through KinzChat.

Industry analysts say they expect more toy manufacturers to release products with an online component.

“It’s only going to grow in 2008 because of the popularity of products like Webkinz, Shining Stars and Barbie Girls,” said Sheliah Gilliland, spokeswoman for EToys.com, an online toy seller that generates annual sales of about $117 million.

“In 2008, we’re going to see the toys are even more sophisticated,” she said.

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