The hottest new toy in America isn't a Barbie doll or an action figure or even a Harry Potter novelty.
It's something along the lines of a Palm Pilot for folks barely old enough to tie their shoes.
A personal digital assistant for children ages 4 and up called Pixter has flown off toy-store shelves and been feverishly pursued on Internet auctions. The Toy Industry Association Inc. ranked the $50 retail item as the top-selling new toy by dollar sales in November, the most recent figure available from the New York-based trade group.
Pixter is sort of a smarter Etch A Sketch for the digital age: hand-held, with changeable software cartridges to draw pictures and play games and a menu of icons on a touch-sensitive, liquid-crystal display.
"If you got one, you were lucky," said John Reilly, a spokesman for K-B Toys of Pittsfield, Mass., one of the nation's largest toy chains.
Manufacturer Fisher-Price Inc. did not release sales figures, but the company said demand exceeded the roughly 500,000 units initially shipped from Asia in September when the toy was released.
Pixter was even scarcer last holiday season than a Fisher-Price line of fire and police action-figures called Rescue Heroes that benefited from the publicity and public appreciation for emergency workers after Sept. 11, the company said.
Pixter's allure has continued beyond the holidays, with some of the major Internet retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. still reporting some models as unavailable.
Yahoo! Shopping listed it among the hottest toys in 2001. Pixter was nominated for several major awards to be given at the toy industry's annual mammoth trade show in New York next month.
Designers at Fisher-Price got the idea for the toy a few years ago after hearing how employees' children liked monkeying with the notebook function on their parents' Palm Pilots, said Jerry Perez, the company's executive vice president for marketing and design.
Referring to it as "a Palm Pilot for kids" is a bit of a marketing stretch -- or genius -- because the device isn't truly a digital organizer. But in form and function the device isn't much different from a PDA. A youngster can perform several tasks -- such as drawing and arithmetic -- by touching a stylus to a screen. The battery-operated base unit doesn't include the plug-in software clips for different games, which cost about $10.
Perez said he knew the toy was a hit last fall for two reasons: He received reports of strong demand before television advertising began and people who knew he worked at Fisher-Price began calling him to get one.
"It's not every year that I get calls from acquaintances to pull a favor here, but it was like, 'Can you get me a Pixter?"' Perez said.
The code name for the toy inside Fisher-Price was "e-doodle" because it was viewed as an electronic version of the company's decade-old Magna-Doodle drawing toy. But executives later settled on the jazzier Pixter name, a reference to pixels, the tiny units that make up an electronic image.
Perez said he thought the toy has succeeded because young children like to mimic their parents. Also, the technology isn't as complicated or expensive as other innovative new toys, such as plush toys that link to the Internet and programmable building-block sets.
Online auction prices for the toy were almost double the retail price leading up to Christmas, but they have fallen since, according to Strong Numbers Inc., an Omaha, Neb., company that tracks Internet auctions.
Toy executives said they think Pixter's success also reflects the prowess of kids on computers. With personal computers in nearly two-thirds of all U.S. homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association in Washington, many children are comfortable with point-and-click technology before they're potty-trained. (And with only about 10 percent of adults possessing a PDA, according to the electronics trade group, the kids may master them before the grown-ups.)
A more expensive version of the toy being developed for next year will include a "pass-code" option that allows kids to store files.
K-B's Reilly said Pixter hasn't approached the mania that gripped Tickle-Me-Elmo in 1997 or the talking Furby dolls in 1998. But he suggests the demand has been more word-of-mouth.
"Sometimes," he said, "these things take on a life of their own."
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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