A Holiday Guide to History’s Hottest Toys
Over the course of the last few decades, different toys have sparked popular holiday trends, and in some cases, massive consumer-purchasing frenzies.
December 20, 2021
Nearly one-third of consumers say they’ll spend up to 9% more this holiday season than they did last year, including on toys for Christmas. In fact, according to Deloitte’s holiday retail forecast, consumers could spend up to $1.3 trillion in holiday sales between November and January. Unsurprisingly, the toy industry — with nearly $33 billion in annual sales — accounts for a significant portion of holiday spending.
Each year, as the holidays approach, parents scour through holiday guides on the hunt for the perfect toy to make their kids’ season bright. Over the course of the last few decades, different toys have sparked popular holiday trends and, in some cases, consumer purchasing frenzies.
Check out this holiday guide to learn which Christmas toys made waves with consumers, the challenges that lie ahead for 2021 holiday shoppers and how to keep costs down and still score your favorite gifts this season.
Toys that topped the holiday toy list
Here’s a look at some of the most memorable toys for Christmas throughout the years —that have sent consumers on must-have purchasing missions.
Inspiration for the Slinky was sparked by an accident that happened in 1943. A mechanical engineer named Richard James was working on designs for a device that would secure equipment and cargo on ships. After dropping one of the devices he was working on, he noticed that, instead of it falling to the floor, it moved in a “walking” motion. James thought the device would make a great toy, and his wife dubbed it the “Slinky.”
Just before Christmas in 1945, the pair demonstrated their invention at Gimbels department store in Philadelphia. The store had 400 Slinkys in stock and sold out in less than two hours.
Mr. Potato Head
George Lerner first touched upon the idea for Mr. Potato Head in 1949. His initial design used three-dimensional pieces representing body parts that could be stuck in actual potatoes. They were debuted to the public as a prize inside cereal boxes.
In 1952, Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, the brothers who would later found the toy company Hasbro Inc., bought the license for the toy. They packed the pieces with a styrofoam body, before switching to an all-plastic design. In the first year of manufacturing, Mr. Potato Head generated $4 million in sales.
Cabbage Patch Kids
When it comes to 1980s toy mania, Cabbage Patch Kids ruled the day. By the end of the 1983 Christmas season, nearly three million Cabbage Patch Kids had been sold, as demand far outstripped supply. Dolls were reselling on the black market for several times their original price tag of $25.
In that first year, 3.2 million dolls went to buyers across the country, generating $65 million in revenue. Still, sometimes the brightest flame can burn out the quickest and, by 1988, demand for the dolls cooled down and the company went bankrupt.
The original Talkboy was a non-working prop made for the Christmas classic movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. In the film, main character Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, is separated from his parents at the airport and ends up in New York. He checks himself into the Plaza hotel and uses his Talkboy to deepen his voice, so he can make reservations by sounding like an adult.
A fully-working version of the Talkboy was made available at Toys “R” Us during the 1993 holiday shopping season, after the movie hit theaters. The toy’s popularity skyrocketed, and its manufacturers could barely keep up with the consumer demand.
Tickle Me Elmo
Toy designer Ron Dubren came up with the idea for a toy that laughed when tickled while he was watching kids at play. With the help of engineer Greg Hyman, he created a stuffed monkey with a chip in its stomach that made the monkey laugh when tickled. While this toy failed to see commercial success, toy manufacturer Tyco asked Dubren to apply the same technology to an Elmo doll it was creating for a new line of Sesame Street toys in 1996.
And so, the Tickle Me Elmo was born, and it became the biggest toy craze of the holiday season that year, inspiring a buying frenzy that many compared to the Cabbage Patch Kid craze a decade before. By the end of the year, Tickle Me Elmos generated $250 million in sales.
This keychain-sized electronic toy made kids responsible for their own virtual creatures that would live and grow as long as they were taken care of, fed, and played with. If a Tamagotchi was neglected, the virtual pet would die. The first Tamagotchis went on sale in Japan in 1996 and 10 million were sold within a year.
When introduced to the United States in 1997, the toy, which retailed for $15 to $18, quickly sold out, with customers camping outside of toy stores or paying hundreds of dollars on the black market to acquire one.
The Tamagotchi may have helped spawn a craze for digital pets. A year after its American debut, the Furby hit the market in 1998. It looked like a small, bat-eared, owl-like creature that spoke gibberish at first. Slowly the creature would begin speaking more and more actual words, mimicking the process of learning English.
Furbies also included sensors that helped them interact with users, letting the toy know when it was being fed or tickled, for example. They retailed for $35 and, in their first three years, 40 million Furbies were sold.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, video game consoles caused their fair share of shopping frenzy, but perhaps none more so than the Nintendo Wii, released in 2006. The console was more affordable than its competitors, the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360, and it provided new innovations like wireless remote controllers.
The Nintendo Wii also offered games that allowed players to stand and move, giving the system generation-wide appeal from young children to older adults. By year’s end in 2006, Nintendo moved 3 million Wii systems and sold 100 million units over the course of the seven years it was produced.
Star Wars Baby Yoda
Star Wars Baby Yoda dolls were among the top-selling toys of 2020. Fans of the character, made popular on the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian,'' were infamously unable to buy Baby Yoda merchandise during the 2019 holiday season, despite huge demand.
In 2020, the toy’s manufacturer, Hasbro, Inc., faced further obstacles spurred by the Coronavirus pandemic, including factory shutdowns and supply chain issues.
Challenges for 2021 holiday shoppers
This year, retailers continue to face major challenges and bottlenecks due to supply chain and shipping issues.
Many had hoped the problems they faced in 2020 would be cleared up by now, but some of the complications appear to be getting worse:
There aren’t enough shipping cargo containers, causing shipping prices to rise ten-fold from last year
As COVID-19 continues to surge, major ports have closed terminals and labor shortages have decreased the number of available truck drivers, making delivery of goods incredibly challenging
Retailers may have to spend more on shipping and logistics, while taking a hit to profit margins
Increased shipping costs may cause retailers to cut back on the number of goods they stock, decreasing consumer selection and making toy lists even more competitive
Consumers could face rising prices as retailers pass along some of the increasing costs of labor and materials in the supply chain
Inflation — the increase in the price of goods and services — was up 6.8% in 12 months ending in November.
Unfortunately, analysts expect prices to continue to rise. What’s more, consumers may be less likely to find discounts to help them save this holiday season.
How to keep holiday costs down
If prices keep rising this holiday season as predicted, it’s important for parents to find ways to avoid overspending and running up credit card debt.
A few simple tips can help:
Stick to a Christmas budget: If you haven't done so already, make a list of the people you want to give gifts to — from children to in-laws to coworkers — and allocate a portion of your budget to each person. This will provide guardrails to help keep your costs down and may also help you avoid impulse purchases for people you weren’t even thinking of giving gifts to in the first place.
Pay in cash: One wise way to avoid running up credit card debt is to use cash vs. credit. If you do use your credit card, ensure you have enough in your bank account to pay off your bill at the end of the month.
Plan strategically: A bit of careful planning can help you make your kids’ holiday dreams come true without breaking the bank. When it comes to the top toy lists, it might even make sense to plan on purchasing some items after the holiday when the hype has subsided. (Then, you’ll at least have the prime goods on hand for birthdays and other occasions.)
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