Every day for more than a year, phones at Hakuhinkan Toy Park have been ringing off the hook when the store opens at 11 a.m.
At the other end of the line, desperate parents and grandparents issue urgent pleas over whether new stock has arrived.
What the callers are after is Tamagotchi Plus, the latest version of a portable virtual pet game that became a social phenomenon in the late 1990s.
“We’ve been out of stock for the past few weeks,” explained Harumi Ogishima, a spokeswoman at the toy store, located in Tokyo’s trendy Ginza district. “We don’t know when the next shipment will be. So customers have no way other than to call us or visit the store every day.”
This time around, Hakuhinkan Toy Park has not quite seen a repeat of the madness of seven years ago, when people lined up for blocks to buy the much-coveted toy.
Nonetheless, Tamagotchi Plus has chalked up sales of 6.5 million units worldwide since its release a year ago — a level of popularity that is causing its creators some concern.
“We don’t want it to become a boom,” Tamagotchi manufacturer Bandai Co. President Takeo Takasu said at a recent news conference. “But it is becoming one, as we feared.”
What frightens him is a repeat of the debacle of the original Tamagotchi.
Released in November 1996, the pet game became a monster success, selling 40 million units worldwide.
In the year that ended in March 1998, the toy accounted for more than 20 percent of Bandai’s total sales. Sales of Tamagotchi and related items came to 61.9 billion yen that year, boosting the company’s total revenue to a still-unbroken record of 288.2 billion yen.
But when the boom turned to bust, the company found itself with a mountain of dead stock — some 6 million units, including loose components — and huge losses.
“It hurt us very much,” said Takeichi Hongo, a Bandai director who is the firm’s so-called chief Tamagotchi officer, a position newly created upon the release of the latest version in an effort to avoid the same pitfalls.
This time around, the company has fine-tuned its production plan, which is updated in accordance with a weekly sales report, he said.
During the first boom, the toy maker found itself awash with orders and produced more than 2 million Tamagotchi units a month at its peak. “It was out of control,” Hongo said, adding that current monthly production of the Tamagotchi Plus is 10 percent of that level.
He rejected speculation that Bandai is intentionally creating a tight supply situation.
“We receive rather frustrated inquiries from consumers about where and when they can get a Tamagotchi,” Hongo admitted. “But total supply is not that short of demand.”
The reason some consumers can’t lay their hands on the toy, he argued, is because a rapidly changing retail environment is making efficient distribution difficult.
“Compared with five or 10 years ago, there have been changes as to where people do their shopping, even for the same toys,” he said.
In addition to exercising restraint in the production process, the company is also rigorously fighting piracy. Last June, the firm alerted authorities in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, resulting in a plant raid and the confiscation of 50,000 pirated Tamagotchi units and parts.
Bandai found more than 100 pirated versions of the original Tamagotchi both at home and abroad. Not only did this flood of bootlegged gadgets dent the firm’s profits, it is also thought to have hastened the demise of the Tamagotchi boom.
“This time around, no illegal copy has found its way into the Japanese market,” Hongo said.
The Tamagotchi Plus features infrared-communications technology that allows players’ pets to interact with other Tamagotchi. The machines can also exchange data with cell phones.
“Although I had confidence in the product, to be honest, I didn’t expect it would sell this well,” Hongo said.
The biggest difference from the previous craze is the profile of typical users. The original version attracted just about everyone, from preschoolers to the elderly. But the core players of the new version are girls aged 8 and 9, according to Bandai.
“Girls that age have a strong longing for cell phones and ‘one-and-only’ items. I think this simple virtual pet game fits such wishes,” Hongo observed. “They also enjoy having their pets communicate with their friends’.”
The gadget has also become a fashion statement of sorts for elementary school girls. It comes in several dozen color variations, and many girls hang two or three around their necks on straps. Hongo’s 7-year-old daughter has three.
“We don’t want to make it just ‘boom and bust’ this time around,” he said. “We want (the toy) to live for 10 years.”