Matthew Lickona 1:14 p.m., May 24
Cuckoo for Zhu Zhus
I was talking to a friend last week about gimmicky gifts that become popular around the holiday. I mentioned getting a Rubik’s Cube in my stocking as a teenager, when those were all the rage.
My parents were impressed that I figured it out by the New Year (it was easy, once I took the thing apart).
The friend I was talking with said “This year, it’s going to be the Zhu Zhus that’s huge.”
I asked what that was and he said “They’re little toy hamsters that have a battery and move all over the floor. People are even buying those tunnels that real hamsters use.”
I thought that had already been invented. I remember 10 years ago walking by a KB Toys in North County Fair and seeing raccoons that went around in circles and moved. I guess those just didn’t take off like the Zhu Zhus.
I’ve since seen them covered on CNN and a story in the Washington Post about the guy that made them in the basement of his St. Louis home. Apparently, his attic looks like something from Island of Misfit Toys, with various failed attempts.
He founded his first toy company in the late 80s. In the early 2000s, he started another toy company with his daughters. They had a light-up bear called Glo-E. But the hamster is what is making them huge.
They sell for $10, but since all the stores are running out of them, they’re going for $50 on eBay.
And this reminded me of a friend I had named Dave. He’d call me every few months with a different get rich quick scheme.
One time it was to sell Amway. I was in 10th grade, and he was a senior. I said, “Really? Are you the only person on the planet that hasn’t heard of Amway and the pyramid scheme involved?” After that flopped, it was Herbalife a few years later.
There was a time he bought up a bunch of Cabbage Patch Dolls that were rare. Now, this was in the days before you could easily just post something on Craigslist. He had to take out an ad in the paper and field calls. He was living with his folks, so they’d have to occasionally deal with an angry person that called to say “What kind of f***ing loser are you, that you are selling this things and four times the original price?!”
He once bought 50 Tickle Me Elmo’s after seeing a story on the news about Toys R Us running out of them. He called around, and found various stores carrying them. One Target in Oceanside only let him buy four, which got him into a shouting match with the manager. I called that incident “St. Elmo’s Fire”, because he ended up having a “fire sale” when he found he was stuck with 43 of the little furry muppets on December 26th.
He had me laughing even harder though, when Beanie Babies became huge. He called me up in a panic saying “There’s a Hallmark store in the mall that has this huge gumball machine. A few of the gumballs have ‘winner’ on them. I asked what you win, and they said it’s a rare Beanie Baby that they don’t even sell to the public. I did some research, and these things are worth almost a hundred bucks.”
I told him he should do research and be more productive, in other avenues of life.
So, what did he do after he hung up the phone with me? He went to his bank. He got $100 in quarters. He said it took a bit of time, because they had to go empty out some vault. Again, I was laughing, at the thought of some vault that is just stuffed with quarters…like it was a Pac Man factory or something.
He then carried the jingly bags of change into the Hallmark. He started putting them in the machine and waiting for the winners. After a few minutes, he got tired of bending over. He sat his butt down and continued twirling the machine. After 10 gumballs, three of which were in his mouth making him look like Alvin the Chipmunk, he realized he had nowhere to put them. He went up and asked the cashier for a bag. He also asked how many winning gumballs were in there. She said “We stock it with seven.” That was two more than he had anticipated, so he was thrilled.
As he walked back to the machine, he saw a 10-year-old had gotten in there. If I remember the story correctly, he said he went into a panic. He figured all this plotting and planning was for not.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, wondering what to do next. And the kid walked away, saying “Mom, can I have another quarter? I didn’t win.”
He immediately moved in and started plopping in quarters. The kid came back, patiently waiting his turn. He briefly thought about letting him throw his quarter in, and then watching as he took his losing gumball. But he thought – what if that kid wins one? He couldn’t chance it.
The boy complained to his mom. And at this point, another couple people lined up behind Dave, waiting there turn. Who knew gumball machines had this much action. Put a few winning gumballs in a Vegas casino.
Everyone complained loudly. One marched up to the cashier. She was a 60-year-old woman who meekly said “I’m a retired librarian. I’m really not sure what to do here. We don’t have rules against it.”
One mom asked how long he would be. Dave responded, “I’m gonna be awhile. You don’t want to wait. But…if any of your kids want gumballs, you can have these. For free.”
One woman was thrilled by this. The other two were even angrier.
Dave was ecstatic as he told me the story on the phone.
“I saved a few bucks. Because, I got all seven winning gumballs and there were still 10 left in the machine.”
When he showed up at Hallmark a few days later (after he was told when they would restock), he saw a sign that said “Five gumballs per customer.” He turned around and walked out.
And surprisingly, he sold his Beanie Babies for a pretty penny and a big profit.
One of the last schemes he had involved stocks. He took $10,000 he had saved, and was telling me about these penny stocks. I had no interest in yet another thing he was involved in; especially if it had the word “penny” in it.
After making a few hundred dollars here and there, he told me he was putting all $10,000 on stock in Qualcomm. This was way before the stadium was graced with that name, and when hardly anyone even knew the company.
When his stock was worth $100,000, he sold it. He then bought another stock that he got a tip on. And he sold that, and had close to $300,000. I told him to quit playing the stocks, and buy a nice house. He could move out of his parents place and buy his dream car (a ’67 Mustang).
I remember when he went looking for the Mustang, I went with him a few times. One person selling one in Oceanside had won it from the radio station I worked at.
He bought a Mustang, but didn’t want to buy a house. And a few months later, invested in a stock that tanked. And he had talked his family into investing, too.
He cashed out after losing a few hundred thousand.
We haven’t talked in years. I often wonder if he found that scheme that made him rich.