Colorful Koosh Balls Catch On


FLYING through the air, it looks like vibrant rubber fireworks. ``I like it because it tickles when you catch it,'' says 8-year-old Tony Lopez of Boston.

``When you pick it up, you just can't put it down,'' says Emily West of Brookline, Mass., 20 years Tony's senior.

It's the Koosh Ball - named for the sound it makes when it hits your hand.

A broad appeal has made the toy a success. ``It's grown much, much larger than we'd ever imagined,'' says inventor Scott Stillinger in a telephone interview from Campbell, Calif.

Sales figures are ``in the millions,'' after 18 months, says Mr. Stillinger, declining to be more specific. The Koosh Ball made the industry's list of the top 20 best-selling toys for four months straight at the end of 1988. Though the ball has since fallen from the list, it may return: June was their biggest sales month yet.

What's the appeal? The Koosh Ball is fun, says David Leibowitz, a toy industry analyst with American Securities in New York. ``It makes a statement; it's easy to understand; it's user friendly. It's the type of novelty item that if you're in the right place at the right time, you have quite a success on your hands. And that is exactly what has happened here.''

Koosh Balls are made of soft, rubber filaments that collapse when caught. They come in three styles (fuzzy, regular, and ``mondo''), dozens of color combinations, and are priced between $5 and $12. They are sold in 13,000 stores in more than 20 countries - from fancy Neiman-Marcus to humble hobby shops and campus bookstores.

Boston's Museum of Science sells it as a study in kinetic energy, because ``it's a bounceless ball, and therefore it makes you think about why it doesn't bounce,'' says science museum store buyer David Newhard.

The ball was not invented to be irresistible (though many find it so) but to meet a need, says inventor Stillinger. He was looking for something to help him teach his 5- and 8-year-old children to catch. He couldn't find an object that was soft, bounceless, or ouchless enough. ``I intuitively knew that a rubber-filament ball would do the trick,'' says the former computer engineer, ``so I set out to try to find a way to make that.''

After searching through materials and processes, he came up with a 2,000-filament ball made of natural latex rubber and non-toxic colors.

After Stillinger developed the concept (the ball and the manufacturing process) in late 1986, he showed it to his brother-in-law, Mark Button, a former marketing expert at Mattel. Both men - and their wives - quit their jobs to pursue what they'd always wanted to do: Start a toy company. They named the company OddzOn Products, hoping their toys would be odds-on favorites.

Recalling the early stages, Stillinger says: ``We had very crude prototypes. When I look back at how crude they were compared to where we are today, we were crazy.''

Gene Gilligan, senior editor at Playthings magazine, an industry trade journal, says the ball is successful because it wasn't overmarketed. Some toys - especially electronic ones - fizzle out because they are ``rushed into the market and overexposed pretty quickly,'' Mr. Gilligan says.

But will the toy still be around in years to come?

``When you consider that more than half the toy products introduced in any given year don't make it through that year's Christmas,'' says analyst Leibowitz, ``that's a tall order.''

Yes, the Koosh will be around next year, Leibowitz predicts. ``But it probably will peak in popularity by this holiday selling season.''

Perhaps that's why the OddzOn brothers-in-law, hiding out in Silicon Valley, are getting a new Koosh toy ready to roll out this October.

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