90.3 WBHM Birmingham--If you're the parent of an elementary school student around Birmingham, chances are you've seen silly bandz. Some call them animal bracelets. They're colored rubber bands which look pretty normal on your arm. But take them off and they snap into the shape of a creature or object. If you're not the parent of such a child, you may not realize the craze they've become. WBHM's Andrew Yeager takes a look at those riding out the fad.

Marilee Howard has been answering a lot of phone calls recently.

"Good morning, Learning Express!"

She's the assistant manager at Learning Express in Cahaba Heights, and most of the phone calls boil down to this.

"No sir, we are out right now."

It's call after call wanting to know if they have silly bandz, these little rubber bracelets.

"It's been five minutes and I think you've gotten four calls about this."

"Yes, yes. It's insane. Yeah, I mean, it's constant."

Because of the constant calls, Howard keeps the phone in the pocket of her purple apron as she moves about the toy store. To call silly bandz popular is an understatement.

"We'll get a shipment in and we will sell out within an hour. So it's insane. I mean, we literally sell out as quickly as they come in."

The bracelets may be THE hot commodity among children to collect or trade. But parents, they're in on it too.

"We've called stores. Gotten on waiting lists."

"Waiting lists?"

"Uh, yes. Sad to say, but yes. Weeks long."

Kaylyn George has purchased a few packs of silly bandz for her fifth grade daughter Alana. Alana George lines up part of her collection on her family's kitchen table.

"I got a rino. And the giraffe. The duck. My favorite, a dolphin. Because a dolphin's my favorite animal."

Some schools have taken notice too.

"Miss Cleburne, my teacher, she says if we don't have them on our wrist, she takes them away. But I haven't had that done to me before."

Exactly where or how this fad started isn't clear. Marilee Howard at Learning Express says customers started requesting the bracelets last spring. It died down over the summer and then demand exploded when the new school year began. Parenting blogs have taken note of the trend across the southeast. The silly bandz themselves are made by an Ohio-based company - Brain Child Products. The craze has seemed to cause headaches for this 5 person company. In an e-mail, the company's owner described the atmosphere as crazy. And when it came to trying to do an interview, even a scheduled interview, this is what always happened.

"This mailbox is currently full and cannot receive new messages."

Sean McGowan tracks the toy industry for Needham and Company. He says silly bandz remind him of other crazes such as webkinz or beanie babies. And fads like these are driven primarily by two things - the perception of originality and scarcity. For toy companies, trying to catch this lightening in a bottle depends on answering a potentially unanswerable question.

"Why is this thing so popular in the first place? It's always easier in hindsight to look back and say yeah, I know why it sold, but most of the time you really have no idea."

McGowan says if you can identify what it is driving sales, a company might be able to extend a fad. It could also hold back supply to create scarcity. But really there are no rules of thumb. While McGowan says a toy maker can't manufacture a fad reliably, it can go about it strategically.

"If you have a group of creatively minded people who are in touch with sort of the popular culture then you percolate some ideas that might work. You're probably going to be able to more likely come up with something in that environment. However, the mythology of 'I invented this in my garage' is always going to hold and frankly that's where a lot of ideas do come from."

What ever the origin of silly bandz, they have their hold on many Birmingham children, including Alana George. How long will they last?

"I have no idea. Probably until a new craze comes along and then I might start collecting those."

Seems a safe bet. And Sean McGowan's prediction for what's next? Little toy hamsters.

"...Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters make outrageous sounds and explore on their own. Where will your Zhu Zhu zoom?"

More incessant calls to stores, more waiting lists? Perhaps. You just never know for sure.


~ Andrew Yeager, November 6, 2009