All In The Plan Toy Makers Create Deamnd Through Shortages

Posted: December 08, 1998

It begins innocently enough each year: a child spots one particular toy on television, or a parent sees it in a store.

It could be an irksome furry muppet, or a useless plastic action figure.

In July, there are plenty on the shelves.

But by the holidays, the toy is a black-market commodity, dime-store plastic or cockamamie cartoon characters that end up fetching $500, $1,000 or more - if parents are lucky enough to find them.

Children alone aren't to blame for this all-out frenzy. Neither are their crazed parents, who trample one another to get to the limited supplies.

Each year, manufacturers create this holiday chaos, perpetrating insidious marketing schemes and masterminding toy shortages, according to analysts who study toy sales trends.

``It's savvy marketing,'' said Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rheinbeck, N.Y., and author of ``Trends 2000.'' ``The toy will take off, and rather than flood the market with product, they hold back. Some of it's contrived, and sometimes they just can't meet the demand.

``What makes Beanie Babies valuable? It's supply and demand.''

So manufacturers run a few hundred commercials a day, advertise in all of the holiday circulars, then produce only enough to satisfy 1 percent of the demand.

Works every time.

Kids pout, sob and beg for the little critters. And parents find themselves freezing in line outside a Wal-Mart at 2 a.m.

``Our spin on it is that every year, there's something that rears its head over others in the pack,'' said John Schulte, president of Pangea Creative Toy Development Co. in California.

``A lot of times it's luck,'' Schulte said. ``Who has the strongest dollars being pushed into public relations, and when you see news pieces on it . . . you buy a Furby.''

This year, Furby is all the rage.

The 5-inch furry gremlinesque toy speaks 160 preprogrammed words of its own, including English and its own language, Furbish, of course.

It has elementary school kids crazed and parents skimming the Internet black market to find a Furby ``bargain.'' Last week, these crazed collectors and cracked-up parents were offering hundreds - even thousands - for the gray, black or white plush critters.

``GET YOUR FURBY HERE!'' one auctioneer wrote. Only $1,000.

Like most holiday fads, Furby was just another product to sprout from the annual Toy Fair this past summer, a miniature talking Ewok that wasn't even in stores yet.

But after a nine-page spread in Wired on-line magazine and some media hype - including an October FAO Schwartz toy store premier toy gurus call pure marketing genius - Furby frenzy was in full gear by mid-November.

The Furby frenzy began so suddenly last month, that Toy Manufacturers of America doesn't even list the critter on its top 15 toy list in October.

The manufacturer pushed production to have the furry friend in time for the 1998 holiday, but is only planning to produce 1.5 million this year, not nearly enough for the swelling demand, according to techies.

But the almighty Furby isn't the first time - or the last - that an obsessive search for polyfill and plastic will rule the yule.

In years past, parents knocked down toy store doors to get Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi, the talking Teddy Ruxpin and the purple dinosaur Barney.

But before all of these toys, there were Cabbage Patch Kids.

The sour-pussed dolls are credited with starting this bizarre holiday toy trend, experts say.

``Ever since Cabbage Patch,'' said Marisa Gordon, spokesperson for the Toy Manufacturers of America in New York, ``It seems people want there to be a hot product every year.''

After some media hype in 1983, mothers trampled one another in toy stores across the nation to get their hands on the toy. Stores tried in vain to create some semblance of order by handing out tickets for the dolls in advance.

Within a few years, kids weren't even interested in the dolls. Now, even a local Shoprite carries the forgotten figures in the candy aisle, somewhere between cake decorations and party supplies.

Then, two years ago, came another craze, this time for Tickle Me Elmo, the lovable, hateable ``Sesame Street'' Muppet.

After watching a sophomoric Rosie O'Donnell tickle the playful puppet on her show, children had to have their own irksome red giggler under the tree or parents paid the price - sobbing, pouting, the cold shoulder.

By the holidays, the toy was on the black market, selling for thousands.

And these days, though Elmo is still selling, he apparently isn't as funny as he used to be.

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