Now that the Christmas retail season is in full swing, we’re being pummeled by ads for the hottest toys, gadgets, cars, and everything else with a price tag. Consumers are flocking to the malls and outlets to find the perfect presents, and like every year past, one particular item or brand will stand alone as the most coveted. These products are not merely hard to find, but have been known to incite riots, empty bank accounts, and drive normally reasonable people to insanity in their hunt. The world of supply chain management is critical to the success of these products, as popularity in many cases relates directly to availability, be it the prevalence or lack thereof.
These products from past years may have waned in popularity, but not in the mystique that surrounds their place in Christmas history. In twenty years’ time, we’ll likely look back on the BB-8s, Olafs, and hoverboards with similar nostalgia. Why were these often ridiculous toys and play things so absurdly popular? We can only speculate. And speculate we will, decade by decade, over a multi-part series appropriately titled THE DECADES’ BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENTS.
THE NINETIES (Part One)
1999: Pokemon – Originally developed as a Game Boy video game series about fictional Pokemon creatures, each possessing a different special attack power, which are hunted by humans and trained to fight each other in arena battles.Only three years old at the time, the games became massively popular in the USA and Japan, spawning a cartoon, trading card game, films, and a multitude of video game sequels. As ludicrous as the concept sounds, the animated figures are kid-magnets, and unlike some of the other toys on the list, Pokemon still remains insanely popular with young boys, earning $2 billion in 2014 alone.
1998: Furby – A strange fur covered robot that resembled a cross between a bird an a guinea pig, the Furby was the first successful attempt to produce and sell a robot for domestic use. Not quite Rosie the maid, the Furby would interact with users through an infrared sensor on its forehead and would speak “furbish” until it “learned” some English responses. Because the toy seemed to grow and develop through its interactions, security concerns were raised and Furbies were banned from NSA offices in fear that the toy could record and transmit top secret information, despite no recorder or connection to the internet. Bless your heart, 1998.
1997: Tamagotchi – Another interactive electronic toy, Tamagotchi originated from Japan as a tool designed for young girls to simulate the experience of raising a child, albeit to a much less consequential degree. The toy was a small egg shaped device with a simple screen which housed a virtual pet that the player had to interact with and care for in order to keep it “alive”. Responsibilities included feeding it, virtual exercise, and cleaning its digital poop. The toys quickly became popular with boys and girls alike, and their small size made them easily displayable on backpacks in school halls, turning Tamagotchis into status symbols as much as being merely addictive handheld games.
1996: Tickle Me Elmo – Elmo, a popular Sesame Street character, was developed into a plush doll that would vibrate and giggle when the user squeezed it. Although it was initially aimed towards Elmo’s main fan base of young children, the toy spiked in universal popularity after it was featured on comedian Rosie O’Donnell’s immensely popular daytime talk show. Tyco did not produce enough units to meet the overwhelming demand in the lead up to Christmas and shortages caused shopping frenzies across North America. From July to December 1996, Tyco sold all 1 million units produced.
1995: Beanie Babies – A line of simply-designed plush stuffed animals, Beanie Babies were successful based on systematic marketing efforts rather than catching on by surprise. Ty, the parent company, deliberately played demand over supply, keeping many of the more popular styles hard to find to drive up their popularity, as well as retiring others to drive up their value on the secondhand collector market. Sales skyrocketed as consumers bought beanie babies by the handful in hopes that their value would multiply over time, fading popularity and overproduction led to a bubble burst, leaving many once-collectors today with crates full of worthless beanbags.