Decades after the Cabbage Patch Kids riots, why it's still hard to get must-have toys
Published Tuesday, December 11, 2018 8:20AM EST
Manager John Veth, left, hands out Furbies, the hot-selling Christmas toy at the Wal-Mart in Hobbs, N.M., Nov. 27, 1998, as shoppers charge the service desk in an attempt to get one of 80 of the cuddly toys sold this morning. (AP Photo/Hobbs News-Sun, Duane Tinkey)
This story was originally published on Dec. 11, 2018
TORONTO -- In 1983, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls – each with their own birth certificates, adoption papers and unique computer-designed vinyl faces – were in such fervent demand before Christmas that parents camped out at stores overnight, caused near-riots in toy shops and even paid scalpers hundreds of dollars as demand outstripped supply.
During nearly every holiday season since then, frantic parents have still found themselves scrambling to get their hands on the must-have toys that their children desire – a Tickle Me Elmo or a Furbie or a Nintendo NES Classic video game console.
This year, hot toys such as MGA Entertainment’s Poopsie Surprise Unicorn, which retails for $79.99 at Toys ‘R’ Us, are being sold for upwards of $100 on eBay and Amazon. So, too, is the PAW Patrol Paw Patroller, a rescue vehicle based on the popular children’s show.
Why can’t the US$89 billion global toy industry just make more of these popular toys when they sell out?
It’s “getting harder, not easier” to predict what the next hot game or toy will be, said Michael LeBlanc, a senior retail adviser with the Retail Council of Canada, and buyers and toy manufacturers have to make their bets early in the year by March or April.
Experts say that when it comes to legacy toys, such as Barbie dolls or Lego, or toys linked to a new movie, such as “Star Wars” action figurines, the industry can more or less accurately gauge how much inventory is needed. But guessing the next hit presents a challenge and toy makers will often release their new products in a reduced supply in order to avoid overproducing toys that end up being duds.
For instance, toy company Toymasters incorrectly anticipated that the 2000 film “Battlefield Earth” would be a popular summer flick and manufactured action figures based on its characters, but the movie was a box office disaster and the toys did not fly off of shelves either. In 1984, board game company Horn Abbot tried to capitalize on its success with Trivial Pursuit by producing a geography-related game called Ubi, but it, too, proved unpopular.
“Toy makers may often scratch their heads and think, ‘Who knew?’ when they see what’s popular,” said Craig Johnson, the owner of Customer Growth Partners, a consulting firm with a focus on the retail industry. “But for every one of those hot toys, there are ten flops.”
Making a bet on the next hot toy is turning out to be even more difficult because toys and games are becoming increasingly linked to fast-moving trends driven by social media, influencers and viral videos. The product-to-market process of many toy manufacturers is often not flexible or efficient enough to keep up with these trends, which often rise and dissipate rapidly, experts say.
Spin Master, the Toronto-based toy company that manufactures Hatchimals, built anticipation for the toys ahead of their launch in 2016 by releasing YouTube videos depicting the plastic eggs without revealing what was inside.
“In the old days, kids would see the toys on a bunch of ads,” said Johnson. “Now, they see them on YouTube.”
Further complicating the efforts of shoppers are the so-called “Grinch bots” – online scammers with an arsenal of sophisticated cyberbots that buy the most popular Christmas toys and sell them for a substantial mark-up on third-party sites such as eBay or Amazon. The bots utilize software programs that can automate activities such as searching for sales and online ordering. As soon as an item is in stock, the bots overwhelm retail sites with bulk orders from multiple Internet addresses and run through the online checkout process faster than humanly possible.
Last month, U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer introduced legislation to stop the bots. No similar piece of legislation exists yet in Canada.
LeBlanc said that the Retail Council of Canada is “keeping a close eye on it,” but noted that Canadian retailers have sophisticated defences that protect them against cyberbots and adhere to strict rules around pricing compliance.
“We see bots, but they’re not a tremendous issue,” he said. “That said, retailers do occasionally see hits on their traffic that impede success.”
Analysts also note that when toys and games end up being breakout hits, the complexity of global supply chains makes scaling up production a challenge.
“This is not fast fashion like Zara,” said Johnson.
Some toy companies, such as Hasbro, which manufactures toys and games including Nerf guns and Monopoly, have been trying to shorten the production process. Last year, it established a team called “Quick Strike,” which is tasked with getting toys from the brainstorming page to the Walmart shelf in record time.
LeBlanc said that Canadian toy retailers can shift inventory from one province where supply exceeds demand to one where the opposite is the case. Still, there is often not enough time for them to order more of the toys that are flying off the shelves in time for Christmas when they are manufactured overseas.
For parents, toy makers and retailers, there is no second chance.
“Some toys are like fresh fruit,” LeBlanc said. “Once December 25th has hit, saying, ‘I’ll get you your present on January 15th' doesn’t always work with your five-year-old.”