Investors who worry about bull and bear markets should consider the alternatives—the moose, lobster, pink pig, platypus, and dolphin markets, just for starters. These stars in the investment firmament "Chocolate the Moose," "Pinchers the Lobster," "Squealer the Pink Pig," "Raspberry Patti the Platypus," and "Flash the Dolphin" are among the original nine Beanie Babies produced in 1993 by Ty Incorporated. The cute critters are more generically known as bean bag plush toys, and, not only have they shaken kids and the toy domain to its roots, they have forced many adults to rethink their retirement plans, storage space, and sanity.
Is the craze ridiculous? History will tell, but, in March 1999, "Peanut the Royal Blue Elephant" who originally sold for $5.95 in June 1995 was "experiencing a strong secondary market" at the price of $4,500.
The bean bag plush toy exploded on the scene in 1993, but its origins are ages old. Bean bags are among the oldest toys and have been made in geometric, animal, and doll shapes and filled with beans, peas, rice, and pebbles for centuries. Rag dolls are another predecessor and are literally as old as fabrics themselves that could be tied in knots or shapes. Rags are the stuffing in many old dolls with cloth bodies and china or bisque porcelain heads. Bears—the most popular bean bag plush toy—are a merging of the bear shape of the classic teddy bear (born in 1903) and the ancient bean bag.
The phenomenon known as Beanie Babies is the brain child of one man. H. Ty Warner worked for Dakin, a major plush toy maker, before founding Ty Incorporated, in Oak Brook, Illinois, in 1986. He designed and manufactured larger plush toys (typically 12-20 in [30.5-51 cm] long) in the United States, England, Germany, Mexico, and Canada before inventing Beanie Babies. Mr. Warner developed Beanie Babies with the idea of creating small plush toys that fit children's hands easily and that also were priced to fit their allowances. He had previously used pellets of polyvinylchloride (PVC) to fill the feet of his larger stuffed animals, so a combination of understuffmg with polyester filler and PVC pellets was used to make the little toys soft.
In November 1993, Mr. Warner debuted the first nine Beanie Babies, modeled after designs used for his larger stuffed toys, at a toy exposition. The first nine Beanie Babies found their way to store shelves in 1994, and Ty Inc., began introducing nine to 12 new designs every six months. By 1995, Beanie Babies had become a phenomenon, and Ty factories were unable to match supply to demand. So-called "beanie baby mania" began in Chicago near Ty's Oak Brook headquarters but was soon experienced as far afield as Canada and England.
Apart from endearing designs, Ty Inc. employed several strategic marketing tactics. When demand began to increase, production was limited to spur on that demand. The toys were and still are not sold in major stores; instead, small shops that sell cards, other types of small toys, candy, and other items attractive to children became the major sellers of beanie babies. The designs themselves included color and clever detailing in eyes, whiskers, feet, tails, and other parts of the small animals.
Each also bears two tags. One printed paper tag is suspended from the ear of each animal and is termed a hang tag, swing tag, or heart tag because of its heart shape. The second tag called a tush or butt tag carries the manufacturing location, toy contents, and company insignia and date and is folded into a seam in the toy's tail area. The hang tag identifies the animal by name, birth date, and after 1996, it is inscribed with a short poem describing the animal's habits or most endearing characteristics.
All of these features attract kids and enhance the collectible value of the toys. In addition, Ty Inc., began retiring the toys routinely; the fact that a particular toy may become an endangered species also adds to its appeal and limited availability. Collectors are pushed to snap them up while they are available. These features and intelligent marketing campaigns have made Beanie Babies a colossal retail success, creating a strong secondary market and numerous offshoots as well.
The success of Beanie Babies can also be attributed to the Internet. In August 1996, Ty Inc., debuted on the Internet and, courtesy of a guest book, Beanie Baby collectors could exchange information and buy and sell toys. A host of web sites followed with every related opportunity from auctions of Beanie Babies to web pages created by children to show off photos of their toys. Another boost to this success came with McDonald's April 11, 1997, launch of its first Teenie Beanie Baby promotion, featuring 10 miniature versions of existing Beanie Baby designs that were sold in McDonald's Happy Meals. The promotion intended to last for five weeks was terminated in less than two weeks when the supply of 100 million toys was exhausted. Two months after the death of Britain's Princess Diana, Ty Inc., released its first special-issue Beanie, a purple bear with a white rose stitched over its heart and named "Princess." All of Ty's profits from sale of this Beanie Baby were dedicated to the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund. Sports teams giveaways, charity auctions, the opening of the Beanie Baby Official Club on January 1, 1998, and other promotions further boosted public interest.
Changes in the hang tags and tush tags produced "generations" of Beanie Babies and again enhanced interest. Inevitably, errors in mass production of the toys were made, and color errors in materials, missing accessories, or incorrect tagging also created rarities among collectors. Some notable mistakes have been made. Spotted dogs have been produced without the right spots, legs are sometimes stitched in place backwards, fabrics have been mismatched to the wrong animals, and hang tags and tush tags don't always match. For collectors, these errors may add to the thrill of the hunt because the faulty animals may be valuable in their own right.
Demand has also caused a significant counterfeiting industry to grow. Legitimate manufacturers fight this with unique fabrics, accessories, and tags. Holograms on tush tags are an example of the manufacturers' attempts to prevent copying. Planet Plush issued its "Windy, the Chicago Bear" designed by famed plush artist Sally Winey in a limited edition of 36,000 with serial numbers, and Limited Treasures also released production figures to increase demand. For retired toys that are commanding high prices on the secondary (resale) market, manufacturers recommend that potential buyers have experts toys authenticate the little animals before investments are made.
Most soft toy makers and many other toy and novelty producers began generating their own designs and pitching unique takes on the plush bean bag. From Meanie Beanies to baseball and NBA bears to remakes of classic bunnies and bears in miniature, the market has responded with something for every taste—all based on small size, small price, plastic pellets, and polyester fiber.
Bean bag plush toys do not contain beans. Their characteristic soft stuffing consists of two materials, which are plastic pellets and polyester fiber fill. The plastic pellets are made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PE), and they are produced by specialty suppliers. The polyester fiber is the filling commonly used for decorative pillows, comforters, some furniture, and many other products.
The bean bag toy's outer fabric skin is made of synthetic plush. Manufacturers try to use unique fabrics to distinguish their products; for example, SWIBCO, which makes the
The eyes, noses, and other hard plastic features of bean bag plush toys are designed to suit the animal and are made by specialty subcontractors. All are child-proof parts that became an accepted industry standard in the 1960s because they can't easily be pulled off the toys. The eyes are mounted on plastic stems and fixed to the back side of the fabric with washers, collars, or grommets. Some manufacturers use felt eyes and other features that are prefabricated and stitched securely in place or overstitched features that are made of many layers or wraps of sewing thread by machine. Yarn and thread are used for insect antennae and cat whiskers. Larger appendages like legs, feet, beaks, wings, and ears are made of plush or other fabric and are also stuffed. Ribbons are high-quality double-sided satin.
The toy's other prominent attachments are the tags. Hang tags are printed on paper and bear the manufacturer's identification and information about the character of the animal toy. The hang tag is attached to the toy with a plastic strip fastener; these are made of either red or clear plastic, and each one is 0.5-0.74 in (1.3-1.9 cm) long. On the animals' hindquarters, a fabric safety tag tells the contents of the critter and its place of manufacture (usually China, Korea, Malaysia, or Indonesia), as well as its name, company, and registration and trademark data. Because of counterfeiting, holograms that are more difficult to copy have been added to tush tags.
The process of designing a bean bag plush toy begins with a prototype and may take several years to finalize. For Beanie Babies, Ty Warner himself designs the toys by making several prototypes of the same design. Shapes, colors, materials, features, and accessories are varied on the prototypes. Mr. Warner then polls friends and employees to help select the best design. Further evolutions are involved in the toy design itself but also in its name, tags, and the poem on the tag. Some designs have been reissued with color changes and other variations to improve the products.
Pufflins go through a similar process. These plush toys all have rounded shapes so some types of animals like snakes, worms, long-beaked or -legged birds are not suited to the Puffkins style. Employees often suggest new ideas—an employee contest resulted in the Puffkins name—and public opinion is recorded through e-mail, collectors' input, and suggestions from children. SWIBCO's art department produces up to six designs, and the sketches are reviewed by the firm's owners. The art work is sent to the factory where handmade prototypes are constructed from different fabrics and color combinations. These may be approved for production or new art boards may be requested, and the process repeats. Of the original six, four may be ordered. The two that are not selected may be revised and kept for future
Seamstresses and assemblers are responsible for the quality of their work. A final quality control review is done prior to packing at the factory, and when the boxed toys reach their distribution centers in the United States or elsewhere, they are inspected again when they are repackaged for shipment to retail stores.
Makers of bean bag plush toys produce lines of toys with similar design characteristics but no true byproducts. They may use their designs to make other companion products. SWIBCO, for example, has adapted its Puffkins to smaller versions for key rings and magnets. Wastes are minimized to be able to keep the price of the toys within a child's affordability. Polyester fiber fill can be recycled.
Naysayers claimed that the bean bag plush toy market was about to burst in 1998, but others including the manufacturers themselves say it has at least two to five more years to run its course. The toy market is very volatile, and new fads and interests tempt children and their parents every day. Still, these toys are easy to collect and store, given their small size, and they have something for everyone in color, type of animal, seasonal characters, and charm. Bean bag addicts claim the demand will last for many more years on the secondary market alone. Whether a toy stalwart or a fad, bean bag plush toys have the perennial attraction of bean bags and cloth toys behind them and future generations of kids to enrapture with their names, birth dates, bright eyes, welcoming price tags, and cuddly feel.
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— Gillian S. Holmes