A teenie-weenie problem Toys: Beanie Babies are huge. The little stuffed animals are flying out of stores, and a new promotion may strengthen the mania.

April 11, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Beanie Babies n: 1. Any of 80 or more different palm-sized stuffed animals. 2. A power phrase of the late '90s that can rally a crowd faster than "open bar." 3. A toy that is chronically unavailable.

America's kids are just nuts about Beanie Babies, the small floppy-headed animals with names like Patti the Platypus and Chops the Lamb. So nuts, in fact, that toy sellers can't keep the little critters in stock for more than a day, and speculators are offering more than 100 times the $4.99 retail price for those hardest to get.

The clamor for Beanies is about to get even louder.

Starting today, McDonald's is stuffing "Teenie Beanies," a line of miniature Beanie Babies, into its Happy Meals for the next month. McDonald's says it has purchased more of these toys than it has for any other Happy Meal promotion, but declines to say just how many jillions that is.

"This promotion means just in case you've been hiding under a rock and don't know anything about Beanie Babies, here they are!" says David Adler, purchasing director of Greetings and Readings in Towson.

Made by Ty Inc. of Oakbrook, Ill., Beanie Babies are carried in small retail and specialty stores rather than in chains such as Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. Since they began appearing in 1993, Beanie Babies have grown into a force of about 80 different characters.

For many parents, a Beanie Baby is the perfect toy: Safe, politically correct -- and cheap. But there's a downside: One Beanie is never enough -- and the demand always outnumbers the supply.

The last time Greetings and Readings got its shipment of 8,000 Beanies, they were sold in less than three hours; 5,000 immediately went to customers who had reserved them, Adler says.

More important: Greetings and Readings has no Beanies today. Neither do area stores Zany Brainy, Imaginarium, Nordstrom, The Toy Chest, Learning Express, Pied Piper or Grrreat Bears and Childhood Delights.

The Shananigans toy store does have them. Or at least it did yesterday.

Supply and demand

Retailers say they never know just when a Beanie Babies shipment will arrive.

"We can get three dozen calls about Beanies a day, it's unbelievable," says Rosemary Schneider, manager of Pied Piper Children's Ware, a specialty clothing store in Cross Keys. "When they're in, we have had people buy 60 or 70 at a pop."

Debbie Wurzburger, owner of The Toy Chest in Pikesville, is among thousands of frustrated retailers who are often trapped on Beanie maker Ty Inc.'s customer service line.

"I can't get a straight answer from the company as to when we are going to receive our shipment so we can be honest with our customers," she says. "Every time we call, we get a different answer."

Part of the reason Beanies have become so popular, observers say, is that they've played hard to get. But Adler doubts the chronic shortage is strategic. He says that the toys, which are made in China, are hand-sewn. He doubts it's physically possible for Ty to go from making "1 million to 100 million or whatever" as quickly as customers have demanded.

(Although Ty Inc., a private company, does not release figures -- the headquarters even recently got an unlisted phone number -- Forbes magazine estimated last year's Beanie sales at $250 million.)

Adler does say the company is taking a big risk by making people wait. "Out of frustration, will the customer turn on Beanie Babies?" he asks. "Will he or she turn to something else?"

Just the other day, in fact, Patty Eager found herself admiring those "cute little beanbag-type animals made by Russ." They weren't Beanies, but there they were, right next to the cash register, and she bought several of them.

And Eager, a mother of five, is a primo Beanie Baby consumer. Thanks to recent deliveries by the Easter Bunny, there are 80-plus Beanies residing in the Eagers' Cedarcroft home.

Matthew, 11, collects penguins, birds and water animals. Martha, 8, collects mainly rabbits. Caroline, 6, has dogs. Gardner, 2 1/2 , has sheep, and Chapin, age 4 months, gets frogs.

Homework incentive

Eager says Beanie Babies are good incentives for doing extra homework, great $5 gifts for birthday parties and easily packed companions for sleep-overs.

And her kids never argue over them, she says. The only "incident" came when someone gave Matthew the Beanie dachshund, a dog named Wiener.

"He went into gales of laughter. It's that fifth-grade sense of humor: He just couldn't deal with it," she says. "So I renamed it Fritz and gave it to my 6-year-old."

Eager has bought many Beanies at Shananigans Toy Store in Roland Park. Like other Beanie retailers, Shananigans also offers the ever-growing universe of Beanie accessories: Napbags, leashes, collars, sweaters, sunglasses and chairs.

Shananigans co-owner Nancy Cusack has weathered many toy fads: Pogs, Miss Kitty, Magic Cards, Oilies. But she won't hazard a guess about how long this one will last.

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