It's the Tops

Late one night last week the mother of two children from Hod Hasharon received a clandestine phone call from the proprietor of the neighborhood toy store. "I've got my hands on two Beyblades," whispered the seller. "Meet me at the corner in three minutes."

Late one night last week the mother of two children from Hod Hasharon received a clandestine phone call from the proprietor of the neighborhood toy store. "I've got my hands on two Beyblades," whispered the seller. "Meet me at the corner in three minutes."

The mother sneaked out of the house in bathrobe and slippers, looking left and right to make certain that no one was following her, and proceeded to the designated meeting point. The man was there as promised. He handed her a brown paper bag with the merchandise, and she passed him an envelope with the agreed-upon sum: NIS 40 a unit.

Then, for a number of hours, she sat in her home trying to put together the discs of the simple toy - a Japanese version of the Hanukkah spinning top, which spins when you release a special switch. She delayed the acquisition of the complementary product - a plastic stadium in which you are supposed to organize competitions - for less crazy days.

Another mother, a resident of Neot Afeka, was not that lucky. Last week she heard that a limited quantity of Beyblade tops was supposed to arrive by afternoon at a toy store at the Ramat Aviv mall. She went there early in the morning and discovered that quite a few other parents had done the same, desperate to buy the latest hit for their children before the Hanukkah holiday began. "People were banging down the doors, threatening to kill each other," she says. "One mother bought six tops, and everyone was furious at the unfairness because there were none left for other people."

The saleswoman at the store says that the unrestrained description is pretty accurate: "From 9 in the morning, customers started arriving and asking when the tops would be here. The merchandise arrived at 11:30 A.M. and customers fell upon them. There was yelling and cursing, and within eight minutes all 100 Beyblades and the 12 stadiums were gone."

At the sight of the enraged parents the mother from Afeka decided to give up and went home. Thus, she was spared similar sights at other stores. A representative of Toys'R'Us, who was at the Ramat Gan branch of the chain when 250 of the tops were brought in, was thunderstruck at the sight of parents crying out "Gimme Dragoon Fighter! I want Grip Attacker!" - the names of types of tops. Within 20 minutes the battle was lost and won. All the tops were bought.

In the United States, the lines and the rush for toys in the stores before Christmas are a familiar phenomenon, in fact a pre-holiday custom, so much so that Arnold Schwarzenegger immortalized it in the movie "Jingle All The Way" (directed by Brian Levant). In the movie Schwarzenegger plays a father who puts off buying a popular toy - Turboman - until the last minute, and has to fight for it in the ways that he knows.

In Israel, however, the Beyblade - or Beyblademania - toy marketers are in shock. "It's the first time that there's been a rush like this for a toy here," says Roni Gilboa, the marketing director in Israel for Hasbro, the manufacturer of the tops. The 30,000 units that have been imported have been literally snatched up from the toy shop shelves.

Plastic gold

The tops became objects of desire for most schoolchildren in the lower grades within a week after the broadcast of the television series "Beyblade" began on the Children's Channel almost three weeks ago (which was preceded by teasers and explicit-implicit advertising of their tops on the channel). The Japanese-style animated series - the characters have sharp hairstyles and bright, round eyes - recounts the adventures of a group of boys who compete among themselves in Beyblade contests. All of them have mystical powers that have their source in animals like a dragon, a bear, a monkey and an eagle. The hero is Tyson, who is the captain of the group that goes to the Beyblade international tournament on a journey filled with adventures.

The success of Beyblade - simple-looking tops - has surprised many. Only rarely, it turns out, is it possible to predict which product for children will become a hit. "Selling toys can be a fickle business, in which the fortunes of the mightiest corporations can abruptly rise or fall on the whims of customers too young to use a credit card, or even cut their own food with a knife," according to an article about Robert Eckert, CEO of the giant American toy company Mattel in BusinessWeek Online. "It's a business constantly in search of the next hot thing. Find it, and not only will kids all over the world be happy, but so will shareholders. Guess wrong, and you're left with a pile of unsellable knickknacks."

The toy's success in the Japanese market - more than 30 million Beyblade tops have been sold there - is not indicative of success in the European countries. In the United States, marketing of the toy began about a year ago, before the television series began to be aired, and it slowly gained momentum. But the buying hysteria has only begun now.

In European countries, the Beyblade craze only began these past two weeks. France and Spain, for example, have been left without merchandise, just like Israel, and no country is prepared to transfer stocks to another. No new shipments are expected until January. In the meantime, the imitations industry is flourishing and is expected to capture the market.

No warning from Europe

Perhaps it is difficult to predict which toy will succeed in Israel, but there are general lines for success. Most of the hits fit several criteria - the backing of a television series, appeal to both sexes and a wide age-range, a reasonable price and success abroad. Gilboa, from Hasbro, says that in the case of Beyblade it was impossible to know. "Usually there's advance notice from European countries, but this time there wasn't."

Yael Meir, marketing director of the Toys'R'Us chain in Israel, says that there is a scientific answer to the question of what makes a toy a hit, "but life isn't scientific." According to data from Sweden, children today are motivated more by television and the computer than by movies. "On television you can drum in a message. A successful spin-off product will be connected to an action series with a collecting motif. Israel is a country that is very influenced by television. To know whether a product will be accepted well in Israel, you have to examine a country like England, which is influenced by American trends because of the language, but is more connected to Israel in that it is European.

"Successful films are no guarantee of the success of the toys associated with them," continues Meir. "Mostly the products that accompany a Disney film have not been a success in Israel, apart from the case of `The Lion King,' which was unprecedented and unrepeated. `Harry Potter' is a partial hit. The products associated with the Potter film that have succeeded here were the computer game from EA and the Lego sets. The dolls, the magic wand and the talking picture, however, were failures."

With all due respect to television, it is interesting to discover that the Beyblade series developed in Japan only after the tops were on the market. Karni Ziv, the director of the Children's Channel, relates that it was the Canadian company Nelvana that convinced the channel to acquire the series and promised, on the basis of its experience, that it would become a success. At first, the tops and the stadiums were awarded to children who took part in the channel's studio shows, but after a while the channel's Internet site crashed as a result of the quantity of hits concerning the series. Also, the timing of the launch of the series only two weeks before Hanukkah, says Ziv, "didn't hurt."

In Meir's opinion, the Jewish aspect - the Hanukkah tradition of games with spinning tops - added to the especially great excitement surrounding Beyblade. But from focus groups of children with whom Hasbro representatives have met, there seems to be no real connection. The children there related that the secret of Beyblade's success is that you can do with it exactly what they do on television right in the schoolyard, unlike the Pokemon characters that you have to imagine really do have special powers.

The Beyblade series spins a whole mythology of monsters and endless battles. But when you strip the product of all its mythology, according to the Lycos Internet site that enumerates the hits for children this Christmas and examines the number of searches for it on the Internet (where unsurprisingly it is one of the top searches), what you get in the end is an ancient toy - a simple, good spinning top.

This perhaps is the most interesting feature of the current success. Just as no one could have predicted that at the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third, the most desirable thing in the children's market would be a book about a magical boy whose material world is devoid of any technological development (the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling), no one could have imagined that an ancient and primitive toy like a spinning top would be the current world hit. The return of the classic in a world that is controlled by computer games, Sony PlayStation, Furby and Tamaguchis, will bring comfort to many people's hearts. Children remain children, who love the same toys as their parents did. Until the next hit comes out.