Toymaker Ty Inc., famed for its Beanie Babies marketing fetes, is attempting another one: Yesterday it announced a worldwide, up-or-down New Year's Eve Internet referendum on whether to discontinue its entire line of the bean-bag animalia.
For 50 cents a ballot, charged to a credit card, the Oak Brook, Ill., company plans to turn over the fate of the pint-sized bestsellers to a Beanie Babies electorate. Anyone can vote, early and often, as many times as they like, as long as they pay.
The money, the company says, will go to a charity for children with AIDS.
Retail experts say it's simply Ty's latest move in trying to deny that all good things--and toy crazes--must come to an end.
"You know the life cycle is going to end, so you think: 'How am I going to keep this thing going?' " said Jon Schallert, a retail analyst for Schallert & Associates Inc. in Sorrento, Fla.
Beanie Babies, the sales of which took off in the mid-1990s, are bought and sold on a market that rivals the stock exchange in complexity and volatility. The primary market for Beanies is in mostly small, retail specialty stores, which sell the toys for about $6 apiece. The secondary market, however, which includes Internet auctions and television shopping networks such as QVC, can generate sales for old, discontinued species of Beanies of $6,000 or more. Countless World Wide Web sites and magazines feed the frenzy and determine the market's pricing structure.
In September, the company announced that it would cease manufacture of Beanie Babies. In announcing the toymaker's latest move, Ty Warner, the owner of the private toy company, addressed his followers through a "global newsflash" on his Web site, which boasts more than 3.4 billion visitors. "After much thought, I am willing to put the fate of Beanie Babies in your hands," he wrote. "You make the decision. You have inspired the Beanie Babies line through your devotion to them."
Proceeds from the referendum, which requires credit-card validation to "ensure the integrity of the vote," will be donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Los Angeles.
Deidre Everett thinks the vote is retail magic. "He's a mastermind, that Ty guy," said Everett, manager of Platypus, a toy store in Georgetown. Warner alternately restricts and floods the market to feed the rabid demand of customers, some of whom recently rioted in Everett's store after she opened a box of newly arrived Beanies. Platypus restricts new Beanie sales to two per customer.
Her most avid customers, who include women and men in their twenties and thirties, become "Beanie buddies" with one another and shop almost daily for the latest products. "Everybody has to get one of everything," she said, such as the misspelled "milennium" bear, as well as the correctly spelled millennium version. Even errors like that, Everett said, might be orchestrated by the mastermind at Ty.
But some of Ty's devotees are beginning to question Warner's intent.
Some Ty.com chatroom participants wondered about the latest attempt. Smartone, the Internet nickname of a participant on Ty.com's chat site who owns about 100 Beanies, wrote: "A smart person would have known right from the start that Ty was attempting to create a new marketing strategy, due to lagging sales and outlandish secondary market prices. . . . I am bright enough to realize that all I am paying for is a stuffed animal with PVC pellets in it and nothing else."
Carrie Hyun, spokeswoman for the AIDS foundation, called Warner a "master of capturing children's imagination." The last time he sold Beanies to benefit the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, he raised about $22 million, she said.
Warner's "initial plan was to make them sought after," Schallert said. "One of the smartest things that Ty Warner did was limit his distribution channels" to specialty stores, which gave them the "front-and-center" window displays. A prime example of this was offering miniature Beanies exclusively through McDonald's restaurants, which created a weekly run at the fast-food chain with every new release, he said.
Schallert estimates that at their peak Beanie Babies helped to ring up hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Two years ago Ty representatives, who sell on commission, were getting blank checks and unlimited orders from specialty toy stores. They were selling the toys faster than they could stock them, he said.
"I know store owners that sold so many Beanie Babies they retired over $400,000 in store debt just through Beanie Babies sales," he said.
But those representatives recently have been pounding the pavement to invigorate sales, Schallert said.
Platypus customers who auction the toys on the Internet tell Everett the toys are selling for less because of lower demand.
That's why "it's a marvelous idea," to reopen the market to a global audience, Schallert said. Still, the most recent marketing strategy is likely to extend the life span of Beanies by a year at most, he said.
CAPTION: Toymaker Ty Inc. said in September it would stop making Beanie Babies, sales of which took off in the mid-1990s. Now the firm's owner says he will let online voters determine their fate.