A frenzy was breaking out at Michaels craft store.
A panicky circle of parents and kids were elbowing each other around stacks of Rainbow Looms and huge bins full of rubber bands that go with them. It was near panic.
Moms were grabbing packs of rubber bands with one hand and holding cellphones with the other, telling friends: “They were totally sold out in Brandon. Wal-Mart, too. But there's a bunch here. You better get here fast. You want me to get you a stack? A dozen?”
The kids, meanwhile, lurched into the piles of rubber band packs as if they were the starving wretches in “Les Miserables” and these were the last loaves of bread in Marie Antoinette's Paris.
Covering retail trends, I've seen a few mob scenes like this before, and they always amaze me — a product exploding with the full-blown frenzy of popularity, the zenith of the zeitgeist. And this over a gizmo that retails for $15 a pop in a world of $300 Xboxes.
What makes a product such a wild success? Can anyone predict the factors and precursors necessary to create a popular fever of demand? To pay homage to Malcolm Gladwell, what's the “tipping point”? How did a plastic gizmo like the Rainbow Loom lap so many other toys launched by billion-dollar toy makers who launch dozens of gizmos a year? And can anyone predict the inevitable “poof” when a fad evaporates. This year's Pinterest is last year's MySpace/Hanna Montana/Big Mouth Billy Bass.
If you haven't encountered the Rainbow Loom or its frenzied devotees, let me explain.
The Rainbow Loom is a roughly 1-foot-long plastic grid of pegs that you string up and down with small rubber bands. Weave together the bands the right way, and you can make intricate and colorful bracelets and necklaces to wear and trade with your friends.
An auto engineer named Cheong Choon Ng invented it in 2011 after watching his daughters weave together tiny rubber bands from their braces. Acting as a valiantly brave dad, (I've been there, my brother. I've been there,) he tried to help and built a platform stuck full of thumbtacks to hold the bands in place during weaving. The first model didn't do so well (dad-sized fingers getting in the way, I'm guessing) but after some tinkering, he made a prototype called Twist Bandz. Ultimately, the name changed and the Rainbow Loom started to take off earlier this year.
Now, it's a full-blowncraze.
Michaels started stocking Rainbow Looms in 20 stores in August, and they immediately sold out. The Rainbow Loom is the No. 2 bestselling toy on Amazon, with loom-related accessories taking spots No. 3, 9, 14 and 15. That's a sign they're shipping millions, not thousands.
Some elementary schools have started to crack down on schoolyard black markets for Rainbow Loom bracelets by banning them altogether. That's a mark of pure commercial success not seen since schools in this town banned Silly Bandz.
One how-to video on the YouTube channel by crafty girls “Ashley Steph” has 4.6 million hits, and several other videos have more than a few hundred thousand hits each. That's a viewership that CNN and Fox News would rightly envy. Dodge is only getting just over a million hits on its Ron Burgundy-hosted videos, and they are hilarious.
Learning Express now has the Rainbow Loom on its hot toy list for this holiday season. Toys R Us does not. Why? It has a copycat version called Cra-Z-Loom. Now that's success, when Toys R Us is copying you.
In a social/commercial feedback loop I find hysterical, Columbus, Ohio, orthodontist Monfort Zwick now holds Rainbow Loom weaving contests. Back where it all started.
But why did this particular toy take off so well?
If you ask kids why they like Rainbow Loom bracelets, you first get the inevitable answer: “They're cool.” But then, if you interrogate further, you find that all their friends like them, too. They're fun to trade. You can make them with colors to match your outfits. They're also cheap — cheap enough to buy with your allowance money.
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. The Rainbow Loom sells for between $15 and $20, depending on the source, and the packs of rubber bands cost between $1 and $2. That's allowance chore money. They're also waterproof (so, good for the pool) and to press an obvious point, they're “wearable,” so every other kid in school can see your creation. Even schools with dress codes typically allow “jewelry,” so the Rainbow Loom jumps through a key loophole in the socio-educational petri dish of youth culture.
As for why Rainbow Loom took off, and not 1,001 other toys, sometimes there's just no telling, said Adrienne Appell, a toy trend specialist at the Toy Industry Associaton.
Toy makers invest in market research, tracking demographic shifts, cultural trends, media popularity, even color trends. But many times, the unpredictability of people reigns. “We say the toy industry is similar to the fashion industry,” she said. “Often there are fads and hot things take off and sometimes it's anyone's guess.” Only last year or so, every kid on the planet seemed to have a Zhu Zhu pet. Now, foomp, gone.
In the meantime, the Rainbow Loom fits with a broader trend, Appell said, with more kids gravitating to creative and “building” style toys. Lego is seeing a renaissance and huge growth.
That's one reason parents have good reason to indulge Rainbow Looming, too. It's not a video game, which in many households cannot possibly be a more important factor. In our digitally saturated culture, electronic gizmos and tablets are everywhere. A key point of Amazon's sales pitch to parents to buy a Kindle is that you can set a timer on the gadget to limit “screen time.”
Compare that to watching a kid park herself on the couch and quietly weave rubber bands for a few hours. It's many a parent's dream.
Before rolling over to the stores to buy a Rainbow Loom, keep this in mind. Call ahead to make sure they have them in stock, and don't look for a discount. Even Amazon sells a basic Rainbow Loom for $30 a pop, twice the price at some retail outlets. At Michaels, there's a sign taped on the near-empty shelves that says the store won't accept coupons on the Rainbow Loom. They don't have to discount.
Here's some other news about retail, restaurants and shopping around town:
◆ As the air turns crisp in Florida, we're seeing the re-opening of weekend farmer's markets. Markets are now up and running in Seminole Heights, Hyde Park and elsewhere. On Friday, Dunedin opens its farmer's market at the John R. Lawrence Pioneer Park. It will be open every Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., rain or shine, through May 2014.
◆ Black Friday circulars are starting to “leak” out, and by that I mean retailers are rabidly pushing them out to grab people's attention as early as possible. But Consumer Reports has a bone to pick with a couple of the deals. They're not really deals. For instance, CR found one of Wal-Mart's early-bird online specials was a 42-inch 1080p LCD TV from LG (model 42LN5200) for $378, and a 55-inch E-series Vizio (model E550I-A0) sale priced at $728. “But you can get either set for exactly the same price at Amazon,” CR notes. Ouch.