Beanie Babies cheap in Beijing street stalls Fad: Americans in China are buying armloads of prized beanbag toys to take or send back home.

October 07, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Looking for a great deal on those sometimes hard-to-find Beanie Babies that are all the rage?

Find a friend in Beijing.

One outdoor market here has several thousand of the cuddly little critters selling for nearly a tenth of the $4.99 U.S. retail price.

In a curious tale of international commerce, the soft, beanbag animals -- which have been tough to find in the United States at times and occasionally fetch ridiculous sums -- have hit the streets of this city by the boxload.

Americans, naturally, are scooping up the hand-sewn toys by the hundreds for their children, nieces and nephews. Many people carry them home as gifts, and a few even sell them for profit in the United States with the help of friends and the Internet.

It is a small Beanie Baby Underground Railroad whose tracks stretch from the toy factories of southern China to Beijing's "Russian Market" and the suburbs of the United States.

Beanie Babies are the latest in a line of U.S. toy fads that include Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo dolls. The floppy, hand-sized animals with names like Bubbles the Fish, Flash the Dolphin and Patti the Platypus appeared in 1993.

The manufacturer added characters and retired others, turning Beanie Babies into collectors' items. Shortages occurred and speculators offered hundreds of dollars for rare ones. Today, with more than 100 types of Beanie Babies on the market, kids don't want just one creature, they want at least a dozen.

The Chinese connection emerged several months ago when some ragged-looking Beanie Babies surfaced at one of the stalls in Beijing's Russian Market. Two miles east of Tiananmen Square, the market is where hundreds of vendors sell everything from push-up bras to knockoffs of brand-name clothing. The market takes its name from the thousands of mink, fox and rabbit fur coats that Russian visitors buy there.

When the first Beanie Babies showed up, they were dirty or defective. They had come from a factory around the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, which produces the plush toys for Ty Inc., a company based in Oakbrook, Ill.

Tourist destination

One enterprising expatriate woman asked the stall owner, Ye Lihong, if she could find more and better-quality Beanie Babies. Recognizing an opportunity, Ye told the woman her source and the pipeline opened.

Ye, an affable 28-year-old mother, says she can sell as many as 500 to 600 Beanie Babies a day now. Her No. 11 stall at the market has even become something of a tourist destination for American families visiting Beijing.

Vicki McLaughlin, a mother of two who lives in Shanghai, heard about the toys last week while on a tour of the capital. She bought about 20.

Wingless duck

"I'm afraid to unpack them," says McLaughlin, who is originally from Washington state. "I know all my kids' friends will want them."

While some simply buy the Beanie Babies they like, others have become connoisseurs. They pick through the animals, searching for rare characters or ones with defects -- the yellow ducks, "Quackers," without wings, for example, are said to fetch hundreds of dollars.

The result is a surreal scene from the global market place: Americans rummaging through boxes in Beijing looking for toys whose value back home has soared because somebody made a mistake in a Chinese factory.

Ye first began selling Beanie Babies for $1.20 to $1.45 each, but that didn't last long in China's increasingly competitive economy. Other vendors found their own sources and the price plummeted. Ye says she doesn't mind, because she is making money on volume.

"If the price is lower, I can sell more and earn more," says Ye, who arrived in Beijing two years ago from the coastal province of Zhejiang.

Although she is aware that Beanie Babies sell for a lot more in the United States, when told that people will actually pay hundreds of dollars for rare ones, Ye stares blankly.

"I didn't know," she says.

Returning to the U.S. with caches of Beanie Babies has made for some humorous homecomings. One woman tells of arriving in San Francisco with two dozen Beanie Babies on a day when her relatives had spent hours in line waiting to buy some themselves. The woman, who has lived overseas for most of the last two decades, didn't know how popular the toys were.

"We opened up the suitcase and said: 'Look, we have these things called Beanie Babies,' '' the woman recalled.

Web page

Another American has made money by advertising on a Beanie Baby Web page and communicating with customers in the United States via e-mail. She has friends take the toys back home in their luggage and mail them.

She declines to say how much she has made, but the profit margins are stunning. For instance, she says she has sold Flash and Bubbles for $13 a piece -- 21 times what she paid.

Both women asked that their names not be used for fear they might attract the attention of U.S. authorities and the toy company, which might not find this as amusing as many in Beijing's expatriate community.

Americans have been buying U.S. products at bargain basement prices in China for years. Several blocks away from the Russian Market lies Silk Alley, a long pedestrian street lined with stalls where people can purchase Tommy Hilfiger shirts, J. Crew sweaters and Fila ski jackets for a small fraction of what they cost back home.

How long Beanie Babies will remain popular in the United States is hard to say, but some people are ready to unload their stock and move on when the time comes.

"I told my friends to tell me when the next fad hits," says the woman who sells Beanie Babies through the Internet. "I'm here."

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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