From spontaneous fads to franchise blockbusters, take a walk down memory lane to rediscover the top selling holiday toys from the 1990s and how retailers missed out or scored big in the decade of millennial’s youth.
These must-have toys from the 90s sent many parents on wild goose chases as retailers struggled to keep all the hottest holiday merchandise in stock. While in hindsight it may have seemed easy to predict the overwhelming demand for toys associated with hit movies and TV shows like Toy Story, Power Rangers, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who could have anticipated the mania surrounding Furbies, POGs and Razor scooters?
1990 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures
Thanks to their popular Saturday morning TV show, these ‘heroes in a half-shell’ kung fu kicked their way into the hearts of 90s kids around the world. Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael quickly found their way out of the sewers and into stores, topping holiday toy sales and launching the brand to new heights. According to Mental Floss, “For the first four years of Turtlemania, about $1.1 billion worth of toys were sold, making the Turtles the #3 top-selling toy figures ever at the time, behind only G.I. Joe and Star Wars.”
1991 – Nintendo Game Boy
Today, most kids have played with a smartphone or tablet before they’ve said their first words, but in the early 90s Game Boy was the most high-tech gaming device kids owned. Yet at the time, retailers severely underestimated the demand for these handheld games. It was reported that the initial one million units released in the U.S. sold out in a matter of weeks. By the it was retired in 2007, Game Boy and Game Boy Color had sold 118.69 million units worldwide.
1992 – Super Soakers
If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a solid chance you’ve been blasted by Super Soaker water gun at some point. With the ability to shoot water up to 50 feet, this summertime weapon of fun became the most sought-after Christmas gift of ‘92. Throughout that year, Super Soaker’s popularity outpaced its parent company Lamari’s expectations, forcing them to ramp up production to meet demand. By 1992, over two million of these powerful squirt guns had been sold.
1993 – Talkboy
Every little boy and girl who had a Talkboy permanently attached to their hands after the 1993 holiday season has the fans of Home Alone (and Macaulay Culkin) to thank. The handheld cassette player and recorder was originally created as a prop for the movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, but so many fans wrote letters wanting the portable device that Tiger Electronics (now owned by Hasbro) put it into production. The toy’s success drove the production of several spinoff devices such as the pink Talkgirl and the Talkboy Pen, but the manufacture struggled to keep up with the overwhelming holiday demand.
1994 – Power Rangers Action Figures
Go Go Power Rangers! What kid could possibly resist this hit show’s anthemic theme song and action-packed adventures? Having skyrocketed to fame in 1993, causing severe action figure shortages that first holiday season, the manufacturer (Bandai) added 11 additional factories in 1994 to boost production of Power Ranger toys by 10 times! Yet, it still wasn’t enough to meet the demand for these mighty morphin action figures. Although many parents believed stores were purposefully keeping supplies low to inflate demand, Bandai’s director of marketing at the time stated, “demand was completely unpredictable.” Power Ranger sales reached $1 billion by 1995.
1995 – POGS
Who would have thought a game originating in Hawaii in the 1920s and with roots in 17th century Japanese culture would become a 90s schoolyard sensation? Starting off as bottle caps from Hawaiian POG juice (passion fruit, orange, and guava), game pieces were collected to help you flip your opponent’s POG. After a teacher in Oahu started using the game to teach her students math, the game quickly began sweeping the nation and forced TANPAC Inc., a small Canadian manufacturing company, to begin printing millions of POGs every week. Seeing an opportunity, Alan Rypinski bought the rights for POG and developed the World POG Federation (WPF), expanding the number of POG manufacturers worldwide.
1996 – Buzz Lightyear + Tickle Me Elmo
Tour Guide Barbie said it best as she drove through the Buzz Lightyear aisle of Al’s Toy Barn in Toy Story 2, “Back in 1995, shortsighted retailers did not order enough dolls to meet demand.” When the original Toy Story movie was released on Thanksgiving 1995, it was Disney’s first full-length computer animated Pixar film and the company was apprehensive about how audiences would respond. As it turns out, the movie quickly went to ‘infinity and beyond!’ And so did the demand for the movie’s Buzz Lightyear toy. Not having anticipated the instantaneous demand for Toy Story characters, Buzz Lightyear’s original manufacture (Thinkway Toys) failed to produce enough action figures. Even though by Christmas of ‘96 Disney had signed an additional manufacturing deal with Mattel, demand had not tempered and ultimately their inability to produce enough units cost them an estimated $300 million in unrealized sales.
Beyond the buzz around Lightyear, holiday tickling and chuckling turned to tackling and trampling as parents went from store to store, waited in lines, and battled crowds of frenzied shoppers trying to get their hands on the scarce new laughing and vibrating Elmo doll. The Tickle Me Elmo creators at Tyco Toys had initially planned to produce 400,000 dolls for the holiday season, but stores across the country were all sold out after the Black Friday rush. As Tyco scrambled to order an additional 600,000 dolls from suppliers, desperate parents started turning violent, stampeding other shoppers and sparking all out brawls. Others began selling their $30 Elmos for thousands of dollars to the highest bidders. All one million Elmo dolls were sold by the end of the holiday season and Tyco’s sales spiked to $350 million. Who’s shaking with laughter now?
1997 – Tamagotchi
Offering more sentimental value than a typical video game and less responsibility than a real baby chick, the Tamagotchi “original virtual reality pet” found its way onto many kids’ keychains and backpacks in 1997. This popular egg-shaped digital pet was produced by Bandai and encouraged its young owners to virtually care for the electronic pet chicken from the time it was an egg, requiring it to be feed, disciplined, and cleaned up after. Following the holiday boom, Bandai had made an estimated 61.9 billion yen in Tamagotchi-related sales.
1998 – Furbies + Beanie Babies
How many of you fell victim to the Furby phenomenon? In 1998, Tiger Electronic’s fuzzy, owl-like dolls burst onto the retail scene, creating a Furby frenzy of epic proportions. They initially spoke Furbish – a made up language you could decipher with a dictionary included with the doll – but as you interacted with them, your Furby would learn to speak English. Oddly cute and endearing, Furbies became the hottest toy of the holiday season, instantly selling out in stores. Much like what happened with Tickle Me Elmo, a black market developed with people selling their Furbies online to desperate last-minute shoppers for more than five times what they originally paid. In 1998 alone, 1.8 million Furbies were sold.
Another must-have item from 1998 were Beanie Babies, the Ty, Inc. beanbag-filled stuffed animals every young child (and adult) couldn’t get enough of. Produced and marketed as adorable and, more importantly, rare collectable plush toys, Beanie Babies became more than just a craze; they became an industry bubble whose rapid crash cost owners thousands of dollars. Within a couple years, Ty successfully positioned Beanie Babies as more than just kids toys, but collectable investments that would only continue to accrue value over time as versions were “retired.” By the end of ‘98, when the “Great Beanie Baby Bubble” was at it’s peak, Ty’s annual sales exceeded $1.4 billion and the toys had produced more than $3 billion in retail sales.
1999 – Pokemon
Gotta catch ‘em all! Starting as role-playing video games built for Nintendo Game Boy in 1996, by the time 1999 rolled around, Pokemon had grown into a media juggernaut. That year, they launched two new games for the new Game Boy Color and followed up their first blockbuster movie with Pokémon: The Movie 2000—The Power of One. From video games and trading cards to movies and TV shows, the Pokemon universe had captivated children around the world to such an extent that many were wondering if its addictive draw was actually bad for them. The immersive franchise even made the cover of Time magazine with an article titled, “Beware of the Pokemania.” Mesmerized kids led to monetized goods and by ‘99, Pokemon was generating annual revenues of $3.28 billion. Pikachu on that!
2000 – Razor Scooter
In the year 2000, the main mode of transportation for most teens was a Razor scooter. Overnight, the compact, aluminum scooter became a sensation, jumping to the top of Christmas lists for girls and boys of all ages. Even young at heart adults wanted these new streamlined scooters. After only being on the market for six months, Razor had already sold five million units, making it one of the top sellers of the 2000 holiday season.
If the 90s proved anything, it’s that you never know what items are going to be a holiday hit, and not being able to fulfill orders can kill your holiday sales. Is your multichannel retail business ready for the 2015 holiday season?
Latest posts by Megan DeGruttola (see all)
- 5 Steps to Building an Omnichannel Brand - April 20, 2016
- The Benefits and Challenges of Multichannel Selling - March 29, 2016
- The Secret to Retail Success: Centralized Inventory Management - March 15, 2016