Please explain the Beanie Baby craze of the 1990s.
October 1, 2008 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Please explain the Beanie Baby craze of the 1990s.

What's the deal with this stuff? Why were people paying hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars for these little toys? Did they honestly expect them to keep their value? Were people really basing their retirement on selling these things later in life or was that just a rumor?

Anyone here an old collector? What were you thinking? Do you regret spending this kind of money?

The wikipedia article is somewhat informative but only lists some marketing gimmicks that can be summed up as false scarcity. That can't explain this madness. What else was collected with such frenzy and bottomed out so suddenly?
posted by damn dirty ape to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As I remember correctly, the beanie craze occurred right as eBay was picking up traction. Maybe that created a false demand, as people would bid against one another.
posted by neilkod at 8:09 AM on October 1, 2008

I was 9 at the time and I kind of wanted Beanie Babies because all the cool kids were into them. However, I was unsuccessful at this because I didn't have any money at the time, being 9, and my parents thought the idea of collecting stuffed animals was dumb. The parents I talked to who DID allow their kids to collect Beanies more or less said they doubted that any of them would hold value but ..."you never know". Speculative market...nice.

I feel like part of the reason was that people could see how much other people were paying for different Beanies in near-real time on eBay. It made it seem like they had some kind of inherent value. eBay was pretty new at the time, so that was a big novelty factor. I may be totally misremembering this though.
posted by crinklebat at 8:11 AM on October 1, 2008

What else was collected with such frenzy and bottomed out so suddenly?

Oh, man, what hasn't been? Consider the humble tulip. Actually, do -- it's a good Wiki article that has some relevance to present circumstances.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:12 AM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Kids wanted them because they were/are cool toys for kids. Smart adults wanted them in order to turn a quick profit. Not as smart adults wanted them as an investment.

Baseball cards and other things that hold value were used as an analogy. If they can hold a value, and they're essentially toys, then why can't the Beanie Babies?

The problem is that, unlike baseball cards, Beanie Babies don't exactly have a date where they'll stop being produced. 1965 Topps cards won't be made in 1970. 1990 Beanie Babies will be made exactly the same in 1991 unless they're some sort of special edition.

I had a few that I got as gifts. Never bought any for myself.

When McDonald's was giving them out as toys my brother would open them up while he was eating and get ketchup on them. It was hilarious watching all the collectors and investors freak out about that.
posted by theichibun at 8:14 AM on October 1, 2008

My daughter started buying and selling Beanie Babies when she was 12 or 13. She thought they were cute, then discovered that there was a secondary market for them on Ebay where she could make oodles of money finding the ones available locally and selling them to folks in other parts of the country. I had a talk with her about The Dutch Tulip Mania, and she continued buying and selling until she thought she saw signs that the market had peaked, liquidated her positions and banked $3500 over the course of 8 months or so. Made me proud.
posted by Floydd at 8:18 AM on October 1, 2008 [25 favorites]

My grandmother collected them... I think she was hoping that they would hold value, especially the supposedly scarce ones. I liked them because, as an elementary-school aged kid, they were fun to dress up and play with. My grandmother had previously collected various kinds of dolls (Madame Alexander, etc.) and sold them at collector shows, IIRC. Beanie Babies were pretty much an extension of the same thing.
posted by MadamM at 8:19 AM on October 1, 2008

What else was collected with such frenzy and bottomed out so suddenly?

Comics. Old ones were perceived as a trash medium, so people treated them like they were disposable. Round about the late eighties, a whole mess of laymen realized that old comics had value as collector's items, which led to a big collecting-frenzy, which led comics publishers to come out with gimmicks that seemed like surefire collector's items to anyone with only a passing familarity with comics. So you got all kinds of crap that was fairly worthless being marketed as investments, like:

- New series and characters, as "first appearance of X!" comics were supposed to have more value ("OMG WHO IS THIS MYSTERIOUS MAN FROM THE FUTURE CALLED BISHOP")
- Ridiculous plot developments that were supposed to be historic ("OMG SUPERMAN DIED")

tulips : Early Modern Europe :: comics : small pasty teenaged lads with lateral lisps
posted by Greg Nog at 8:19 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting there are many rare Beanie Babies that would still fetch a good sum at sale - despite the overall craze having died out.

Some good similarities have been given above, but another worth considering is art. Why does the value of art increase in certain situations, and not in others? Why do people invest in art only not to display it? Similar answers arise, and art is now a proven industry and works of art are a commonly traded good (often not appreciated as art but as goods).
posted by wackybrit at 8:25 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always chalked it up to the fact that people will pretty much believe what they are told. Beanie Babies were created to be "collectible" and they used this artificial scarcity to drive up demand. And it worked, for a while.
posted by radioamy at 8:28 AM on October 1, 2008

Bubble. My boss filled her house with them. Literally, ever surfaced was covered with both the rare and common beanies, with which she planned to make her fortune. I think at one point her on-hand inventory was nominally worth 30K. She'd do deals for them like drug transactions: "meet me under a bridge, bring cash, I'll have the beanies in a plain brown bag". Ah, I miss that woman.
posted by orthogonality at 8:32 AM on October 1, 2008

They were originally designed to be a cute little toy that kids could afford with their allowance ( about $5).
Then adults discovered that they were cheap and cute...and everything went to hell.
I have a few, I was in HS when they were big. I never paid more than the original $5 for one, and don't see them as a "collector's item", I see them as "oh, a cute little toy cat!!"
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:41 AM on October 1, 2008

Collecting can be a hobby and/or a compulsion. At bottom it's just something to do, and gives people an interest and a purpose in life. And once you get started collecting something, it can feel like a task you just have to finish. No, I'm not by any means saying that all collectors are pathetic lost souls who don't have any other purpose in life. Some collections have genuine historical interest, at least some musueum curators would kill to have them, and their collectors can be true connossieurs of and experts on their area of interest. But beanie baby collections would be the low end of the scale of collections as a hobby. Anyone gullible enough to think his or her beanie baby collection will have a resale value is not a terribly sophisticated or self-actualized person. It can be social, too. If you have a friend who collects the same thing it can be something you do with the friend, and a mild sense of competition adds to your enjoyment.

Collecting can be an addiction and a way of coping with emotional problems. A friend of mine who grew up poor and was living on limited means in her early adulthood had a big chip on her shoulder because of it. She felt deprived and resentful, and she got angry if anyone had anything more than she did. If I bought a magazine in front of her, I'd immediately have to listen to a whole, "Well, she couldn't afford magazines!" (Never mind that she'd just bought several packs of cigarettes and a case of beer and I hadn't.) She could not buy herself a lot of things. But she'd collect little tin containers from dollar stores, and M&M dispensers and some other things I can't remember. She thought they were cute and it gratified her to have lots of something. Beanie babies might fall into this category of things people buy as an easy way to feel better about themselves and their lives. They're relatively inexpensive to buy and easy to acquire, and such an accessible way to soothe yourself. You might not have a car, a retirement fund, a satisfying job, or a functional romantic relationship, but you can always buy a Beanie Baby for your collection and so feel the glow of accomplishment and gratification.

In terms of other scams like this, see numbered art posters.)
posted by orange swan at 8:43 AM on October 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

Hmm. I was in my early teens, I think, and it was a craze at school. All my friends would bring them in to sit on their desks in lessons, and I didn’t want to be the only one without any. I thought they were cute - I still have a few at my mum's house.

I never paid more than the standard £4.99 for any (or however much it was) and I only bought the ones I thought were cute. No reptiles for me! And only one bear - there were hundreds of different ones that were just slightly different colours, or with different logos. Daft.

My friend's mum, however, collected them like mad. Their whole house was filled with them - shelves and shelves, and every available circus. (Then she went over to America to sell them all, became a lesbian, and never came back. But that's another story.) I have absolutely no idea why she collected so avidly, and I don't know how she afforded it.
posted by badmoonrising at 9:03 AM on October 1, 2008

Back in elementary school this PTA mom I knew wasn't all there. Her daughter, less so. But damn, did they love those Beanie Babies. So much so, that at some point the mom put everything she had into a store called 'Beanies & More,' which supplied exactly what you expected.

I think she renamed the shop when the Beanie bubble burst, and it's still afloat, last I checked.
posted by spamguy at 9:07 AM on October 1, 2008

In addition to what others have said above ...

* Ty created artificial scarcity as a deliberate business model.

* McDonalds, Major League Baseball and other retailers helped create the scarcity, releasing select toys as part of one-time promotions ("Beanie Baby Night").

* Some of the Beanie Babies were tied to charity causes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:10 AM on October 1, 2008

I recall Beanie Babies coming about through this weird string of years in the mid-90's where every Christmas had an "IT" toy and you absolutely had to get your kid the "IT" toy. One year it was Furbys, one year it was Tickle-Me Elmo, one year it was Beanie Babies. To me, their initial popularity was pinned to that and the idea that they were collectible and worth trading as a commodity seems like something cooked up by their manufacturer to extend their popularity past the Christmas season.
posted by greenland at 9:11 AM on October 1, 2008

My wife made good money one summer (pre-ebay, 97 I think) selling beanie babies on a web based bulletin board. It was nuts. She made friends with retail stores that would just take 2 of every thing when they got a shipment, charge our credit card, and ship them to us. She would sell them immediately online at a huge markup.

The only beanies we still have are all the horse beanies, and that is just because our daughter likes horses and wanted them as normal stuffed animals, not as collectors items.
posted by COD at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2008

What else was collected with such frenzy and bottomed out so suddenly?

Those of us with the courage to take the long view will be sitting pretty when the POG revival rolls around.
posted by contraption at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

I worked at a gift store that sold these. I'm just chiming in to confirm that there were people who seemed to be going broke collecting them, in hopes that the investment would pay off. We dealt with lots and lots and lots more bounced cheques for Beanie Babies than we did for anything else. More than one regular customer followed us workers and the UPS trucks around. Those were usually the people who confided that they were planning to use their Beanie Baby collections to pay for their kids' college education and/or their own retirement.
posted by juliplease at 9:45 AM on October 1, 2008

Of course, the guy who really made out well with Beanie Babies is the one at the top.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:15 AM on October 1, 2008

I'd like to forget that I bought a bunch of these - I never expected them to be worth anything, and I ever planned to sell them.

I had a source where I could get my pick of the shipments first - for like $5 you could be cool as heck because you had the beanie that NO ONE ELSE HAD!!!!! It was pretty harmless (cheap) fun.

I think they are in a box in my basement somewhere?
posted by KAS at 10:54 AM on October 1, 2008

Who knows why ANY craze becomes a craze? I remember vividly when "friendship pins" were all the rage -- these were simply safety pins with beads strung on them, and you wore them looped around your shoelaces -- and I'm right now in the midst of writing an article about "random Chinese stuff that Westerners went crazy for throughout history," covering everything from mah jongg to Kung Fu movies to Mao jackets the use of Mandarin in FIREFLY.

One detail I do know about Beanie Babies that may have added a little fuel to the craze, though, was the gimmick that each particular Beanie Baby would only be available for a finite amount of time. Each Beanie Baby sported a tag with a little poem on it, and also stated that BB's "birthday" -- and it was understood that after a certain period of time FOLLOWING the stated birthday, the company would cease manufacturing that particular Beanie Baby. Putting a time or availability limit on nearly anything makes it seem like it's more valuable; that may have fueled much of the craze, people knowing that after June 13th that people would no longer be able to buy Weenie the Dachshund in stores any more and so hey, isn't it convenient that you just so happened to have bought up several dozen that you were now willing to sell.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2008

I had a friend who collected plastic Hallmark ornaments in a very serious way- kept them in the original box, etc. Much like Beanie Babies, there were different series (like, Barbie doll comemoratives, little country mice, etc.) and they were limited editions. My friend was always telling us about how a certain country mouse or whatever was worth $1000. However, I never saw her sell any ornaments; she only seemed to trade them with other enthusiasts. So it was an alternative economy, I guess, and the collectors all seemed happy with it.

I noticed that Hallmark is still making the things, but I haven't heard that they were valuable collectibles in years.
posted by acrasis at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2008

What else was collected with such frenzy and bottomed out so suddenly?

Cabbage Patch Dolls. My mom tells a story of wanting to get me one when I was a baby and changing her mind when she saw that buying one meant standing in line for hours to grab one off the truck, before they could even be brought into the store. I got one several years later after the bubble burst.
posted by arcticwoman at 2:42 PM on October 1, 2008

There was definitely an element of competition to it. You have a third generation Happy the Hippo? Well I have a first generation one. You got the second generation Ally the Alligator? Pssh, I had mine months ago. To eleven-year-old me it was a way of proving I was ahead of the curve and way cooler than everyone else. That was also why I had so many brastrap headbands and gigapets. I started in a new school the year beanie babies got big and happened to have one my cousins had given me a year or so back and was desperately trying to make friends. I thought by showing off how ahead of the curve I was people would like me (I was not the most socially adept). And when people started getting more I had to have even rarer ones to one-up them. In retrospect, I must've been pretty obnoxious and elitist. Those were not my best years.

The majority of beanie baby buying in my family, though, came from my mom. I can't explain what her motivations were, but I like to think she pursued it so obsessively at least partially because it brought the family closer together. She used to drag my brother and me to the mall at 5 a.m. so we could sit in line for hours to get into the store. We spent an entire family vacation driving around Connecticut hitting all the McDonalds so we could get all the teenie beanies. And to be honest it did, for awhile. It gave everyone a way to talk to each other, kids and adults alike, and helped us connect with the family that lived on the other side of the nation. That was why I stuck with doing the beanie baby thing long after I had lost interest.

All our beanie babies are in plastic tubs in my mom's closet. Now that I'm older I'm a little ashamed about the whole thing, but it is what it is. It showed me I wasn't as awesome as I thought I was, and that telling everyone "look how cool I am!" is not a productive friend-making strategy. Which was an important lesson.
posted by lilac girl at 3:13 PM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

They're just really cute, and you think you only want one or two, but then you find out that oh, man, there's a dragon, right, a really cute dragon, and you've always wanted a stuffed dragon but she was retired a few months ago and she's just five dollars more than retail price... Actually I'm pretty sure my mum spent $35 on that darn 'Magic the Dragon', but that was an EXCEPTION, okay? I was mostly a lot more restrained than that. It's worth keeping in mind that there are two kinds of collectors: the ones who collect to have, and the ones who collect to sell. It's usually the have-collectors who start the bubble, then the sell-collectors who go, "Gosh, there's money in this!" Then they flock in, the company tries to produce more to meet demands until the market is just flooded with product and the bubble crashes. At least, that's what happened with comics, and I suspect that happened to the Beanies as well - there were just too many of them.

I thought I learned from Beanie Babies, but now I'm trying very, very hard not to do Mighty Muggs. At least there's a built-in niche-ness to the appeal, right?
posted by bettafish at 10:21 PM on October 1, 2008

Magic The Gathering collectible cards had a similar 'bubble' burst when Wizards Of The Coast re-printed a bunch of cards that were previously printed in very low numbers. Some of this was done as they expanded into foreign markets (and made the cards available in foreign languages), some of it was that they realized that they had printed far too few of some cards and attempted to rectify their mistake by re-issuing them in a new set (Chronicles). This elicited howls from collectors who had stockpiled cards that were only valuable because of their scarcity (as opposed to their utility in the game) as the prices of those cards plummeted (some from $25.00 to $0.25).

There was such a backlash from the collector community that Wizards created a list of 'cards that will never be reprinted' so that collectors would have some faith in the market when paying through the nose for older, rarer cards.
posted by Four Flavors at 3:28 PM on October 2, 2008

It happens to an extent with record collecting - Tigermilk by B&S, for example, was worth insane amounts on vinyl then the price dropped when it was reissued on CD. (I had a bootleg copy inbetween.) However, people mostly buy records for the love of music - it's pretty rare for people to buy vinyl purely for investment value.

Cabbage Patch Dolls.

They couldn't give these away this side of the pond.
posted by mippy at 3:11 PM on November 26, 2008

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