Beanie Babies are hot |

Beanie Babies are hot

Free the Beanies!

For the uninitiated, a stroll through a Beanie Babies trade show elicits a gut-level response: The urge to open their stifling clear plastic containers and let them go. “Run, run little bear! Now you can breathe free!”

But that’s silly, of course. If anything, it is the popular little plush toy that has us held prisoner.

“I started collecting Beanies the way most people did, I guess,” said Tammy McCracken, a Ventura resident who stopped by the Beanie Babies Collectors Trade Show at Harveys Resort Hotel/Casino on Saturday while on vacation. “I bought one for my granddaughter two years ago. It was the biggest mistake I ever made.”

She was only half kidding. To date, McCracken has spent more than $1,000 on Beanie Babies – many finding their way into her own collection.

“It becomes a challenge to find the ones you’re looking for,” she said. “It’s addicting … they get a hold on you.”

Indeed, it is hard to explain the grip that Beanie Babies have on the consumer psyche. The little fabric bean bag animals are well-made and somewhat cuddly, and it’s easy to see why a child might want one.

But the thing is, children – and adults – rarely stop at one.

“I have 102, and I’ve only been collecting them since August,” said Madison Rezaei, 8, of Stateline. “My favorite is Seymour (the seal), because I like sea animals.”

But it is not children who are really fueling this craze. A sort of consumer hysteria has made Beanie Babies the toy world equivalent of Internet stocks. Traders and speculators have created a booming market for the toys, which have developed an international cult following.

Produced by Ty Inc., out of Westmont, Ill., the toys – which first appeared in 1993 – are made in limited numbers and sold through specialty stores. By eschewing mass-market retailers and retiring some characters after short production runs, the company has found itself with a huge hit on its hands – a toy which is tailor-made for the collector’s market.

But no one could have predicted the scope and longevity of the Beanie craze. Unlike most popular toys – anyone seen a “Tickle-Me-Elmo” lately? – Beanies hit the ground running and show no signs of slowing down, with some characters no longer in production fetching thousands of dollars among collectors.

“Some people are still calling this a fad, but they’ve been saying that for six years,” said Debbie Sanders, whose Sandstorm Promotions organized the show at Harvey’s. “I think this is here to stay, kind of like Barbie.

“Our best customers used to be preteen girls, but that’s not the case any more,” she said. “Now our top customers are 50- to 60-year old males. They’ll come in to my store (Beanie Crossroads in Fairfield) and say they want to buy one for their granddaughter. But after the fourth or fifth visit, they’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll admit it, it’s for me.’ A lot of people will come in and spend their paycheck on these. It’s like we need a Beanies Anonymous or something.”

Faithful collectors – dubbed “Beaniacs” – run the gamut of age and gender.

“I’ve been collecting for two years,” said Brian (not his real name), 13 (not his real age). “I just like collecting things, it’s like baseball cards. But I don’t really want my friends to know I’m here.”

Saturday’s show was well attended, and there are similar events around the country every week of the year. But the burgeoning Beanie market has its largest presence on the Internet, where hundreds of sites are devoted to selling, trading and discussing the toys. This has also created a market for counterfeit Beanies, which have become a problem when ordering from the World Wide Web.

“You even see some (counterfeits) at trade shows, and unfortunately they’re not always easy to spot,” said Bill Nunn, a maintenance manager from Auburn who runs a Beanie business out of his home with his wife. “But the real things are very well made, so if you look closely you can usually tell.”

Other than the craftsmanship, the real Beanie trademarks are the “tush tags” (at the bottom of the toy) and the “ear tags” (on the head). Both are important to collectors – the absence of an ear tag can cut the value of a Beanie in half. Many collectors purchase little plastic protectors just for the tags.

That comes as distressing news to parents whose children had removed the tags before it was known what a valuable commodity they had.

Currently there are 225 varieties of Beanie designs over six “generations,” or years of production. Older Beanies are generally more valuable, but a lot depends on the type and number produced.

The most valuable Beanie? It depends who you ask, and when you ask it. Brownie the Brown Bear (first generation) is trading for as much as $3,800, according to Beanie World Monthly Magazine. Peanut the Royal Blue Elephant (third generation) is fetching up to $4,700. Most of the retired “teddys” will cost upwards of $1,000 on the secondary market.

Ironically, the Ty Corp. itself sees little of this windfall. New Beanies are shipped directly to specialty stores and sold for $6.50 each. But that stock is quickly snapped up by collectors and “secondary vendors,” who then command their own prices on re-sale.

But Ty does profit from promotions with corporations and sports teams for special events. Ty has teamed with Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and NHL for special giveaway nights (usually for children 14 and under), and the majority are major hits with fans.

But the biggest corporate tie-in so far has been with the McDonald’s Corp. In fact, it is their “Teenie Beanie” promotion, in which McDonald’s offered miniature versions of 12 Beanies over two weeks near Memorial Day 1997 that is credited with pushing the phenomenon into the stratosphere.

“That’s when the craze really took off,” said Tom Verarde, a vendor who sells and trades Beanies from his flower store in Concord, Calif. “People would drive all over the state for those things, to get the entire set.

“The way I see it, it’s an outlet,” he said. “People use this hobby to relax. It’s like a legal drug.”

But there’s no nicotine patch to counter the intoxicating effects of Loosy, the Canadian Goose, or Happy, the Lavender Hippo.

Apparently, it is useless to resist.

Anyone seen a Bongo the Monkey (with the tan tail)?

Seriously, I’ve got to have one … uh, for my daughter.

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