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Beanies stalk hearts and wallets

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The hottest-selling toy in the nation offers a number of messages for American business.

It's not expensive and it's not sold at discount supercenters. That's why it's so powerful: It hints at reclaiming America's small-town, imaginative, egalitarian center.

If you've heard of Beanie Babies, you'll understand.

For the uninitiated: Beanie Babies are colorful, plush-covered beanbags that fit in the palm of your hand. They come in 77 animal shapes, each with its own name and birth date.

They are cute and cuddly, and because they're cheap, they are a consumer dream. Bones the dog, Legs the frog and their relatives cost only $5 _ inexpensive enough for children to buy with allowances or adults to buy without too much strain.

The Beanie Babies, introduced in 1994, may be the most shrewdly marketed toy since Cabbage Patch Dolls or the Pet Rock. Not only are the Babies popular with kids, they also have drawn interest in college dorms and even among adults.

Created by designer Ty Warner, Beanie Babies were the biggest toy of the 1996 Christmas season, and their popularity is increasing. Retailers report a rush when a new shipment of Pouch the kangaroo and Fleece the lamb comes in.

The makers "retire" some of the lineup occasionally when they introduce new characters. By limiting production and selling only through specialty stores, Oak Brook, Ill.-based Ty Inc. has fed the demand. Ty Inc. designs the toys and has them made in China.

"This (demand) kind of makes it mysterious, a little special," said Gene Gilligan, executive editor of the toy industry magazine Playthings. "With the collectability aspect, it brings to mind the Cabbage Patch craze, although I don't think it's quite there yet."

And the messages of this phenomenon?

Lesson 1: "Small is good; cheap is great."

It's the difference between the $800 miniature sports car that requires mechanical help one week after it's bought, and a $5 Goldie the fish.

Goldie's closer to the people. With no batteries required.

Lesson 2: "Word of mouth is powerful, indeed."

Beanie Babies are not sold in discount outlets like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, or advertised on television; nor are they part of the latest Burger King or McDonald's promotion. They are sold in small stores by individual retailers who rely on time-honored talk.

Word of mouth is an inspiring marketing tool.

The power of toy giants like Mattel Inc. pales besides the strength of sales built upon the persistent wishes of first-graders.

It's heartening to know it doesn't take a multimillion-dollar ad budget and McDonald's tie-ins to create a consumer wave.

Lesson 3: "Boys and girls have something in common."

Gender stereotyping goes beyond Barbie and the Power Rangers. Creators of TV cartoons long argued that all their lead characters were male because girls will watch boys, but boys won't watch girls.

Beanie-mania is setting them straight. It seems boys as well as girls are interested in playing with Tabasco the red bull and Chocolate the moose.

The Beanie Babies take on personal identities and human characteristics, but they aren't laden with sexist expectations and expensive accessories.

Lesson 4: "Imagination is back!"

The best thing about Beanie Babies is that they are an inviting, open canvas for children to color and shape as they wish, as simple and old-fashioned as a porch swing or a game of stickball.

Teachers use Beanie Babies in class, using the toys for math problems and writing assignments. And kids hold Beanie Babies parties, requiring nothing more than attendance by Sparky the Dalmatian and Bongo the monkey.

Sure, it's a fad, shrewdly manipulated by the manufacturer.

And sure, America's schoolchildren may wake up next month to find the thrill is gone and in its place is a blizzard of Beanie Babies lunch boxes and T-shirts that soon gather dust under the bed.

So . . .

Lesson 5: "Keep it simple."

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