It's difficult to ascertain the exact moment that a phenomenon morphs into a craze. There's no real predictive mechanism for explaining why some toys become icons of a generation and others simply fade into obscurity, though smart marketing can certainly play a role. Such was the case of TY Beanie Babies, a well thought-out product launch in which the producing company intentionally created a sense of limited stock and imminent discontinuation of coveted items.
TY, Inc chose not to unleash their bean-filled babies to large retail distributors. Instead, they selected more upscale, lesser known toy stores to carry their allegedly elusive product. This air of exclusivity bred stirrings of increased perceived value and specialness, despite the fact that these babies were available to the general spending population at just $4.99 a pop. Feeling used and abused yet by the field of consumer psychology? If you're not quite there, don't worry, there's still some time to catch up.
In an age where we pretty much did whatever the Word from our Sponsors dictated, it seems like a step backward to implement a word-of-mouth campaign, especially for something with no other real use or value outside of its cuteness. TY strayed away from traditional commercial advertising strategies, hoping to add to its elusive air of mystery and secrecy. In ninety nine cases out of a hundred this plan would almost certainly backfire as none of us would have an inkling the product even existed, let alone the capacity of envy to care that we might be missing out on this alleged collecting opportunity.
From this point on, TY pretty much had us in the bag. It was like a primitive form of viral marketing dependent solely on our lust to like things that others don't know about. I dare any of you to deny that there has been a time in your life where a friend said, "Hey, check out this new band, isn't it awesome?" and you turned your nose up in much-anticipated aloof glee and told them, "Oh, I've known about them for years. I've been listening them since way before they were famous." It's in our basic human nature, and TY caught us in the act. They somehow managed to convince us that owning one of these $5 pellet-stuffed plushies gave us some sort of coolness capital.
In case you were wondering, this entire collection is currently for sale for a mere $200 by an Oklahoma seller. I'd stay strike while the iron is hot on these ones. She claims some are "very valuable". That's why they're only $200 total. What a steal!
Vast segments of society bought into this marketing strategy wholeheartedly. TY threw in some other nice touches to further tug at our ever-gullible heartstrings, including a signature tag on each beanie indicating this particular model's unique name, birthday, and accompanying aww-inducing poem. Despite the fact that our Squealer the Pig was just one among dozens in the beanie bin we plucked him from, TY had us convinced that he was somehow ours in a unique one-of-a-kind way not possible in this age of mass-produced toys. Well played, TY.
To further add fuel to the frenzied fire, TY opted to premiere and retire new favorites at a whim, prompting us all the more quickly to consume these toys on the assumption that their availability was extremely limited. This was mostly untrue, of course, though it certainly eased the transition from poseable prop to coveted collector's item. While the product's major consuming demographic had originated as allowance-toting youngsters, middle-aged hobbyists soon saw some appeal in the collection of these limited-availability stuffed animals. Adults took to the internet in droves, operating frantic chat rooms and forums on the possibility of this or that Beanie Baby facing retirement or possessing some rare attribute. Over a very short period of time, the amassing of Beanie Babies segued from toy ownership to investment opportunity.
Because there was no means of knowing whether a certain Beanie would be retired, reinstated, or available in only limited quantities, collectors quickly began cataloging the trajectories of their favorites and charting out their chances for financial success. I personally made a brief foray into Beanie collectorship upon the realization that I had indeed purchased a limited edition original wingless Quackers the duck on a field trip in fourth grade. Almost immediately after coming to this exciting and undoubtedly profitable conclusion, I dug up my old pal Quackers from a pile of forgotten stuffies only to find the unthinkable: it was leaking beans. Well, leaking plastic pellets, at least. I could have been an elementary school thousandaire, but TY's original shoddy workmanship (or perhaps my inability to play gentle) had thwarted this lucrative opportunity. In case you were wondering, I'm still fairly bitter over the whole incident.
While the narrow of window of opportunity was still open on the craze, companies and individuals fought for their own corner of this fad market. McDonald's introduced a "Teenie Beanie" Happy Meal toy tie-in, releasing miniature versions of the popular collectibles. On the far more extreme side, some individuals got involved in black market knockoff Beanie Baby rings, including a couple from my hometown who were fined a whopping $150,000 for their Beanie impropriety and a hefty $11,000+ to each of their victims. Now, of course, I'm just kicking myself for not have seeking out my neighbors as Beanie Baby suppliers. Screw the profits I could have gained from Quackers; that settlement would have been far sweeter.
My own childhood greediness aside, it also seems TY was not above capitalizing on tragedy and circumstance to turn a tidy profit. The company released a limited edition Princess Diana bear almost immediately following her tragic death in 1997, offering an extremely limited quantity to ensure they turned the highest profit from her untimely demise. TY also had a tie-dyed Garcia bear in circulation, undoubtedly styled after the late Grateful Dead guitarist. Garcia's family sued and TY acquiesced, but you've got to admire their gumption. We're talking about the same company that tried to pawn off some allegedly non-Obama daughter related "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" dolls this past year. These stuffed animal people can be ruthless.
Like all good fads, Beanie Babies could only hold our attention so long before a new trend came along and erased all memories of our bepelleted pals. Many of us who had treated the rise of Beanie Baby collectibles as a legitimate investment opportunity were distressed to find that nearly overnight, the astronomically inflated value of our little bears had plummeted. The trend began to fade almost as quickly as it had peaked. Scores of us were left with tens or even hundreds of these value-deficient toys, now likely relegated to basement storage room garbage bags or garage sale dime bins.
We all want to declare ourselves impervious to trends, but sometimes our bandwagon-hopping mentality gets the better of us. For those among us who got out in time and unloaded their Beanies to naive collectors willing to pay top dollar for their collections, congratulations. You've outsmarted the system and most likely, the rest of society. Hopefully we can take it as a learning experience and not be so impulsive the next time. If you'll excuse me now, I need to go check on those limited edition Pokemon cards I've been watching on eBay. I'm pretty sure their ship is on its way in.