Tickle Me Elmo, Nintendo 64 caused holiday shopping brawls 25 years ago

Holiday shopping in Indianapolis has a unique look in 2021.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some buyers are keeping their masks on. Many are shopping online, as Cyber ​​Monday and Black Friday span weeklong events. The Mom-and-Pop stores that survived Amazon and one more push from the pandemic continue to spin.

But 25 years ago Indianapolis was immersed in a much simpler craze for vacation shopping, as brick and mortar capitalism reigned supreme with queues for two mega-bit kids’ items: Tickle Me Elmo and the Nintendo 64.

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The names alone are enough to inject much-needed serotonin into anxiety-riddled millennial brains – and spark battle memories for parents of baby boomers who bravely fought in the Great Shopping War of 1996.

Across the country there were fights, arrests and incidents of trampling. Two Chicago women got into a fight over a Tickle Me Elmo. The doll, which sold for between $ 26 and $ 29, could fetch as much as $ 1,000 or more in the resale market.

There did not appear to have been any reported local cases of blood being drawn, but the two follies had caused Hoosier shoppers to prepare a strategy, merchants on the defensive, and parents invited to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.

tickle me elmo

A clip from the November 26, 1996 edition of the Indianapolis Star shows the Tickle Me Elmo as a "hot seller" this Christmas.

An article in The Star from November 26, 1996 featured a huge photo with wide open arms of the red “Sesame Street” fur ball as part of a holiday toy guide that also included Nintendo 64, Chicken Limbo, Barbie Fashion Designer CD -ROM video game and “Star Wars” figures before the planned 1997 re-release of what were then the only three films.

“At the Target store at 5302 N. Keystone Ave., an employee reported he was ambushed by customers before he had a chance to turn off three of the hot, fuzzy guys who giggle and shake when you tickle. their belly, ”the Star reported.

The first buyers reach

Still, the article cited analysts who predicted that there would be no similar craze in 1996 to the “Power Rangers” action figures a few years ago and Cabbage Patch Dolls a few years ago. Tickle Me Elmo was popular, but it had been out for months by then and could still be found on the shelves.

Post-Thanksgiving push

Just four days later, as post-Thanksgiving shopping began, that prediction had already turned out to be wrong.

An Indianapolis News article from November 30 said customers lined up outside a Castleton Target – all looking for Tickle Me Elmo or a Nintendo 64, all of them soon disappointed.

On December 13, The Associated Press reported that Evansville Target had sold its entire shipment of 48 Tickle Me Elmos within hours.

Jim Davis, media director for Best Buy on West 38th Street, gave the Star his simple Nintendo 64 prediction in a December 15 article: “If you can find one, buy it.”

Davis had been handing out rain checks to customers since Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, when he went to work to find 30 people lined up outside for a cutting-edge gaming console.

“Maybe Santa Claus can write an IOU to your little darlings and put Nintendo 64 game cartridges and accessories under the tree, for now,” the article read.

A Target ad in the same issue criticized Nintendo for the shortage: “Due to continued unprecedented demand and the manufacturer’s inability to ship enough products, only limited quantities of the Nintendo 64 console and games… will be available. “

Resale boom

As December wore on, the Star and News’s classified spaces began to fill with brief announcements for flagship products.

The Nintendo 64, which was released in the US in September at a retail price of $ 199.99, was priced up to $ 600 on December 23.

But Elmo was the real pot of gold.

On December 17, a shaking, laughing doll that cost just over $ 30 after tax in stores was selling for up to $ 400.

On December 19, someone was offering a “new” Tickle Me Elmo that had sort of lost its box for $ 350.

The December 23 edition of the News featured an entire column of Tickle Me Elmo resale ads, with dozens available for up to $ 700 a piece. Several intrepid sellers claimed that some of the money from their Elmos would go to charity, while others staged auction-type bidding wars (remember, eBay was in its infancy. at that time) in printed form.

A clipping from the December 23, 1996 edition of the Indianapolis News shows resale offers for Tickle Me Elmo dolls at the height of the toy craze.

If you choose to believe that the country has developed as a gift buying company in the quarter century since 1996, then do not put “PlayStation 5” or “Xbox Series X” in your search engine. prefer.

Some 1 million Tickle Me Elmos were said to have been sold at the end of December 1996, rising to 5 million by the following Christmas. Nintendo would eventually sell nearly 33 million Nintendo 64 consoles.

Christmas is giving

Before the toy storm of 1996, a November 26 column accompanying the original Tickle Me Elmo article offered lasting advice to families if the gifts they wanted did not arrive from the North Pole.

“It’s important that kids don’t see Santa Claus as an ordering service,” said Judith Myers-Walls, then associate professor of family studies at Purdue University.

There was a need, she noted, to let the children express their disappointment without the parents becoming defensive.

Myers-Walls recommended shifting children’s attention to giving, not receiving, by asking the youngest child to give a gift to open the Christmas present free of charge for all.

“It depends on the values ​​of the family, but most of us don’t want to see our children greedy and demanding and wait for whatever they ask for,” she said.

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Rory Appleton is the pop culture reporter at IndyStar. Contact him at 317-552-9044 and [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @RoryDoesPhonics.

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