By Park Sang-soo
SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- Han Hee-min, a 43-year old office worker, has a must-have item to purchase. It is not for him, but for his only son. It's not a luxury brand good or even a high-priced one.
But he becomes growingly impatient to get his hands on a Turning Mecard, with his 7-year old kid prodding him to buy the transforming toy robot series for him as the May 5 Children's Day comes near.
Late last year, he stood in line for three hours in the early morning to buy the toy, but he failed to grab it. "Fathers, just like me, say that the toy should not have come out into this world," Han said.
"It's like a war," he grumbled. "It is not just a toy, but it became a rare item for kids, particularly boys," he said.
The reality facing fathers like Han is that it's hard to get the toy which has swept the country's toy market since its debut in 2015.
Its tight supply has forced many parents to stand in long lines, waiting for a retail outlet to open. Some even set up tents outside of shops to get the product before it is out of stock.
The transforming toy robots are traded online at even higher than the common price of some US$15 per item.
"The market response was better than what we have expected, and we are making efforts to meet the demand," said Han Ah-rum, a PR official at Sonokong, the manufacturer of Turning Mecard. "Basically, demand for toy products are very cyclical, and that means we cannot drastically jack up output."
Indeed, Turning Mecard, released early last year by Sonokong, became a darling for children here, especially boys aged between 6 and 11 years, driving foreign-made toys such as Lego, Japanese toy-producer Bandai's character toys such as Power Rangers series, out of the local toy market, estimated at some 1 trillion won (US$883 million).
Back in 2009, the local toy market was largely dominated by Japanese products, but Tobot, released by another local toy maker Young Toys Co., changed the landscape. Tobot, a transforming car toy, was first featured in TV animations in 2010 and has gained stellar popularity. In 2012, Tobot was the most-sold toy in the country, but caved in to Power Rangers series in 2014.
Now, another homegrown transforming toy series, Turning Mecard, has topped the list again.
During last year's Christmas season and Chuseok holidays (Korean Thanksgiving), the Turning Mecard series has been within the top 15 most sold toys at Lotte Mart Co., which operates the leading kids store, Toys "R" Us, in the country.
Turning Mecard is basically a car-shaped toy that transforms into a robot when it is touched with a card with a magnet in it. With the power of the magnet, it can even transform into other characters.
So far, Sonokong has released dozens of different transforming toys and plans to release more down the road.
"It's very fun to play with Turning Mecard because I can play with characters from the animation I saw, and they transform into other things with a touch," said Kwak Ji-seop, a nine-year old boy who boasts of his Turning Mecard collection.
The success of the Turning Mecard transforming toy series can be traced to a highly well-organized strategy -- before releasing toys, animations are first aired, thus familiarizing kids with them.
Sonokong's action adventure animation under the same title features mini cars and cards which transform together into various character modes.
Also, related games are available. Downloads of a mobile game featuring Turning Mecard's animation story and car racing has topped 1 million since its release last year.
Mirroring the huge popularity of the toy, some duty-free operators in the country have started to sell the Turning Mecard series.
Sonokong said Turning Mecard is the perfect combination of an animated series and its popular characters, allowing kids to have first-hand experience of the characters in the real world. "That's why many kids are enthralled with the toy series," said Han at Sonokong.
On the back of its sensational popularity, Sonokong, which has been selling other popular items such as Top Plate and Hello Carbot, succeeded in improving its bottom line. Its sales soared to a record high of 125 billion won last year, with its operating income reaching a record high of 10.3 billion won. Some 80 percent of its sales last year came from the Turning Mecard brand.
The 2015 bottom line marks a sharp turnaround from operating losses of 3.5 billion won and 8.7 billion won, respectively, in 2014 and 2013.
The local toy market is forecast to be reigned by homegrown brands for the time being as Sonokong is planning to air Turning Mecard Season 2 this month, and roll out new products.
Also, Young Toys released new toys, titled "Power Battle Watchcar" in collaboration with the country's No. 1 automaker Hyundai Motor Co. And CJ E&M, a local cable TV operator, started airing a new animation under the same name earlier this month, to take on its rival Sonokong.
But kids in other countries seem to have a slim chance of playing with the transforming toy any time soon, as Sonokong does not have plans to tap overseas markets; the company will focus on the domestic market for the time being, according to Han.
BTS album ranked on Billboard chart for 20th consecutive week
(LEAD) S. Korea, EU begin discussions over Seoul's ratification of ILO conventions
Nissan Korea fined 900 mln won for overstating fuel efficiency
(4th LD) Top N. Korean envoy due in Washington this week: CNN
(LEAD) Top N. Korean official en route to Washington
N. Korea, U.S. end working-level talks in Sweden
(2nd LD) S. Korean economy grows 2.7 pct in 2018: BOK
(Yonhap Feature) Fine dust forces Koreans to change way of life
S. Korea to produce new air defense command system
N. Korea demands full-scale cross-border cooperation without outside meddling