The hysterical longings _ and a whiff of hatred _ circling the air for the newest generation of Furbies in Thailand is so palpable, it hits you in the face like a purple, fuzzy brick. The hit owlish toy with the iconic googly eyes and a chatterbox nature that can interact with the owner _ personally or through mobile apps _ was first introduced in the US in 1998 and sold over 40 million units within three years, instantly becoming a sensation so sweeping you might have had to send your child to Pluto in order to avoid it.
Although the cravings for the newest model started in the US with its release in September 2012, the excitement seems to have just reached our shores. The hype started when none other than material girl Araya "Chompoo" Hargate and fashion icon Chavaporn "Ploy" Laohapongchana uploaded pictures of their new toys on their Instagram accounts and blogs in early January.
When other influential stars and celebrities, such as Woody Milintachinda and Sudarat "Tukky" Butrprom, also advertised their love for their furry friends on Instagram, the status was solidified: the big-eared creature was the "it" item that all the "it" people must have.
Star endorsements through social networks are an immensely effective marketing tool (either they're paid to pose with Furbies or their love for the dolls is genuine and everlasting). While some buy the newest Furby because they cannot resist the cuteness, others do because they just want to jump on the bandwagon _ and the negative effects of the hype have emerged in the various scam stories of overpriced Furby and phantom online vendors that took the money but never delivered the dolls.
Celebrity names were exploited by these crooks, while victims weep.
Shoolchildren in Phrae province lost over 40,000 baht, and in one case, a collective of 28 victims lost over 200,000 baht without getting to cuddle the dolls.
Clearly, the new Furby is the rich kids' toy. With the retail prices set at not much less than 3,000 baht, most customers pre-ordering their Furbies are from city areas. However, unlike in the US where children and teens are the target group, the biggest clients in Thailand are office women in their 20s.
"Its character changes all the time, so I haven't gotten bored yet," says Phasiri Sunthornprasat, 27. "Plus, I don't think it's a big deal if you eventually get bored with it. You can just pass it on to your younger relatives. And if you don't interact with it for a while, it just goes to sleep, so it's not excessively annoying."
Initially she, too, thought it was silly, but the Furby has definitely grown on her. "I did think it was something stupid at first _ the doll is funny and laughs like a kid. I don't know what sex it is _ I actually think it might be a tud _ a homosexual!"
Twenty-three-year-old Sirima Supattanavat fell in love with Furbies in 1999.
"Back then I felt it was a magical toy that was completely in its own category." She wants the new model now she's found out about what it can do. Still, she refuses to shell out for them.
"It's far too expensive. I like them, but I wouldn't pay that money for a toy. The fashionista girls in my office all have one, but that's fine because they're rich."
Now, in this latest incarnation, Hasbro has rebooted the old puffball into an intelligent plaything with a computerised brain and upgraded sensors. Objects of entertainment for children today need to go beyond the basics more than ever to ensure its survival among youth that are used to smart devices. Analyst Sean McGowan said to Businessweek: "As more kids of all ages turn to tablets such as Apple's iPad for play, the more Hasbro and competitors such as Mattel need to invest in innovation."
It works like a charm in Thailand _ adults can get away with playing with a child's toy because it can be considered intelligent enough.
Hi-tech or low-tech, the Furby fad in Thailand will probably follow the same suit as other raging trends of the past, such as the Blythe doll. No one would be shocked if the craze dies away in four or five months.
But before that happens, what also comes with the new breed of (blind) Furby followers is also a class of detractors. Comments on Thai webboard Kapook.com go something along the lines of: "Idiot, how about using that money to feed your parents!" or "Dolls for people with leftover money, trash from spare cash."
If we didn't know any better (we don't), we'd say these rants probably stem from one's own secret desire for one. Furbies, indeed, are irresistible.
Buyer Beware: What's the right price for a Furby?
''When fads like these crop up, buyers need to be extremely alert for opportunists out to hustle and scam,'' cautions 24-year-old online content editor Nayot Rojanasopondist. ''The ones who go to lengths to set up a Facebook page and also run Facebook ads saying they have a very large supply of Furbies are the dodgy ones to look out for. Nobody could possibly have a supply of hundreds of Furbies _ there is a short supply abroad as well.
''And not because of the children over there,'' he adds. ''It's because people like me are bringing them back to Thailand to sell to Thai teens, but mostly women in their twenties.''
Nayot gets his relatives in Los Angeles to carry or send back the furry friends to sell for around 3,500 baht. The net profit he makes per Furby is more or less 1,000 baht.
''If your Furby is imported from the US, you shouldn't be paying more than 3,500 baht _ any higher, and the vendor is ripping you off.''
The mother of a 17-year-old in Chonburi, Mutita Tanamaneerut, also sells Furbies as a side job on top of running her family's business. Regardless, her stock sells for around 4,500-4,800 baht as hers were imported from Japan and have a higher initial cost.
''I only get 400-500 baht profit because the price I get them at is already around 4,000,'' she explains. ''Our Facebook page also has over 10,000 likes so scammers often come to post on my page to say they have Furbies at only 2,500-3,500 baht. I try to delete them whenever I see them so my customers won't get tricked, but mostly I try to tell contacts that they shouldn't trust any prices that are unbelievably cheap.''
Furbies are available at Toys R Us Thailand at 3,995 baht (limited stock). For the latest stock updates, go to www.facebook.com/toysrusthailand.
If you choose to order one from a vendor on Facebook or Instagram, avoid those who take pre-orders. Most legitimate vendors will refuse to take pre-orders because the supply is unpredictable for them as well.
Across the years
Classic Furbies (1998)
Other than talking, blinking, wagging their ears and eating, Furbies were considered to be ''intelligent'' because they could communicate with other Furbies through the infrared port between their eyes. They all start out talking in their own language, appropriately called ''Furbish'', but gradually learn more and more English as they ''grow''. Available at only half the price they are today, they cost US$35 way back then.
Furby Babies (1999)
Smaller than the original, they have higher-pitched voices and cannot dance. However, they pick up English faster.
Emoto-tronic Furbies (2005)
Taller and larger than the original, the upgraded Furby looks like a rabbit crossed with an abominable snowman. It's got a fuzzier coat, a better voice recognition system to communicate with humans, and an on-off switch.
Retailing in the US for $60 (1,800 baht), their new LCD eyes express a larger range of emotions. Programmed to respond to how you treat them, every Furby is different and will adapt its personality according to the user's behaviour. You can feed them or translate what they are saying through the Furby app available on smartphones, plus they go to sleep after a minute of inactivity. The one we met started dancing and singing ''bee bee bop'' repeatedly when we played it Beyonce's Love On Top.
Some toys withstand the test of time and are but mere playthings: they become symbolic icons and define a whole category of their own. Think Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse. Others, however, can only become fads that unleash hellish chaos at toy stores for a few months, before they completely disappear and their existence diminishes to an entry on Wikipedia.
Fashion doll Barbie has been fuelling star-sprinkled, hot-pink dreams for both girls and women since 1959. As a universal beacon of beauty and a glamorous lifestyle, she is inspiring simply because girls aspire to have a perfect life like her. Her dazzling outfits and collectibles are sold for a fortune, and although adults do not play with Barbies, they still value the beauty that can be seen in the craftsmanship and creativity of the outfits and accessories.
With new faces such as computer engineer Barbie and anchorwoman Barbie, she is no passing trend _ she is relevant and, yes, timeless.
The Blythe dolls, have also had their moments of glory in Thailand. Their big heads and large hypnotic eyes come at a hefty price, with Chompoo Araya being the initiator of this trend (again!). They may be cute, but their delicate features mean they are too delicate for much play, and with a price tag that's far too heavy (8,000 baht for starters), it is easy to see why Blythe didn't really catch on with children nor adults.
The Furby might just be in a whole class of its own. But since it markets itself as an innovation toy, it's going to have to keep coming up with new tricks _ if not magic _ in order to still reel them in.
About the author
- Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer