About two years ago, Sydney Wiseman had a challenging assignment for an engineer at her family toy company.
Could he design a small robotic toy that resembled a pygmy marmoset, a tiny Amazonian monkey that Ms. Wiseman had been obsessed with since she was a child growing up in Montreal.
Sure, the engineer told her. What do you want the little monkey to do?
Thus was born the Fingerling, a five-inch monkey that grips your finger with its legs and arms, as it babbles, blows kisses and blinks its eyes. Cradle a Fingerling in your hand and it drifts off to sleep. Press the Fingerling’s head and it passes gas.
Created by the Canadian company WowWee, the Fingerling has been anointed one of this year’s hot toys for the holidays, a designation that most toymakers only dream of achieving.
For decades, there has always been a must-have holiday toy — Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies, a Tickle Me Elmo doll. Parents drive long distances to scour stores for the one item in short supply at exactly the moment when everyone wants it. Scalpers sell the toys at ridiculous markups, while counterfeiters dupe desperate families into buying knockoffs.
At stake are the tears — of joy or misery — of the children whose dearest wishes are fulfilled, or dashed.
How the Fingerling reached this tipping point — when suddenly millions of children cannot do without a $15 farting monkey — is the story of a promising idea’s going viral on social media, a large retailer’s savvy pricing strategy and the science of managing scarcity.
The monkey’s journey from Ms. Wiseman’s imagination to holiday sensation also shows how the making of a hot toy has evolved through the generations.
The $84 billion global toy industry is struggling for the attention of children obsessed with smartphones and tablets. Global toy sales have been growing each year, but at a slower pace than video games.
The average life span of a toy fad is about eight months from its launch until it’s marked down, said Richard Gottlieb, an analyst and publisher of Global Toy News.
“The life of an item is a little rockier” than it used to be, said Anne Marie Kehoe, the Walmart vice president who runs the retailer’s toy division in the United States. “We move as a country faster from one thing to the next.”
Cultivating the success of a hot toy carries its own risks, including managing supply. This past week, Fingerlings were out of stock on Walmart’s website, while parents complained that they had been snookered into buying counterfeits from sellers on Amazon and other sites. While the monkeys are the core of the Fingerlings brand, WowWee also sells sloth and unicorn versions — one of which was listed on eBay for $5,000.
WowWee says it did not intentionally create the shortage. But whether by design or happenstance, there is no question that scarcity fuels a toy’s mystique.
“The reality is that you are better off having some disappointed children this year in order to excite them next year,” said Chris Rogers, a research analyst at Panjiva, a supply-chain analytics firm.
But extended shortages can be perilous. Empty shelves can tantalize for only so long before would-be buyers might give up.
This fall, WowWee increased the number of Chinese factories producing Fingerlings to three, from two. Fingerlings started arriving by plane because it was taking too long for the toys to reach the United States from Asia on container ships.
“It’s like coming up with a hit movie or a hit song,” Richard Yanofsky, one of WowWee’s founders, said in an interview last month. “If you see signs of success, you pour gas on it.”
One bitter cold morning last month, Ms. Wiseman scrolled through her phone in the WowWee offices in a former industrial building on Rue Saint-Patrick in Montreal.
She pulled up the picture of a wild pygmy marmoset that launched the idea for the Fingerlings.
“Bringing animals to life is something that is in our DNA,” said Ms. Wiseman, who, ebullient and energetic, sounds as if she is about to burst into joyous laughter at any moment.
WowWee is owned by Ms. Wiseman’s uncles, Richard and Peter Yanofsky, with Richard living and working in Montreal and Peter in California. Her mother, a former veterinarian, also works at the company, as do two cousins. Ms. Wiseman is a brand manager at WowWee.
Their family has been making robots for decades. Its first big hit, in 2004, was Robosapien, a robot measuring more than a foot tall that could walk and talk and originally sold for about $100.
But pricey robots are more difficult to sell these days. The challenge for WowWee’s designers was developing a monkey with just enough sounds and movements to entertain children, but not so many sensors and circuitry that it would be prohibitively expensive to make.
Ms. Wiseman worked with Davin Sufer, the company’s 38-year-old chief technology officer, on the design.
The first prototype looked like a primordial creature that had crawled out of the jungle. “It was a little scary,” recalled Mr. Sufer, who has three daughters, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 4-month-old.
Over time, the monkey’s face softened into something cuter. It developed a curly tail and plump arms and legs. Ms. Wiseman reviewed dozens of monkey sounds until she settled on the right voice.
A Fingerling can snore, say hello and babble in monkey gibberish. If one Fingerling starts singing, it triggers sensors in nearby Fingerling monkeys — the company hopes you’ll buy several — that get them to join in.
Ms. Wiseman and her team came up with the name Fingerling — not Finger monkey — so the brand could produce other miniature animals. (One of them, a sloth, moves, sings and, yes, farts about 10 percent slower than the monkeys.)
“You know you can trust a toy company if its toys fart,” Ms. Wiseman said. “It knows what kids want.”
WowWee’s offices look like a hip playroom for grown-up kids. Techno music is piped into the design lab, while Japanese anime plays on a screen mounted on the wall above a row of 3-D printers.
Every shelf in the conference room was filled with robots that WowWee has produced over the decades: Robosapien, a guard dog, a panda, a Minion on wheels.
The company, with about 100 employees, also has the intensity of a Wall Street trading floor, where everyone is in constant motion and new ideas are flying. Its executives travel to Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Bentonville, Ark., site of Walmart’s headquarters.
Whenever possible, staff engineers, designers and executives sit down and have lunch together, often at an old-style deli known for its smoked meat sandwiches and matzo ball soup.
“When the toy business is good, it is really fun,” said Richard Yanofsky, 59, after parking his Tesla outside the deli one afternoon. “When it is bad, it is really bad.”
Mr. Yanofsky got his start as a trader. He used to buy items from wholesalers in the old part of Montreal and resell them out of the trunk of his car to retailers at a markup.
“If I thought I could sell it, I would buy it,” he said.
The Yanofsky brothers started developing toys in the 1980s. After some early success, Hasbro bought their business in 1999, and the brothers were incorporated into Hasbro. The marriage was short lived. Mr. Yanofsky said that the toy giant hadn’t been willing to take the risks he wanted, but that they had parted amicably.
The brothers eventually bought back their business, then sold it to another public company and then took it private again.
Over the decades, Mr. Yanofsky has watched as the industry consolidated and retailers struggled. (Toys “R” Us filed for bankruptcy in September.) The rise of social media — where toys can be instantly validated or just as quickly panned — has raised the stakes for companies like WowWee.
“There are less shades of gray,” Mr. Yanofsky said. “You either fail or you succeed.”
Anne Marie Kehoe, the high-ranking toy executive, is Walmart’s real-life Santa Claus. She plays a big role in determining what millions of children will get for Christmas.
Ms. Kehoe knew right away that the Fingerling would be a hit.
“This monkey creates an emotional connection right in front of your face,” Ms. Kehoe said in an interview this month. But it is sales potential, not emotion, that drives her decisions. Ms. Kehoe views even a wacky toy like the Fingerling through the lens of a retailer with troves of data on what customers are willing to buy, and at what price.
“It’s such an art and a science,’’ she said.
WowWee’s wooing of Walmart began in June 2016 when Ms. Wiseman flew to Bentonville to pitch the Fingerlings.
Walmart was sold almost instantly on the toy’s appeal, but the price was a problem. WowWee had originally planned on selling the Fingerling for $20, but the giant retailer was insistent: About $15 was the magic number. Drop $5 from the price and Walmart would buy as many as 10 times more Fingerlings.
Walmart had been doing this for decades — pushing down the price of paper towels, toothbrushes, avocados and now robotic monkeys in order to sell as many as possible.
Back in Montreal, the WowWee executives debated the price cut; it would mean sacrificing significant profit on each monkey.
“It was pure margin,” Mr. Sufer recalled.
Ms. Wiseman pleaded with the team. In the past, WowWee had stood firm on keeping a higher price, only to mark down the toys later when they didn’t sell.
“I said, ‘I am telling you, I don’t want to fight this,’” Ms. Wiseman recalled. “They are saying it for a reason. They know.”
The price was set at roughly $15.
In July, Walmart invited hundreds of children to a convention center to play with a range of new toys, including the Fingerling.
Based on the children’s feedback, the retailer named the Fingerling one of its 25 top-rated toys for the holidays and purchased more monkeys.
When Fingerlings hit stores across the United States in August, Maya Vallee-Wagner, 7, was overcome with emotion.
“Fingerlings,” Maya said, through sobs. “They’re in stores. I am so happy.”
Her father, Nathan Vallee, who owns a decorative concrete company in suburban Detroit, shot a video of his daughter’s reaction in the toy aisle of a local Target and sent it to WowWee. Ms. Wiseman, enthralled by the video, posted it on the company’s Facebook page, and it went viral.
“This made my life,” Ms. Wiseman said of the video.
The video was a marketing coup, just as WowWee was launching its social media push — an effort that in many ways resembled the rollout of a Hollywood movie.
Gone are the days when a toy company could simply blitz Saturday morning cartoons with ads.
WowWee focused much of its effort on YouTube, where children go to watch other children play with toys in a phenomenon called “unboxing”
The toy company sent Fingerlings to key “influencers” on YouTube — two preschool “besties” who make videos about their trips to a playground and a skinny girl with faded fingernail polish who publishes daily posts about toys. Some influencers were paid to promote the monkeys; others did it for fun.
Mackenzie Ziegler, a dancer with more 1.7 million YouTube subscribers, and her friend Lauren wrapped multiple monkeys around their fingers and mugged for the camera.
“They are so cute,” Ms. Ziegler told her followers.
In another video, a Fingerling takes a ride on the E train, and appears to visit a bar.
Not long after the social media push in August, the monkeys were basically sold out everywhere, and WowWee was able to pull back on its marketing.
“It’s a wonderful problem when your demand outstrips supply,” said Mr. Gottlieb, the toy analyst.
But managing supply can be a delicate balancing act. If WowWee fails to deliver enough Fingerlings by Christmas, it could miss the moment when the fad reaches its peak, or alienate desperate parents who feel manipulated by the hype.
“It’s really not fair,” one woman posted on Facebook. “People work and no one has time to stalk” toy stores.
Last year, there was a run on Hatchimals, furry birds that hatch from an egg, causing shortages. Parents complained that when they did manage to get their hands on the birds, some failed to hatch on Christmas morning. “My four-year-old is gutted,” a father wrote on Twitter.
WowWee ramped up shipments of Fingerlings in October and November — way ahead of the number of Hatchimals that were shipped to the United States at this time last year, according to data supplied by Panjiva. Retailers say Fingerlings are being bought up as quickly as they can be stocked.
WowWee executives are confident the Fingerling’s popularity will live on past Christmas, but the company’s designers are already pitching their next big toy for 2018.
“Our lives are at the whim of 5- to 9-year olds,” said Richard Yanofsky’s son Michael, vice president of sales at WowWee. “It’s crazy.”