St. Louis Post-Dispatch Consumer Central column [St. Louis Post-Dispatch :: ]
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 14--It's been pretty quiet at the offices of Cepia LLC in recent years, but that's about to change.
Cepia is the small Clayton-based toy company that seemingly came out of nowhere to stun the industry in 2009 with its robotic plush hamsters, Zhu Zhu Pets. While the toy's popularity mystified some older folks, it was a blockbuster hit among kids. And there hasn't been anything quite like it since.
For its part, Cepia quickly followed up Zhu Zhu with other extensions of that line as well with products such as graphically illustrated marbles called DaGeDar and colorful hermit crabs called Xia-Xia.
But last year, it sat out the American International Toy Fair in New York, the industry's biggest U.S. showcase for new toys.
"Zhu Zhu Pets was such a significant success -- it really is the watermark by which we measure all brands," said Laura Kurzu, Cepia's senior vice president of marketing. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happened. So we decided to catch our breath. And we had the luxury of sitting back and looking at what we want to take to market."
The company has been testing various things. This weekend, it is returning to the toy fair armed with two new lines -- its first new major product launches in a couple of years.
One of the new lines is called Happy's -- cute, motorized plush pets. They're like Zhu Zhu Pets, but this time they are dogs and cats. And they do more than scurry around.
They will follow you around if you hold out a special treat. If you hold out other treats (sold separately, of course), they will do other things such as pounce or chase their tail.
"They wimper, they yapper," Kurzu said. "They will spontaneously explore. They will run around the house like a normal puppy would."
Yes, in case you're wondering, there is an off button. And yes, of course, you can buy plenty of accessories, including a playground and training set as well as more characters promised to come later beyond an initial four.
It will be up to the kids if the Happy's stick around stores for long. But Kurzu said Cepia feels good about them and has gotten a great reception so far.
"If it hits, we usually know pretty quickly," she said. "We have a pretty good sense about the brand or we wouldn't be bringing it to market."
The toys, which are aimed at both boys and girls (Zhu Zhu Pets ended up being more popular with girls), will hit Walmart, Target, Toys R Us and Justice stores next month. They will be promoted by television ads that will run on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.
The spring release might, at first glance, seem odd because the vast majority of toy sales come later in the year, closer to the holidays starting in August through December. But Kurzu said this way, officials hope to pick up some Easter sales and to start introducing the brand now to build momentum into the holidays.
That is a good strategy, said Chris Byrne, content director for TimetoPlayMag.com, because it gives the marketplace some time to discover it. And he added that spring launches can be wise when you don't have millions of dollars to spend on television ads like some of the toy heavyweights do.
Happy's has a lot going for it, he said. It's a cute product, coming from a company with a strong track record, and has smart marketing behind it. As a smaller company (it has about 20 employees out of its Clayton office and 30 others worldwide), Cepia has lower overhead than other toy companies. And the toys are not very expensive (Happy's will be sold for $19.99) so they don't require a big investment from parents.
"It's got a much better than average shot," he said.
Cepia was probably smart to take its time to figure out its next big launch, Byrne added. After all, the toy business is crowded right now and is quite competitive.
"It's strategic to find the right product and to launch it at the right time rather than to pump stuff into the marketplace," he said. "Nobody can afford to do that anymore."
In addition to Happy's, Cepia is launching another new product line later this year. It has not released many details about Armadons yet, but will do so at the toy fair, which will be held Sunday to Wednesday. The toys, aimed at boys, are figures that automatically transform into other battle figures. They are expected to hit stores in the fall.
But as even Zhu Zhu proves, none of these toys will likely have a long shelf life. After all, you can no longer find Zhu Zhu Pets at your local big box store.
"They're traded still on eBay and are really popular at garage sales," Kurzu said.
Cepia mostly retired the brand last year (but has plans to bring it back in the future). Kurzu noted that Zhu Zhu is still being sold internationally, particularly in Europe.
Zhu Zhu's disappearance from the marketplace is the "nature of the toy business," Byrne said. "Two years or even three years is really a good run for a toy considering how many things don't get a second season."
It's an industry that thrives on novelty and newness.
"We haven't seen anything jump the barrier from great toy to cultural phenomenon since Zhu Zhu," he said. "But that doesn't mean anything won't."
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