By Jan Paschal
NEW YORK, July 18 (Reuters) - It's a dog-eat-robo-dog world out there.
Tekno the Robotic Puppy is the latest entry in a pack of almost a dozen rival robo-canines that by Christmas will be crowding toy store shelves, nipping at the heels of parents, grandparents and doting aunts and hoping to be the one who gets taken home.
``It's a little crowded,'' said Jim Silver, publisher of ``Toy Wishes,'' a toy magazine for consumers, and ``The Toy Book'' for the industry. "But 10 or 12 aren't going to make it.
``I'm really focusing on three: Poo-Chi, which has sold the most units up to now, and Super Poo-Chi, which will be launched in October'' by Tiger Electronics Ltd. "There's Rocket, the Fisher-Price dog, which will be out in October. And Tekno, the one from Manley. I'm not ranking them in order.
``Rocket seems to be the most advanced,'' Silver said. ``It's for the younger child. Tiger has developed a brand name with Poo-Chi and is extending that with Super Poo-Chi'' and other robotic animal toys, which Silver sees as adding up to ``just a great fourth quarter'' for Tiger's parent, Hasbro Inc. (NYSE:HAS - news), which also makes Furby and ``Star Wars'' toys.
``And Tekno is the best of the less expensive'' robo-dogs, Silver said. ``It's a superior dog for $30.''
Nope, no pooper-scooper necessary, the robo-puppies' creators say. No flea collar needed, either.
Tekno, which sold out quickly on eToys' Web site at $39.99, is likely to go for $30 to $34 at some stores, Silver said.
James E. Berk, chairman and chief executive of The Store of Knowledge, a national retail chain that specialises in educational toys, said, ``We're going to test the one from Tiger in the fall. We're probably going to go with Super Poo-Chi, because that's more in line with who we are. And since it's a mass merchant item, we're probably going to do something value-added. We may sell it with a robotics book.''
Poo-Chi, the singing and dancing creation of Tiger Electronics and Japan's Sega Toys, made his debut in April at the tony FAO Schwarz flagship store in New York. Since then, 250,000 Poo-Chis have been sold, at about $29.99 apiece, in toy stores and over the Internet, said Lana Simon, director of public relations and promotions for Tiger.
Rocket the Wonder Dog, a remote-controlled puppy with blue eyes that roll and eyebrows that wag a la Groucho Marx, will be in stores by Oct. 1, according to Fisher-Price, part of Mattel Inc. (NYSE:MAT - news). Price: $99. Target audience: Ages 3 to 5.
``The Sony puppy led the way'' for this year's robo-dog craze at Toy Fair and beyond, Berk said. He was referring to Aibo, the $2,500 canine wonder from Sony Corp. (NYSE:SNE - news) that sold out last year in Japan and the United States. ``The toy industry saw how popular it was. And, of course, this being the toy industry, you get 15 copies.''
TEKNO AND HIS TRICKS
``eToys is pre-selling Tekno on rain checks now,'' said Brian Dubinsky, president of Manley Toy Quest, of Los Angeles.
By September, Manley will have shipped 3.5 million Tekno puppies. Each looks almost like a little Son of Sony's Aibo.
Bruce Kirch, senior buyer for eToys Inc. (NasdaqNM:ETYS - news), the Internet toy retailer, of Santa Monica, Calif., said ``the pre-sell for Tekno was bigger than I expected.'' So big, in fact, that Tekno sold out within hours of his first appearance in June on eToys' Web site -- http://www.etoys.com. He's still ``out of stock'' with a ``limit 2 per customer'' note posted.
``That's what is neat about the Internet,'' Kirch added. ``You can reach the mom at home in Peoria, who can't get to FAO Schwarz,'' or more to the point, can't even get out of the house to shop for toys. ``Somewhere in this robotic dog category is the toy of the year.''
Tekno walks when you call him, Dubinsky said. He can be taught card tricks and set like an alarm clock.
``And I don't know if I should say this or not, you can even teach him to fart,'' Dubinsky said.
The trick is meant to appeal to 8- to 11-year-old boys, part of Tekno's target audience. For details on Tekno's tricks, see the Web site: http://www.tekno-robot.com.
Mike Normann, the Toys ``R'' Us (NYSE:TOY - news) buyer who picked Tekno, said, ``My first impression: I thought it was very cute. It has a lot of different features for the price point,'' batteries and ``off'' switch included.
Bob Del Principe, Manley's vice president of product development, said it took about 18 months to perfect the Tekno software design, which runs on a chip like those in the Apple Macintosh computers of the early 1980s. The tough part, he said, was working out the logic, such as the way the eyes flash and the way the dog responds to stimuli.
Manley Toy Quest redesigned Tekno's package, Dubinsky said, after the original one proved so tamper-proof it caused some lost sales. (It took almost an hour, a power screwdriver and some swearing to free Tekno from the original box.)
DANCIN' POO-CHI TO GET NEW PALS
Poo-Chi, small enough to fit in the palm of an average adult's hand, shows he's happy when his eyes blink in heart designs and he wags his tail. He can dance on tiptoe and perform six songs, including Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy.'' When Poo-Chi is sad, his eyes blink in half-moon shapes.
The first litter of Poo-Chi puppies were silver with pink, blue or purple eyes, ears, tail and joints. But pink wasn't popular, so no more pink Poo-Chis. The new generation includes a black body with red trim.
The Poo-Chi box, which looks like a miniature dog house, is more user-friendly than Tekno's packaging. But he has no ``off'' switch and the instructions can be challenging.
``You need a Ph.D. to programme that thing!'' said one toy designer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Poo-Chi fans, said Alan Marcus, vice president of public relations at FAO Schwarz in New York, cover ``everyone from children as young as 5, to teens, to parents buying it as a gift for their children,'' or maybe even buying for themselves.
``Poo-Chi has been consistently in the top five toys'' sold by FAO Schwarz since its April launch, Marcus said. ``We sold out in the first day and had to keep replenishing the shelves. We've also had very strong Internet sales'' on the store's Web site -- http://www.fao.com.
This October, Tiger will unleash Super Poo-Chi, a grown-up interactive dog that's more intelligent than Poo-Chi, at $49.99, said Marc Rosenberg, Tiger's vice president of communications. In November, i-Cybie, a more sophisticated cyberdog who can fetch and download tricks from the computer, at $129.99. And, just before the holidays, Meow-Chi, a robotic cat priced at $30, will join the fray.
A COUNTDOWN FOR ROCKET
``Fisher-Price has always done well with puppy toys,'' said Jerry Perez, executive vice president of marketing and design.
Rocket the Wonder Dog looks friendly, even a little silly, like a cartoon dog. But he's also a wonder of technology.
``We wanted a puppy that really responded to a child, one that the child was the toy's new master,'' Perez said.
Rocket, a $99 toy designed for boys and girls ages 3 to 5, has sophisticated voice-recognition technology and a headset.
``The headset is not tethered to the dog. It projects an infrared signal,'' Perez said. ``Rocket responds to only a total of two voices programmed into the headset. We did this thinking that the parent would be involved with the child and Rocket, at least at first, so Rocket would respond to parent and child. And we thought if there's another child in the family, then Rocket could be reprogrammed to respond to both of them. So he recognises little Johnny's voice, and little Jennie's, too.''
To keep an eye on Rocket until he lands in the stores, go to the Fisher-Price Web site -- http://www.fisherprice.com -- and click on ``Countdown for Rocket.'' Rocket will be sold at KB Toys, Target, Kmart and Zany Brainy, as well as at FAO Schwarz, Toys ``R'' Us and Wal-Mart, Perez said.
WILL EVERY ROBO-PUP FIND A HOME?
If enough cash registers don't ring during the holidays, will any of these robo-pups wind up at the pound?
The stakes are high. Tiger Electronics' advertising and promotion budget for Poo-Chi for this year will fall between $4 million and $5 million, Rosenberg said. Most of that will be for TV commercials. The creative work was done by the Posnick & Kolker agency of New York. Fisher-Price will spend ``millions'' to promote Rocket the Wonder Dog, with TV commercials created by Young & Rubicam, airing heavily during Saturday morning cartoon shows. Manley Toy Quest will spend about $3 million for Tekno commercials, created by the Scott Group of Los Angeles.
``No pun intended,'' said Dubinsky, of Manley Toy Quest, ``but it's going to be a dog fight to see who comes up a champion.''
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