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What makes a 'hot toy'?

Furby makers helped create a craze, but toy's success hints at psychology of consumerism.

At 2 a.m., with a brisk north wind blowing, the line started forming outside of Kay-Bee Toys in Jersey City, N.J., as word spread that the store had received a shipment of 100 "Furbys." By 5:45 a.m., the store had handed out numbers to the half-frozen mothers and fathers waiting in line and quickly sold out of the fuzzy stuffed animals, which are programmed to sneeze, blink, wiggle their ears, and demand attention in their own language, Furbish.

"We're getting calls about every two minutes from people trying to buy them," says assistant manager Marilyn Ramos.

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Welcome to the world of holiday toy mania. Almost every year, parents brave blizzards, wait overnight in parking lots, or get in fistfights to buy the "hot toy." This year is no different, and the season's top toy is certainly the Furby.

Last week, two women were injured - one claimed she was bitten - in a frenzy for Furbys in O'Fallon, Ill. In Tewksbury, Mass., police had to be called in to quell an unruly crowd waiting for a Furby-filled Wal-Mart to open. But the rush for Furbys is not just this year's version of Beanie Babies or the Hula Hoop: It's also a lesson in how manufacturers can create a craze. Getting the toy on the talk-show circuit is a must, but there's also an element of the unexpected that goes into making a toy the holiday bestseller.

"For the media it becomes a part of the holiday story: What is the really hot toy?" says Pamela Rucker of the National Retail Federation in Washington.

All of the hype feeds on itself. Internet surfers can ride an electronic wave to eBay, where Furbys are being auctioned off. On Friday, a seller in Schererville, Ind., auctioned off two Furbys that had never been out of their boxes for $262. They retail for $29.95 each.

In past years, this kind of mania has engulfed retailers when the producers of Sesame Street have come out with a new toy modeled after one of their TV characters, such as "Tickle Me Elmo." Or, sometimes, a movie begets a line of toys. But toy companies have also learned that there are ways to help create that demand.

This September, Tiger Electronics Ltd., a subsidiary of Hasbro got the toys on such shows as Today and the Rosie O'Donnell show. "[The TV hosts] generated a lot of excitement," says Terri Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America in New York.

The toys were six weeks from hitting the shelves, yet by the time they arrived at FAO Schwarz on Oct. 2, parents were frothing. TV news showed long lines of people waiting to buy the furry toys. "The reports of the long lines only perpetuated the frenzy," says Ms. Rucker.

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For retailers, the strength of the demand caught them by surprise. "We felt it would be a good seller, I can't say we thought it would be a hit," says Rebecca Caruso, a spokeswoman for Toys 'R' Us in Paramus, N.J. "Every retailer would love to be able to predict what will be the hot toy for the year."

Once it became clear that consumers were sweeping the toys off the shelves, retailers tried to order more. Ms. Caruso says her company has ordered 500,000. "We expect them in continually through January," she says.

Gotta have it

Other hot sellers this holiday season:

* Blues Clues

* Bounce Around Tigger

* Barbie

* Digital videodisc players

* Recordable CD players

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