The most visible Beanie Baby to appear on the secondary market is the “retired” 1997 purple Princess Diana bear. Recent values and realized sales prices for this item are all over the map, ranging from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.
Unless you were asleep, in a coma or living on the moon for the better part of the 1990s, chances are you have heard of—or even owned—a Beanie Baby or two. These soft toy items, designed to be appealing to children, affordable (at less than $5 each) and collectible were introduced in 1993 and really started to take off in 1994.
Produced by Ty, Inc.—a design and manufacturing company located in Illinois—the company is privately held; the sole owner, H. Ty Warner, owns 100 of the 100 shares of the company. Warner is known to be a somewhat eccentric and very private gentleman; at one time, it was estimated that he was worth close to $6 billion dollars. Urban legend suggest that he got shopkeepers attention early on in his career by driving a white Rolls-Royce convertible, showing up for appointments dressed in a fur coat and top hat, and carrying a walking stick. Warner is a former executive at Dankin, a global company well known for its soft toys for children. Ty makes, and has made, many lines of plush toys, most are variations on its core Beanie Baby designs. Although Beanie Babies have lost most of their appeal, collectivity and value from the height of the Beanie Babies craze of the late 1990s—when collectors camped out for days and got into fistfights for the latest editions—certain ones still do generate big dollars and collector’s interest even today.
The Birth of the Beanies
So what exactly makes a Beanie Baby, well, a Beanie Baby? In general, they are designed to fit within your hand, made of soft plush, have relatively simple and basic designs, and are stuffed with plastic pellets (“beans”) rather than traditional stuffing. This makes the characters somewhat posable, and gives them a flexible feel. From their beginnings in 1993, all Beanie Babies left the factory with two tags for identification. The first is a heart-shaped paper “swing tag” and the second is a fabric “tush tag” sewn into their bottoms. The design of both tags has been updated over time; this is one way that collectors and enthusiasts date and value their Beanie Babies. Varieties and misprints in these tags also have added value, collectability and interest to the items in the marketplace. It was not until 1996 that Ty’s swing tags included simple four line poems and a birthdate specific to each Beanie Baby produced.
The first Beanie Babies were introduced at a trade show in Chicago in 1993. Now referred to as “The Original Nine,” these included Spot the dog, Squealer the pig, Patti the platypus, Cubbie the bear, Chocolate the moose, Pinchers the lobster, Splash the killer whale, Legs the frog and Flash the dolphin. Pinchers was originally introduced with tags that read “Punchers,” a typo that is of great interest to collectors. Using a page out of his Dankin sales book, Ty pitched his wares to smaller gift and toy shops in the Midwest instead of big box retailers. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, he explained this strategy, saying: “… it’s better selling 40,000 accounts than it is five accounts. It’s more difficult to do, but for the longevity of the company and the profit margins, it’s the better of the two.”
The “Original Nine” Beanie Babies included Chocolate the moose, Legs the frog, Squealer the pig, Spot the dog, Flash the dolphin, Splash the killer whale, Patti the platypus, Cubbie the bear and Pinchers the lobster.
By 1994, Beanie Babies appeared on the shelves of many Chicago-area stores, and were a moderate success.
Sales started to pick up in 1995, and Ty spread his sales targets to both the east and west coasts. He started to introduce new models throughout the year. To increase demand for his growing phenomenon, Ty began to limit the number of each Beanie Babies model produced, as well as their distribution. It was company policy to restrict the number of Beanie Babies that each store could purchase to 36 of each design per month. This created competition and demand among enthusiasts across the nation, all vying to keep their collection as complete and up to date as possible. For certain hard-to-find editions, prices on the secondary market began rising, a lot, way over the company’s original $5 price tag.
Inflating the Bubble
The Beanie Baby frenzy was picking up steam, but one of Ty’s best marketing ideas was yet to come. In 1996, the company started “retiring” models, further adding to their perceived value and exclusivity. This idea came from three of Ty’s sales reps, brothers Kevin, Chris and Bryan King. At a trade show in Atlanta, instead of saying that a model was “discontinued,” they started to tell buyers that they were being “retired.” In the minds of the customers, “discontinued” implied the items were no longer of interest, while the term “retired” suggested that the items were still in their prime. This really hit home with buyers and customers, and this simple reframing of the idea produced record sales.
The company also had several other business practices that helped with the marketing and sales of its Beanie Baby line. The company itself was very secretive, and did not reveal the names or details of items it had in development or was about to launch. This added a lot of excitement and anticipation about “what’s next” from the collector’s perspective. Their choice of retail outlets—primarily smaller, upscale stores—was chosen to retain the product’s authentic, not mass-produced image. The design and manufacturing strategies, such as simple patterns and minimal colors, helped to keep costs low, while the “personification” tactics, including giving each toy a name and distinctive identity though a poem and birthday, created an intimacy with customers. These were no longer generic toys but items to collect and befriend.
Ty partnered with McDonalds to produce a series of 10 tiny “Teenie Beanie” items that were the giveaway in the company’s kid-size Happy Meals over a five-week promotional period.
So what does that mean in terms of sales and dollars? It is estimated that by early 1997, about 100 Beanie Baby patterns had been launched, while about 25 had been cleverly “retired.” Ty, Inc., grew enormously, increasing the number of people it employed by 400 percent in the 1995-to-1996 time frame. And, although Ty is a private entity and not required to release its sales figures, economists have estimated that that the company’s sales ballooned from $25 million to $250 million during that period.
Towards the late 1990s, Warner began further expanding his Beanie Baby-related product lines and channels of distribution. In 1997, he partnered with McDonalds to produce a series of 10 tiny “Teenie Beanie” items that were the giveaway in the company’s kid-size Happy Meals over a five-week promotional period. According to Warner, Ty entered into this relationship because “We really did it to expand our product to children who wouldn’t be shopping in upscale shopping malls and we saw McDonalds as the best avenue to get these kids to see them.”
In 1998, the company launched its “Beanie Babies Official Club” through a strategic partnership with a Boston marketing company. The membership fee was $10, which provided the new club member with a kit that included various Beanie Baby ephemera, including a membership certificate and card, stickers, inventory checklists and other materials. Members were able to purchase special editions that were not available through normal retail channels, as well as have access to special online features and company news. By 1998, Ty had expanded the Beanie Baby empire to include branded collector’s items, including calendars, collector’s cards (like sports cards), card binders and little plastic heart-shaped tag protectors, to keep swing tags crisp, fresh and clean. Of course, all of these efforts only helped to build the company’s sales even higher.
In 1998, the company’s sales had topped $1 billion. Ty celebrated this milestone by presenting each employee with a hand-signed “Billionaire Bear.” The hangtag on this bear reads: “In recognition of value and contributions in shipping over a billion dollars since Jan ’98, I present to you this exclusive signed bear!”
In 1998, the company’s sales had topped $1 billion. Ty celebrated this milestone by presenting each employee with a hand-signed “Billionaire Bear.” This is an example of that signed tag.
Since then, Ty has annually gifted their employees a very special company only bear; less than 800 or so are produced per year. These bears are coveted by collectors and seldom appear on the secondary market. Billionaire Bear 1 sold in early 2012 for $212.50. Billionaire Bear 2, the second in the series from 1999, sold for $1,029 in August 2012. Billionaire 14, the most recent bear in this exclusive series, is currently selling in the $300 range.
And just how influential—and desirable—were Beanie Babies in the late 1990s? It is interesting to note that in Kankakee, Ill., the police department ran a highly successful “Guns for Beanies” exchange to get firearms off the streets. And, according to Worthologist Martin Willis, who is also the director of decorative arts for auctioneer James D. Julia, “I did a benefit auction in 1998 or so where there was a fine marquetry inlaid Biedermeier chest of drawers (and they are rarely inlaid), pushing on 200 years old. I sold the chest for $1,250 and a new Beanie Baby for $3,200. I almost hung up the gavel and walked away from auctions….”
Despite the frenzy surrounding Beanie Babies in the very late 1990s, it was clear that the market was saturated with these playful friends and that the very vast majority of them would not end up being the nest egg that collector’s had hoped for. A posting on a Beanie Baby bulletin board at the time simply read: “I feel I lost interest a while ago. Too many Beanies made me realize they will never be worth much … beyond the fun of finding them.”
Harry Rinker, another Worthologist, tried to sound a warning that the Beanie Baby bubble was unstable in the late 1990s, but he was shouted down by collectors and enthusiasts. For his trouble, he was dubbed “The Beanie Meanie,” a moniker Rinker proudly accepted then and often cites when talking about any new collectibles boom.
In another unique marketing move, Ty decided to stop the production of all Beanie Babies. Warner cryptically posted a note on the Ty website on Aug. 31, 1999, revealing that all Beanies would be retired at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1999. To mark this occasion, he launched an all-black Beanie Baby bear named “The End.” He did not have a birthdate. His poem read:
“All good things come to an end
It’s been fun for everyone
Peace and hope are never gone
Love you all and say ‘So long!’”
Collectors were not pleased with this decision and pleaded to have production resume. Listening to its customers, the company again began producing new Beanie Babies, launching a “The Beginning” bear in early 2000. This was a white cub with silver stars. Today, although the nationwide Beanie Baby frenzy has clearly passed, Ty is still manufacturing Beanie Babies and several other product lines designed for fun and play.
Ty Warner has used his fame, fortune, and business sense to help others, as he is well-known for his personal and professional philanthropy. His giving interests focus on health, children and the environment. He has donated $6 million to the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education in Las Vegas. This nonprofit is “an educational organization dedicated to transforming U.S. public education for underserved youth. The Foundation drives reform by engaging in practice, policy and partnerships that provide quality education and enrichment opportunities.” Warner has also donated $3 million for the creation of Ty Warner Park, a 36-acre park and recreational facility located in Westmont, Ill., and $8 million for the Ty Warner Sea Park, a nature center with numerous marine exhibits, in Santa Barbara, Calif. He donated 10,000 Beanie Babies to children in Iraq and one million Beanie Babies to Children’s Hunger Fund relief efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Warner has also partnered with various charities, including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Fund, the American Red Cross and the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, to help raise much needed funds for their work.
An online auction featured two 30-gallon plastic tubs packed full with a variety of Beanie Babies. All told, the lot contained more than 400 Beanie Babies, with some other stuffed animals mixed in, and the seller was asking for $100. Considering an original purchase price of $5 per Beanie, it cost some $2,000 to amass the collection. That’s not a very good appreciation rate.
Beanie Babies Today
Today, Beanie Babies still have a limited following. And, like most mass-produced collectibles, only a very few have strong and sustainable value, which can be very subjective. As always, something is worth what someone will pay. The most visible model appears to be the retired purple 1997 Princess Diana bear. Recent values for this item are all over the map, ranging from a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the sales channel and actual configuration of identification on the bear. A pristine, first edition sold for $4,500 in July 2012. Other significant items include those in the Billionaire series, special “employees only” editions, prototypes and items produced in extremely small numbers for special events and occasions. These would include things like Beanie Babies made for giveaways at the Hong Kong Toy Fair (sold for $3,999 in 2012) and the Coral Casino (sold for between $500 and $1,000 in 2011), as well as the “Chef Robuchon Bear,” which was used as an invitation to the L’Atelier restaurant opening in the Four Seasons, N.Y. (sold for $7,353.51 in 2011).
Except for these extremely rare examples, the vast majority of the standard-line Beanie Babies are valued in the $1 to $10 range today. An unopened set of the 10 mint Teenie Beanies from McDonalds sold for $11 earlier this year.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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