What to Do When Adults Catch Toy Fever?

As the holiday shopping season begins, parents will wait in lines, spend small fortunes, and may even get into to fist fights to buy the hottest toys for their children. Madeleine Brand speaks with consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow about what causes this toy fever, and how adults can keep it in check.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now to some excesses, ills even, of the holiday season, and never mind Thanksgiving gastric bloat. Millions of parents are about to come down with Christmas toy fever. Where can I find a Tickle-me Elmo or the new Sony or Nintendo video games? How do you catch toy fever?

My co-host Madeleine Brand spoke with consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow trying to learn why some toys never seem to lose their cool factor.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Tickle-me Elmo seems to be the hot toy every year. Why is that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor KIT YARROW (Consumer Psychologist; Professor, Golden Gate University): They have been in that spot before definitely. Well, you know, I think Tickle-me Elmo takes a brand that's familiar, and then they add a creative twist to it. And you know, frankly, they know how to get consumers interested in their product well before it hits the shelves. And then when they limit supply, they create somewhat of a frenzy around getting the product.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about that in a moment, but first talk about what you just said, and how is it that they're able to tap into what we consumers want so effectively?

Prof. YARROW: They've taken a brand that consumers can already understand, and they add a creative or clever element to it. And this element has to be inspiring and, somehow or another, emotionally exciting to consumers. And it also has to be one that consumers can kind of intuitively understand and imagine the improvement so that they want it even before it's available.

BRAND: And then that availability, limiting it, is another enticement.

Prof. YARROW: It certainly is. It's a huge enticement. Really, the limited availability has more to do with the popularity of those products than the products themselves for sure.

BRAND: Do the companies do it on purpose, because Sony has denied any, strenuously.

Prof. YARROW: Of course. Well, let's put it this way. All three of those companies have been there before. I mean, all three of those companies, and actually Nike is kind of the master of this technique. They've all used this technique over and over and over again. So, I kind of can't believe that they don't actually know what they're doing here.

BRAND: But what about consumers? Why don't they get wise to this and realize, well, in a few months, the price will come down, they'll be more available, and I'll buy it then?

Prof. YARROW: The harder you have to work to get the product, in the consumer's mind the more valuable it is. And it creates a competition among shoppers, and the people who end up able to purchase the item feel more like they've won than that they've spent money. And the product itself, I think, in some ways becomes sort of secondary.

I would like to say, too, though, that it comes from an honest place, I think. I mean, part of it is - gift-giving is such a wonderfully positive emotion, the feeling of being able to give somebody something. And so, these products that are hard to get give the gift-giver sort of an added layer of attractiveness, that they're not only providing a great gift to somebody but also the knowledge that a lot of work and effort and sometimes ingenuity went behind getting that gift for that person. So in some ways, they're giving the person a double-gift, and they're communicating so much about how they feel about that person that they were willing to go to those lengths to get that gift.

And you know, maybe the darker side of that could be that the individual also gets a little bit of status and allure around them, as well, that they were one of the winners, one of the people that was able to get the gift.

BRAND: Although, then you can say when you go to Chinatown and get the knock-off, you feel even better because you've gotten something much cheaper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. YARROW: Now that's really winning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow teaches at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and thanks for joining us.

Prof. YARROW: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

CHADWICK: And thanks to Madeleine Brand for that interview.

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