Symptoms are spreading virally through schools, day cares and play groups, contagious as can be. Parents are at their wit's end. The antidote couldn't be harder to find.

Swine flu?

Nope, Zhu Zhu fever.

Marylanders, like folks nationwide, are simply sick - with desire - to find the furry little somethings that top their kids' holiday wish lists. They're calling toy stores relentlessly, they're lining up at malls at ungodly hours, they're willingly multiplying list prices beyond all reason. And this weekend they might be mixing it up with the 134 million holiday shoppers expected at the nation's retailers.

All for hamsters. Little electronic hamsters that retail for eight measly bucks.

For retailers, the toys are a bright spot amid the deep discounting of Black Friday and the recession-clouded holiday shopping season. The National Retail Federation is projecting overall holiday sales to be 1 percent less than 2008, or about $438 billion. That marks only the second decline since the group began tracking sales more than 40 years ago. Last year, as the recession took hold across America, sales slipped more than 3 percent in November and December.

For parents, Zhu Zhu Pets are the Cabbage Patch Kid, Beanie Baby or Tickle Me Elmo of 2009 - the sort-of-cute plaything whose scarcity causes them to throw common sense, dignity and lots of money out the family van window.

Searching far and wide

"I started looking for the hamsters about two weeks ago," says Corrie Preston of Cumberland, whose tale of woe has her investigating not just every store in the Hagerstown area, but ones as far away as Altoona, Pa.

"One morning, I even went so far as to get my sleeping 2-year-old out of bed before 7 a.m. and take him with me in hopes that they came in [to Walmart] that night," she says. "They didn't."

Amanda Blake-Griggs, a mom from Joppatowne, waited amid the dolls and games of the Aberdeen Walmart from 10 p.m. to midnight earlier this month because she heard they were going to put new hamsters out at the stroke of midnight. They didn't.

Her daughter Kaylee, who's 3, has been begging for a Zhu Zhu. Mom's tried to let her down easy, saying Santa's having a hard time with hamsters this year but might be able to get one down the chimney in time for her April birthday.

Undeterred, the little girl replies: "But Santa has to get it, Mommy. He has to."

Kaylee and Preston's toddler, Ethan, like so many little ones, fell hard for the hamsters after seeing the hyperkinetic TV commercial - which parents say runs constantly on channels such as Nickelodeon.

Whether taken in by the jingle, the promise that "you'll loooove your Zhu Zhu Pet," or, perhaps, in an attempt to answer the cliffhanger that concludes the commercial ("Where will your Zhu Zhu zoom?"), kids want them - and accessories (sold separately, of course) such as the blanket to keep them warm, the wheel, the little hamster-mobile.

Zhu Zhus, made by St. Louis-based Cepia LLC, launched in select markets last spring before going national. They are locally "available," so to speak, at Walmart, Target and Toys "R" Us. A survey of each of those stores last week in Glen Burnie recently turned up a whole lot of nothin'.

In fact, sales clerks at those Zhu-less places, badgered, bothered and flat-out bribed by too many parents, have developed a sort of seventh sense - they can detect people searching for hamsters even before they get the words out.

Conversations with them tend to go a little something like this:

Shopper: A-hem. Where is the toy department?

Clerk: You're not looking for Zhu Zhu pets, are you?

At Toys "R" Us, sales assistant Katie Lamb starts shaking her head as soon as she hears the "Zh" in "Zhu Zhu." She's used to seeing a little cluster of desperate parents waiting for the store to open at 9 a.m. "When we say we don't have any," she says, "they all go away."

Assuming those stores get more hamsters, each will limit how many a customer can buy.

A clerk at one store confided that the rationing policy was instituted after the most recent shipment, when just three people snatched up $800 worth of Zhu Zhu's.

Hitting all the likely sites

Blake-Griggs' search routine includes calls to Toys "R" Us first thing Tuesdays and Thursdays - delivery days, she's pretty sure. She drops by Walmart or calls almost every day. She trolls sites such as Craiglist and eBay, hoping against hope that some Kris Kringle type will be offering reasonably priced hamsters - not the $30, $40 and $50 norm.

Lori Kelly of Ellicott City, for instance, had no trouble unloading the full set - Mr. Squiggles, Pipsqueak, Chunk and Num Nums - on Craigslist for $30 each.

With keen marketing savvy, she bought a hamster horde in September while shopping for her daughter's birthday. She'd heard that they were a bit hard to come by, so she bought four for Mya, who was turning 7, more for a friend's son, and a few more just in case, you know, opportunity knocked.

"I kinda got lucky," she says.

Because Mya is one of the few area girls to get her fingers on the hamsters, she's one of the few who can deliver a review.

"It's great 'cause they move around and some toys don't move around," she says. "And they're actually really like hamsters. And, um, I think that they're really cool because they make noises and stuff and they, um, like have names that are really cute and stuff."

Mya adds that she only plays with them "sometimes" because "I can't play with them most of the time cause the batteries run out fast."

So there.

David Stelzer, who owns the Baltimore toy store Shenanigans, where Zhu Zhu's are not sold, is a bit less diplomatic. He boils down the craze like this:

"It's a cute little stuffed animal ... but to make a big fuss about it, I don't see the big deal. It moves around and makes sounds. There's a million toys that do that. ... I give them six months - tops."

Preston recently won a Zhu Zhu pet in an online contest - she's not sure which hamster, but secretly hopes it's Chunk, the white one. With the adrenalin of victory still pumping, she called her husband and shrieked into the phone, "I WON one!!" His enthusiasm didn't quite match hers.

Still, Preston's quest goes on. She envisions the whole furry foursome under the tree. And in any case, the little fellah needs a ball. And then there's that car ...

Top toys

National Retail Federation's 2009 Top Toys survey


1. Barbie

2. Dolls (generic)

3. Disney Hannah Montana

4. Video games

5. Disney Princess

6. Dora the Explorer

7. American Girl

8. Nintendo DS

9. Nintendo Wii

10. Zhu Zhu Pets


1. Video games

2. Transformers


4. Cars (generic)

5. Nintendo Wii

6. Trucks (generic)

7. Bakugan

8. Hot Wheels

9. Nintendo DS

10. Fisher-Price Toys


Growing grass-roots effort wants to rein in shopping extravaganza. Pg 13

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