Webkinz is the latest "must-have" plaything for children across the United States and Canada -- a cuddly soft toy which has a virtual website twin.
Buying the toy, sold for 10 dollars and up, gains the proud owner access onto the website (www.webkinz.com) where they have to care for, dress, entertain and generally pamper their virtual pet.
Forget Facebook for the 30-somethings, or MySpace for the teenagers, this is social networking for elementary school kids and even pre-schoolers as young as four.
Each toy is sold with a secret code which activates the virtual pet once it is typed into the Internet site.
Crocodiles, pigs, frogs or hippos -- the colorful collection is constantly being updated and added to, while out-of-stock models now sell for more than 1,000 dollars on eBay.
In this northeastern town in New York state, everything from the pub to the pharmacy has webkinz on sale and can't keep up with demand -- a situation repeated across the United States.
"It blew up in the summer. Every kid wants them, most of the shops in Cooperstown sell them," said Rebecca Kennedy, a cashier at TJ's restaurant pointing to a pile of toys on sale at the entrance.
The idea has turned into a golden egg for the Ganz company which launched the toys in 2005. Since then they have been selling like hot cakes, and according to the industry magazine CNET by May the site had some four million members. Since then Ganz has refused to release new figures.
When the new toy owners log onto the site they are given a stock of "Kinzcash", virtual money to spend on caring for and entertaining their pet.
They buy their pet a home, and can choose furniture, everything from simple beds to pricy hot tubs, as well as the decor in the house.
Once their money is gone, the kids can boost their virtual piggy banks by playing any of the numerous games on the site: the more they play and the better they get, the more Kinzcash they earn.
"You get to learn about pets and stuff. You get to actually play games and you get a little pal of your own," said seven-year-old Ashling Cannon, proud owner of a black pony, Midnight and a white Yorkshire Terrier called Dragon.
As she played, her pony had an ice pack on his head and a green muzzle. "Midnight is a little sick. I need to feed her now," she said.
If owners don't take enough care of their virtual pets, they fall sick and Ashling is worried about what will happen next time she goes away on vacation.
"If you don't look after them, they can get sick and then you get very upset," she said.
She usually logs on to webkinz three times a day, and when she first entered the webkinz virtual world, she said she got carried away decorating her pet's virtual room and nearly ran out of virtual money. "I spent everything on his room. I only had 50 bucks left. I said, 'oh no, I can't afford anymore.'"
Luckily, she said she had enough money to buy food for her pony, who survived her initial shopping spree.
Without realizing it, she is being groomed for the world of Internet shopping. And like older cybernauts, she can also chat with other virtual owners and invite their pets to play. Safety guards and monitors ensure that the children can play securely without fear of predators.
And other websites are also leading the vanguard into tempting youngsters onto the Internet, such as Club Penguin which has millions of users and which was bought by Disney earlier this year for 350 million dollars.
According to the market researchers eMarketer, 53 percent of US children will be members of a virtual world within the next four years, compared with 27 percent in 2007. That will take their numbers to a sizeable 20 million, compared to 8.2 million at the moment.
"Second Life has received the most attention from marketers, but traffic levels there are dwarfed by those at virtual worlds that are specifically aimed at children and teenagers," said Debbie Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer.
The growing young membership of such websites is set to be a goldmine for advertisers. According to the market researcher Parks Associates about 15 million dollars was spent in virtual worlds in the US in 2006, a sum set to multiply tenfold by 2012.
Every month new sites are jumping onto the bandwagon. Popular makes of dolls such as Barbie and Bratz have both created virtual worlds in the past months, emulating the Swedish site Stardoll.com, which allows surfers to dress virtual avatars and has some seven million members.
"What's the next network to go big after Facebook?" Webkinz, of course," said Jeff Sandquist, a "technical Evangelist" at Microsoft.