In a craze reminiscent of the Tickle Me Elmo hysteria of the 90s, a shortage of Hatchimals, stuffed animals that hatch out of eggs, has led to outrageous bidding wars.
Photo by Richard Lautens, courtesy of Getty Images
At a Toys "R" Us in central Los Angeles, a pregnant woman holding a crying baby approached an employee named Luis. "Do you have any Hatchimals?" she asked. Luis laughed. "We are sold out." According to Thomas, another Toys "R" Us employee, the store is unsure when they will receive more Hatchimals. They're not alone: The great Hatchimal shortage of 2016 has become a nationwide Christmas crisis, although the toy has yet to become a household name.
Hatchimals combine the definitive elements of Tamagotchi with Furby; the stuffed animals look like birds that have unicorn horns. They come in different colors, but all Hatchimals are sold in massive white eggs covered in colorful spots, which make them appear rotten. If children love their eggs enough, stuffed animals will hatch out of them and begin crying. Although a crying stuffed animal in an egg may sound nightmarish to parents, kids have become obsessed with the toys—stores have ran out of the stuffed animals, and customers are bidding $350 for the scarce goods on eBay, although the manufacture, Spin Master, prices the toys at $49.99. One eBay seller has even listed a Hatchimal for $100,000, and seventy users are watching the bid.
"I think we've been trained that each year there will be a top toy that everyone goes after," says Mike Merder, the father of a five-year-old.
Parents' hunt for Hatchimals looks like a story ripped out of a 1990s newspaper. After Rosie O'Donnell discussed her love for Tickle Me Elmo on The Rosie O'Donnell Show in 1996, her stay-at-home mom audience bought the dolls, increasing demand and creating an Elmo shortage. Second-hand sellers even started taking out newspaper ads, selling Elmos for $1000 a piece. The next year, Beanie Babies became a sensation, and McDonald's ran out of 100 million Beanie Babies after just two weeks.
Toy runs were common in the 1990s, but the Hatchimal success story defies popular assumptions about the toy industry. Over the past decade, the media have run countless articles about children preferring computers to toys, like "Children play with touchpads more than traditional toys" and "Toddlers and Tablets: The Way of the Future."
"That's just buzz," says Adrienne Appell, a representative of the Toy Industry Association. Toy sales grew by seven percent in 2015, according to the trade association, and they expect further growth this year.
Few industry watchers, though, expected Hatchimals to top kids' Christmas lists. In October, Spin Master released Hatchimals, and a variety of kids gravitated towards the toys almost right away. Stores were selling out. "If the manufacture knew the demand would be this high, there would be more toys on the shelves," Appell notes.
Much of the surprise stems from Hatchimals' diverse fan base and their unexpected similarities to modern technology. "They have a very broad range appeal. It's really kids, boys and girls are asking for it... it has a fairly wide age range too," Appell points out. "The hatching is very similar to the unboxing [phenomenon]." Unboxing is a genre of YouTube videos in which people take items out of boxers. Young children, especially toddlers, have become obsessed with the videos, which can receive upwards of 100 million views. Unboxing has since evolved into videos of YouTubers watching their Hatchimals crack out of their eggs.
Over 500,000 users have subscribed to popular toy vlogger Chad Allen's YouTube page. (He did not return Broadly's request for comment.) Allen also reviews Disney princess dolls, but his most popular recent clips revolve around Hatchimals. In one recent video titled "Biggest Hatchimals Hatching Ever! Hatching FIVE Babies today! Hatchimals Surprise Eggs," Allen screams, "The Draggle is going to be the new species of my collection!" as his egg hatches. He looks ecstatic, as if he just won the lottery. His enthusiasm has translated into over two millions views.
Allen and other adult YouTubers show a genuine passion for Hatchimals, but other grown-ups have hawked the toys to make money. Even the bestselling Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen announced she had upsold over 150 Hatchimals online, bringing in upwards of $29,000 in revenue and over $6,000 in profit. Over the weekend, in a since-deleted Facebook post quoted by the Huffington Post, Gruen explained that she was raising money to create a documentary about a wrongly convicted male prisoner, but did not elaborate on the details of the man's case. "I figured I could still sell them at a profit and put a dent in the extremely hefty lawyer fees I'm accruing in my fight to get the wrongfully convicted man's case back before the Supreme Court," she wrote. "So far, so good, right?"
Well, no, according to many parents. Over the weekend, moms and dads attacked Gruen on social media, criticizing her for making Christmas more difficult and releasing few details about her project. (Gruen's attorney did not return Broadly's request for comment.) Merder, the father of the five-year-old, was one such parent. "I don't fault people for buying and reselling if people are willing to pay that much more for them," he says. "But when Sara Gruen, a successful author, buys [over] $23,000 worth to raise money to get a man out of jail because he's the focus of a Making a Murderer-type documentary she's working on, but she can't tell us any details or even this man's name... that comes off as greedy. Start a Go-Fund-Me campaign. Don't try to raise funds by selling toys for four or five times their value."
From the Gruen controversy to the stock shortage to the upheavel of assumptions about the toy industry, reactions to Hatchimals have been unexpected. Even toy industry experts are shocked, but the toy world is often unpredictable. Appell sees toy crazes as a lot "like fashion." It's difficult to predict what will be en vogue, but when a product becomes the "it toy" of Christmas, it's typically because it has become popular amongst different types of people. "Usually," Appell says, "you are widening the base."