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What’s Behind the Shortages of Hot Christmas Items?
by Billy Ingram

Every decade since seems to present those toys and devices kids (and big kids) just can’t live without: beginning with Star Wars figurines in the 1970s, Furbys and Tickle Me Elmo in the 1990s - you get the idea. The frenzy for these items became so heated at Christmastime fights would break out because of shortages. A limited availability that may have been purposeful?

In 1977, an overwhelming demand for Star Wars related merchandise took toymaker Kenner by surprise. The movie was an unexpected summer blockbuster - therefore no toy line had been developed ahead of time as would normally be the case. That Christmas, thousands of IOUs had to be issued - what most kids woke up to from Santa that year was basically an empty (but colorful) box.

The ‘Early Bird Certificate Package’ promised Star Wars fans they’d receive their Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca figurines delivered via US Mail… sometime within the next 6 months! Why it was still a much coveted gift? Orders were limited to 500,000 with a promise that no more will be sold after December 31st of 1977.

 

In 1983, Cabbage Patch Kids exploded on the U.S. doll market, leading to what the press called ‘Cabbage Patch riots.’ The first time Americans were willing to slug it out in toy aisles to acquire that season’s holy grail. Things would never be the same again.

 

Teddy Ruxpin in 1985 was an oddity, basically a tape recorder poorly disguised as a teddy bear with limited animatronic movement to its face. But this badly dressed so-called ‘world’s first animated storytelling bear’ captured the imagination of 1980s’ tots; a must-have gift.

I thought this thing was creepy… forget that you could insert any cassette you wanted and Teddy would be mouthing those words. At least I presume you could, I’ve never looked into the backside of a Teddy Ruxpin and have no plans to.

 

In 1997, Tickle Me Elmo slowly emerged as a genuine craze in America, news reports stating that desperate parents were paying up to $1,500 for a limp doll retailing for less than $30. Great approach for rich folks to get what they want but what was everyone else to do?

If it took an act of violence to bring Elmo home, eager-to-please parents were willing to go there. Hey, it worked for those Cabbage Patch Kids.

 

The very next holiday season, in 1998, every child cried out for a Furby or two, bizarrely colored fuzzy creatures that could communicate with others of their species. Supposedly. These semi-interactive companions triggered brawls in the aisles at Toys R Us as parents wrestled one another to obtain what would soon be driving them up the wall with Furby’s incessant chirping, chattering and farting noises.

 

As one toy industry distributor remarked in 1998, ”Manufacturers would rather have a huge shortage of products than bet way wrong on an item. As far as physically getting the toys, we don't have an advantage. We have the same supply problems."

So back in the 1990s, it became a hoped-for strategy to create shortages for hot items at Christmastime. If this could be pulled off, it could boost sales all year long.

A philosophy that endures today. Can you think of items that were scarce at Christmas's from your past?

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