If Beanie Babies were on Alan Greenspan's radar, he'd put a stop to this nonsense right away. Yesterday, based on a brief and cryptic Web message, irrational exuberance broke out in the flagging Beanie Baby market.
Ty Inc., maker of the pervasive plush animals, hinted in the message, posted for only a couple of hours, that it would retire all current toys at the end of the millennium. This wisp of unsubstantiated information made hundreds of Beanie chat rooms vibrate with anxiety. Grown men sobbed. Phones rang hard in toy stores, and fickle children put down their Pokemon cards long enough to plead for Lizzy the Lizard or Pugsly the Pug.
The move appears to be shrewdly designed to goose lulled sales, said retailers and collectors. The company's billionaire owner, Ty Warner, the secretive Oz of toy land, never talks, preferring to use chaos to create interest. Yesterday was no exception.
Fanciers had been primed for weeks for a major company announcement on Tuesday and turned quite fearful when the Ty Web site went black in the wee hours. "Some people were really alarmed, because they stayed up until 4 [Tuesday morning] and learned nothing," said Andi Lucas, associate editor of the Richmond-based Beans & Bears! magazine.
When the news flash finally came, it listed 10 new-issue Beanie Babies, including the ominously named black bear "The End," and concluded with only this: "Very Important Notice: On December 31, 1999-11:59 p.m. All beanies will be retired including the above . . . so there you go, get 'em whilst you can!"
Company spokeswoman Anne Nickels said yesterday that she could not clarify. "We have no further comment," she said, and refused to discuss whether the toy giant would offer a sort of Century 2000 line of Beanie Babies, or let them sink like so much landfill waste. "We haven't been advised of anything. Nobody knows."
But collectors and Beanie watchers everywhere refused to believe that Warner would commit infanticide on his own babies.
"My gut feeling is that no company that is making billions of dollars on this hot product is going to stop producing them," Lucas said.
"I cannot believe they will stop the line," said Leah Stambler, a toy industry analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. "They have dominated the market, and they own the brand name. From a collector's point of view, this makes it interesting. They start a whole new frenzy."
But the news frayed nerves as well. By the time she opened at 10 a.m. yesterday, Helen Lerner of the Treasure House toy store in Great Falls said her answering machine had logged 60 calls from members of the Beanie Baby community. One man, "a very sweet man," sobbed into the phone because he was so worried about the future of the Beanie species.
"Oh, I have spent a lot of the day hand-holding," said Sara Nelson, who runs the beaniemom.com Web site from her Centreville home. "Some people think it is a good thing, and some people are worried about the value of their collections."
Both Lerner and Carole Segal of Treetop Toys in Northwest Washington said the marketing ploy would work, for better and for worse. Lines will be long when the new toys arrive later this month, and retailers will grit their teeth against the onslaught.
"My first thought was: Will this make my store more crazy?" said Segal. "I try to stay only marginally interested in Beanie Babies, but it is hard. The people who buy them are not," and here she dropped her voice to a whisper, "your ordinary customers."
Since it introduced Beanie Babies in 1990, Ty has brought out some 250 models of everything from Noah's Ark and more. Canny manipulation of the old law of supply and demand has marked the company's strategy from the beginning and propelled it toward hundreds of millions in sales. It releases a handful of new creatures at a time, prices them at $5 to $7 to make them affordable for nearly everyone, then retires a dozen every quarter.
Where most toy fads get one short life, Warner, with his iron inventory control and the broad reach of the Internet, gained a second and arguably richer life for his Beanies as collectibles, popular with amateurs and professional dealers.
This summer, for instance, retailers weren't able to buy certain models unless they showed up at a trade toy fair. "When I went to sign up for my order, I had to be approved by this Ty representative who looked carefully at my badge," Segal said. "It's really officious, like God himself will allow you to order these things."
Warner "plays games," Lerner said. Stores can order only 36 units of each new Beanie, and then wait and wait for the order to be filled. "I only got half of my July order and August has not come yet," she said. "Who knows when these new ones will come. He keeps you wanting."
Despite these maneuvers, some Beanie lovers have turned hard and jaded. According to the cold-eyed Beanie index on absolutebeanies.com, prices for pre-loved pets had fallen 35 percent in the second quarter of this year, although that rare royal blue elephant, Peanut, can still command up to $4,000. "There was a lull," said magazine editor Lucas. "They have been very predictable in what they do."
And predictability is the one thing that might vaporize the Oz. Warner himself is painstakingly furtive. Directory assistance carries no telephone listing for his company, and few in the industry claim to ever have met him. He is said to be in his mid-forties, a lovely dresser. "I got a glimpse of him at Wrigley Field. . . . It was fascinating," one Beanie magazine editor, Mary Beth Sobolewski, once told the Chicago Sun-Times.
According to lore and the rare published detail, Warner was named for Ty Cobb and started his toy career as a salesman for Dakin, a plush-toy giant. He made sales calls in a Rolls-Royce, wearing a top hat and fur coat. "I figured if I was eccentric-looking in Indiana, people would think, 'What is he selling? Let's look in his case,' " he told Joni Blackman in the handbook "Beanie Mania II." "I wanted people to pay attention to what I had, then it was easy to sell."
Last spring he plunked down $275 million to buy the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel in New York, leading to speculation about a whole new definition of plush suite.
He remains steadfastly mum to stoke the economic engine of speculation, preferring anthropomorphic public relations.
On the Web site, the Beanies do the talking. This month's "Info Beanie" is Eucalyptus, a koala. Yesterday, his word to followers was cheery and reassuring.
"Did you see the big announcement yesterday? I was so surprised, weren't you? I'm going to get to work learning this computer stuff. I'll talk to you later. Bye!"
CAPTION: Ty Inc. may--or may not--retire its famous plush toys.
CAPTION: Collectors are in a fit over a rumor that Beanie Babies may be retired by the end of the year.