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10 years later, a new ticklish Elmo tops the 'hot toy' list

Online auction 'resellers' will do the shopping for you – for a price.

By Cristian LupsaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 2006

On a late September morning this year, Betsy Smith rolled out of bed with a mission: Buy the new Elmo doll, the hottest toy this holiday season. Caring for her 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son slowed her pace, but not enough to stop her from securing a place in line at an Aurora, Ill., toy store before it opened.

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Ms. Smith's sister tagged along so they could make the most of the "two Elmos per customer" rule. The day before, Smith had assured the manager that she had "an entire posse of Elmo-deprived toddlers at home," she says.

Looking to create the "perfect" Christmas experience, many parents scramble to buy their children the elusive toy marketers have deemed "a must-have." This year's toy story is similar, only a bit more "extreme."

After successfully snagging her Elmos, Smith jumped back in her car and drove home. But did she hide the toys away, anticipating the rapture on her children's faces when they unwrapped the boxes on Christmas morning?

Not at all.

She immediately put them up for sale on eBay. And so did her sister.

"It's fun to have what other people want," says Smith, laughing. A former social worker, she has made a full-time job out of buying, reselling, and blogging about her strategies at "You have to get [to the store] early if you really want something," she says.

This season, plenty of parents want the upgraded red Sesame Street monster dubbed Elmo TMX, which stands for "Tickle Me Extreme," or "Tickle Me 10," a nod to Tickle Me Elmo's 10th anniversary.

Parenting blogs overflow with stories of finding Elmo serendipitously or narrowly missing out on one after spending hours in line at a store. Moms and dads upload pictures and videos to the Web, showing their kids joyfully embracing the toy or scurrying away in fear. Elmos are auctioned off at fundraisers and given away as raffle prizes. Elmo is resold, stolen, and even burned to ashes in a YouTube video.

The toy, aimed at children ages 2 and up, retails for $39.99, but stores keep selling out. About 250,000 Elmos flew off the shelves on the toy's Sept. 19 launch date, says Jim Silver, copublisher of Toy Wishes magazine. "No one expected the dolls to sell at this rate," he says. "The only thing similar is the launch of a video game system."

Gina Sirard, vice president of marketing for Elmo's parent, Fisher-Price, won't reveal sales numbers, but says they have exceeded all expectations.

On eBay, Elmo TMX currently sells for about $100. The site's popularity tracker indicates that more than 21,200 dolls have changed hands – 10 times more units than the next toy on the list.

Smith sold her pair in late October for $195.99, or nearly 2-1/2 times what she paid for them. Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist with the Toy Industry Association, says Elmo is on track to be the best selling toy of 2006. Furthermore, says Ms. Sirard of Fisher-Price, the ticklish figure set the company's (and probably the industry's) record for opening-day sales.

Elmo owes its commercial success to a combination of brand recognition, innovative engineering, and clever marketing. The doll's various incarnations since the original Elmo came out in 1996 have done well, but this anniversary edition isn't called Extreme for nothing. Elmo not only giggles when tickled, but he also drops to the ground, pounds the floor, and rolls around in a routine accompanied by hysterical laughter. When it's done, the 14-inch red furry machine stands up by itself – with the help of six AA batteries (included).

Neat, toy analysts say, but it wouldn't have been such a big hit without the marketing.

TMX was a secret project. It wasn't shown at toy fairs, a common practice in the industry. The few insiders who saw it were under a "giggle gag," says Ms. Rice. The toys are sold in boxes that you can't see inside. The first units had stickers marked "top secret" on them. Prospective buyers could lift a flap to try to see inside, but the opening showed only Elmo's eyes and when the flap was lifted, Elmo would reportedly say, "Ah ah ah! No peeking!" and giggle. (Now the Elmos say, "Elmo feels very ticklish in here!" and giggles when the peekaboo flap is lifted.)

Most retailers did not see the toy until the first box came off the delivery truck. In anticipation, stores displayed banners showing a shadow Elmo and the release date.