Evil incarnate or just innocent cuteness?

by Paul Lewis

This is not to be the Monica Lewinsky debate. Though, to check your local newsstand, you'd see more magazines devoted to these fluffy critters than you would find dedicating column inches to the it-girl of the moment.

Yeah, the hot object is Beanie Babies, and if you haven't heard of them you're living off the grid.

I understand the collector's mentality. I have a fair appetite for comic books (and baseball cards, if you count my collecting stint throughout middle and high schools), so I can appreciate the want, mayhaps the NEED, to hold something, keep something, and feel good about the ownership and the potential profits you could make if you ever decided to sell the blasted thing. In the collectibles market, it seems more and more a sure bet to put your money where the Beanies are. But what's truly amazing about the Beanie phenomenon is how quickly it overtook the national consciousness, and how it remains securely in place long after many pundits predicted it would go the way of the dodo, like many flash-in the-pan hobbies before it. Cabbage Patch Kids, anyone? Tickle Me Elmo?

But why, exactly, are people so obsessed with little bags of stuffing? How much demand is there for what at first glance are normal little plush toys, and how much money is there to be made in the hobby, if one is so inclined? Are Beanies on their way to virtual extinction or will they endure like, say, Barbie, and have annoyingly catchy pop songs dedicated to them in 20 years by an aging "Aqua" in need of a new hit? All I knew going in is that the market is so lucrative that merchants occasionally spring up on the roadside to hawk their wares, counterfeiters have begun to crank out Phony Babies, and when I went to McDonald's a couple of months ago to get a hamburger, I had to wade through a mob of eager yet demographically-varied Beanie seekers. All this, and the fact that my cousins, aunt, and now my mom are collecting the things, which means I have to hear about them.

Beanie Babies began as one of a series of product lines by the Illinois-based Ty, Inc., debuting in the Midwest in 1993. The initial concept for Beanies was to create a small, affordable plaything for kids, giving each Beanie an identity by naming it and putting a short poem on each of the "swing tags" used to mark an official Ty product. The little plastic-pellet filled toys spread throughout the country, and eventually gained their marketing niche as Ty periodically "retired" certain Beanies from production, thereby creating not only a toy, but a limited, collectible product.

"McDonald's gave it a lot of publicity, as well," says Jim Warren, price guide editor for Beans! magazine, a publishing venture spearheaded by former Knoxvillian Frank Finn. Warren is referring to the much-noted McDonald's giveaways of specially-created TEENIE (meaning that they're smaller and much cuter) Beanie Babies in both '97 and '98. That, probably more than anything else, registered Beanies on the consumer radar en masse, and prevented me from getting my hamburger in a timely manner.

"Ty also does a lot of work with sporting events, which keeps them in the public eye, so that hooks people who may not necessarily have been interested in the hobby," Warren says. The giveaway of 50,000 of the new Glory teddy bears at the Baseball All-Star Game in Denver was reported in news sources as disparate as ESPN's Sportscenter and Newsweek magazine. Simple rule—when you can increase demand by increasing exposure, in due time demand will exceed supply, and suppliers will raise prices until people stop paying. Which makes for more than a few happy suppliers.

Scott West is one of the owners of the Old City emporium Earth to Old City. He claims that his eclectic gift store is one of the first, if not the first, shops to carry Beanies in Knoxville. They thought the little animals would be nice stocking-stuffers or inexpensive gifts. "The demand started in other areas first," he explains. "We would have tourists visit the store and say 'Oh my God, you can't find these in Chicago to save your life!' It really hit here in March of '97; it suddenly went through the roof.

"Last year we did about 20 percent of our business in Beanies," says West. "Any store that sells Beanie Babies, it's their biggest-selling item. Places like shoe stores and hardware stores want to carry them."

Another supplier is Maverick's, a Beanie-exclusive store in West Town

Mall. Maverick's is actually a chain out of Cincinnati, Ohio, devoted to selling collectibles, which in the past has been sports cards and memorabilia. But the chain felt it was time, with its seventh store, to give Beanies a try. I visit on a Monday evening and speak to store manager Gary Wiley. The crowd varies from two people to six or seven, all staring at the treasures on display throughout the establishment, mostly mothers, children and grandmothers exclaiming "I HAVE that one," and "I NEED that one." Wiley claims it's a slow night, and that usually space in the store is standing room only.

"We opened three or four months ago, and the response has been phenomenal," says Wiley. He claims that the store sells an average of 100 Beanie Babies a day. His biggest single sale was five retired Beanies for a collective price of $2,500. He can't discuss specific numbers, but the cautious grin he exhibits when asked how business is going tells me all I need to know. Booming.

Yet another supplier is the Knoxville-based, though soon to be Nashville-based, Shop At Home network. Most well known for a full-throttle sports memorabilia show that was mocked on Saturday Night Live, the network has also carved out a solid market with Beanie Baby sales. Kevin Hite is an on-air host and the guy in charge of the Beanie Baby product.

"We've been selling Beanie Babies for about a year now," says Hite. "I got the idea when I noticed that my wife was trying to find one particular Beanie, Snort the bull. We're from the Toledo, Ohio area, and she was traveling and going to Indiana to try to find one. I also noticed that they were supposed to sell for five or six dollars, but people were paying 12 or 13 dollars for some.

"The first item we sold on the air was the '97 set of McDonald's Teenie Beanies," continues Hite. "We initially sold them for $99. Now they're at $349, and we're still selling them."

Neither Wiley nor Hite see the market slacking enough to warrant rethinking their sales positions. "As far as it slowing down, well, the Ty company is doing everything right," says Hite. "Every time it looks like it might be slowing, there's always a new retirement or a set of new releases." For example, the set of 14 new spring/summer Beanies is slowly trickling onto shelves, but since their distribution isn't widespread yet, they're bringing premium prices. "Glory's brand new, just came out, and I'm selling him for $125," says Wiley.

It should be noted that Maverick's and Shop At Home are secondary market retailers, meaning that they do not have a license to print money, er, a distribution agreement with Ty, Inc. They purchase from other vendors, like Earth to Old City, and re-sell at whatever price the market will bear. "Beanies are distributed strictly through gift shops and mom and pop establishments," says Hite. "The day they enter any mass merchant is the day they die."

While I'm in Maverick's, Wiley says to a customer, "I get a better return off Beanies than I would at a bank." He says, "I see people trading Beanie Babies with friends and on the Internet like stock. They're like stock."

The Beanie Baby boom over the past couple of years matches up with more and more people utilizing the Internet; more information is available and accessible to the common collector, and prices tend to remain constant throughout different parts of the country. The official Ty website has over one billion hits. Yes, that's "billion" with a "B." A simple entry of "Beanie Babies" on the Infoseek search engine yields 17,201 responses. But are people primarily buying them as an investment and, maybe, missing the enjoyment of the hobby?

Rumors abound about bad Beanie behavior. Research yields more than one story about fights breaking out at McDonald's, yelling matches between managers and customers, and employees quitting mid-shift. More confirmable is the fact that police had to direct traffic at some McDonald's locations to prevent mass turmoil during the last Beanie promotion. Former Knoxville McDonald's employee Jason Fitzgerald lived through what he calls a "chaotic" time during the '97 promotion, and quit his position two days before the last giveaway, partially because he "didn't want to go through it again."

"I got nausea in the morning knowing I'd be going in every day," Fitzgerald claims. Although his job was simply to cook the burgers that came with the Happy Meals with which most Beanies were distributed, he claims "no one was ready for that kind of rush. We ran out within two or three days. Some people were reasonable about it, some were happy they got any at all, and some were totally irate."

My Internet research also pulls up the fact that many thieves are now stealing Beanies to pay for drugs. Other robbers have been known to bypass money and other valuables to concentrate on lifting Beanies. A McDonald's manager left the company because of suspicion he had stolen several bundles of the Teenie Beanies. An All-Star game worker got into trouble because he was suspected of taking a bunch of the giveaway Glory bears. Is it any wonder that non-Beanie buyers are confused and aghast over all this craziness?

In an attempt to give a human face to this craze and confusion, I spoke with my cousins Meghan, 12 and Nick, 15. Meghan is a rabid Beanie fan with a collection of well over 100 pieces, while Nick has about 10 that his mom and sister have purchased for him in their buying travails. Meghan has been collecting for four or five years, and kicked into high gear within the last year when one of Nick's friend's moms told her that the older Beanies she had were worth a lot of money. They were, and both kids sold a few of their Beanies for a price that, if I revealed it, would probably make my presence at future family gatherings a tense arrangement.

Both my cousins enjoy the hobby, and claim that it's terribly widespread. "It's not just a little girl thing; I'd say everybody I know owns at least one, or has a mom or a sibling who collects a lot," says Nick. And while Meghan can't hide the dollar signs in her eyes when she talks about her Beanies, claiming she eventually plans to sell her collection, she does have a couple she won't sell. "I wouldn't sell my Princess bear, because she's purple, my favorite color, and is really pretty. And Mystic (the unicorn) is special to me because my mom got it for me after I had stitches in my knee."

So after all my debate, and all my research, I am forced to come to the conclusion that Beanies can't be so terrible if they bring enjoyment to friends and family members. And with a PR/marketing background myself, I can't help but be not only impressed, but truly awed at how a company can so successfully create demand for a collectible product. Better stay used to them, too, since the sheer numbers show that they're probably here to stay, barring a huge misstep by Ty, Inc.

I just hope that if the Beanies do the fade-out, reduced-to-pop-culture-footnote act Miss Lewinsky is destined for, the considerable hordes of Beanie collectors don't riot in the streets. If that happens, God help us all.