Cool Beanz

This season's unlikely hot toy doesn't beep or talk, it just wobbles

December 23, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

One of the hottest toys this season isn't a video game, isn't powered by a computer chip, isn't tied to a hit TV show and is hardly hip.

In fact, it just sits there and wobbles.

Mighty Beanz - tiny collectible characters shaped like capsules, reminiscent of Mexican jumping beans and imported from Australia - have quietly emerged as one of the most-sought toys this season.

With a ball bearing inside that makes them shake, the intentionally misspelled item is among the best sellers at major toy retailers such as Wayne, N.J.-based Toys `R' Us Inc. and Pittsfield, Mass.-based KB Toys.

The Toy Industry Association, a New York-based trade group and a national authority in the trade, nominated the beans as a toy of the year. And on eBay.com, where the beans are also hot sellers, some of the rarest varieties are auctioned for as much as $330. A pack of six typically retails for about $6.

Many sellers, parents and others marvel that in a world of 21st-century technology toys and sophisticated cross-media marketing, an inconspicuous, simple toy reminiscent of playthings 40 years ago or more should prosper. The beans have been a rare bright spot in a lackluster toy sales season that has contributed to the demise of toy legend FAO Schwarz and to financial woes at the KB Toys chain.

"Mighty Beanz are doing phenomenal for KB Toys," said Tom Reilly, a spokesman for the chain. "They're consistently one of the hottest things in our stores."

"They're consistently coming in and selling out," echoed Susan McLaughlin, a Toys `R' Us spokeswoman.

The plastic beans are decorated by more than 130 characters, from a rapper bean wearing sunglasses and a picture of a clock around his neck to a kangaroo bean with a baby in its pouch. The beans come in themed groups of five, with names such as the "Freak Team." Each pack also comes with trading cards.

Spin Master Inc. of Toronto, which distributes the beans in the United States, also just introduced a series of Marvel Comics beans, which include super heroes Spiderman, The Hulk and Captain America.

Kids can play with the beans like old-fashioned jacks, race them on a "trick track" that can be bought separately, or watch them jiggle in their hand.

Desire to collect

"We looked at it and said we don't understand why a child would play with this," said Jim Silver, publisher of a New York-based consumer magazine, Toy Wishes, that omitted the beans from its biannual ranking of the top 500 toys. "We're not wrong too often. This time we were."

Some toy experts and child psychologists have concluded that the beans tap children's desire to collect things. Generations of kids have collected everything from baseball cards, stamps, marbles, stickers and, in more recent years, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. The bean may be the latest kid collectible, as they search for the elusive Moose bean, of which only 1,000 were made.

An Australian company, Moose World, created the capsules and sold them Down Under for a year before Spin Master Ltd. bought the distribution rights for North America.

Spin Master gave out samples in malls, ballparks and other kid-friendly venues last spring to promote the toy. It ran commercials on Nickelodeon, Fox, the WB and Cartoon Network before beans hit stores Aug. 1. But toy watchers said the beans' popularity has spread mostly by word-of-mouth.

"It was the school yard that made it hot," said Harold Chizek, a Spin Master spokesman.

Jessica Frye, 11, saw one of her classmates at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Eldersburg playing with the beans and instantly thought they were cool.

6.5 million sold

"I like that when you put them in your hand, they jump and wiggle," she said as she walked into a KB store at Owings Mills mall with her dad last week. She wasn't getting any more beans that day, but was hoping to get some for Christmas.

About 6.5 million of the first series, which included 60 characters, have been sold in North America. Sales were so good that Spin Master launched its second series a month earlier than it intended.

"The plan was to retire the first series after December," Chizek said. "Where we kind of fell short was that we expected the series to tide us over through the holiday season, but we had to ship in the second series instead."

When the beans arrived on the market, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and KB Toys were depleting their stock so quickly, the companies abandoned shipping by sea and started having the toys flown in. The toy is no longer on Wal-Mart's top-five list - an early sign of cooling? - but remains popular, the merchandiser said.

Allow creativity

Child psychologists said it's not unusual for kids to gravitate to such basic toys - one reason toddlers often choose pots and pans or an empty cardboard box to play with over their own toys.

"The fads that children really love and keep coming back to are simple and allow them to be creative," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a child psychologist and co-author of the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. "They make you think but also allow you to use your imagination."

Silver, the publisher, believes the bean craze will last through next Christmas and then subside. Others surmise the beans could remain popular for years.

"If they keep introducing new characters, it will keep kids' interest and could be around for a while," said Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association.

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