On the hunt for the elusive Zhu Zhu

What could drive people to camp out in cold parking lots, beg for information from stock boys and shove each other aside to get to the front of a store line?

A $9 battery-operated hamster on wheels.


In case you've been living under your pet rock, this year's hot holiday toy is the Zhu Zhu.

There are four different rolling hamsters that come with plenty of accessories: tracks, exercise balls and little cars.

And they're driving Midlands parents out in droves (and out of their minds) for a chance to surprise their children on Christmas.

"I literally have waited in a chair with a sleeping bag to get these things," said Irmo mom Rosie Jones. "In a strange, really bizarre way, it's kind of fun. It makes what would normally just be an $8 to $9 hamster just as exciting as a Wii that costs $199.

Stores, which have been starved for sales for the past year in the worst economy since the Great Depression, can't keep Zhu Zhus in stock. The hamsters are going for $30 or more online.

While toy shopping veterans will remember the hot buys of holidays past, such as pet rocks in the 1970s and Cabbage Patch dolls in the 1980s, experts say there hasn't been a holiday hit like the Zhu Zhus since the mid-1990s with Tickle Me Elmo.

Jones said she hasn't even admitted to her closest friends the lengths she went to for the toy - even though there is a network of Columbia-area parents she met while on her quest for the hamster.

"On some level, people like to be caught up in a fad," said New York-based toy expert Richard Gottlieb. "There's just something exciting and communal about it."

Gottlieb said what makes the hamster the right toy at the right time is the price - less than $10 - and the cuddle factor. "During hard times, people like soft things," he said.

The hamster has some excited about shopping again - and others pulling their hair out looking for the faux rodents and their numerous accessories.

Beth Bradley of Columbia scored one for her niece by waiting in line all night on Thanksgiving at Toys "R" Us. After a mob of shoppers started pushing toward the door, Bradley said she won't be camping out for more.

"I'm not trying to find the accessories for it or anything. She's on her own," Bradley said.

However, Jones, the Irmo mom, spent a couple of weeks looking for accessories, trying to piece together a full set.

She called stores, stood in line for hours for door-buster sales and shared calls and texts with other parents she met in line when they got new tips on where the hamsters were popping up.

Finally, last week, Jones bought a full set at a Toys "R" Us sale on a Sunday afternoon.

She sold her extras she had bought earlier to a friend who needed them.

Lisa Muzekari, a 40-year-old Columbia engineer, spotted the trend around Labor Day after reading several stories about the Zhu Zhus popularity. She bought four Zhu Zhu pets - Mr. Squiggles, Num Nums, Chunk and PipSqueak - and all of their accessories in September.

"They were hard to get then," she said.

She got tips from stockers at Walmart about when they would get some in and showed up first thing the next morning. She had to buy the fun house on eBay but got it at the regular price.

Several weeks later, she was watching TV with her 8-year-old daughter when a commercial came on for the hamsters.

"I said, 'Oh, doesn't that look fun?' She said, 'Not really,'" Muzekari said.

She kept two of the hamsters and an exercise ball and sold the rest to a friend whose 4-year-old wanted them.

Muzekari is now on a quest for the Barbie camper and jet, which she has not been able to find in local stores.

"Now I know how those people (looking for Zhu Zhus) feel," she said.