It's 10 a.m. Friday and the shipment has arrived. Restless parents, kids, and toy dealers mill around the counter while the salespeople try to persuade them to come back at 11 when the cards have been counted. "Are you crazy?" blurts out one parent with two truant children by her side. "The line will be three hours long by then," she says with a pointed look at the cashier, adding, "I'm not moving from this spot till those cards get out here."
Pokmania is in full bloom at the mall. Today's madness is on display at The Gamekeeper toy store inside Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks, Calif. For those who don't have children in the target 12-and-under demographic, just think of the hula hoop, Beanie Babies, Power Rangers, or Cabbage Patch dolls.
"Pokmon is bigger than any of those," according to the store manager, who wants to be known only as Brian.
What the phenomenon is depends on which part of the marketing has nabbed your nine-year-old's imagination. The word Pokmon is short for "pocket monster." The craze began some three years ago in Japan as a video game and now has blossomed into more than a $5 billion worldwide industry.
The 151 or so Pokmon creatures, with names like Charmander, Raichu, and Snorlax, arrived in the United States late last fall. The world of Pokmon now includes board games, TV cartoons, plush toys, and, perhaps most ubiquitous, trading cards. Since they became available in late December, close to 100 million cards have found their way into American classrooms and summer camps, sparking both consternation and appreciation among adults.
Because they are disrupting activities, "I have had to take [your son's] and other cabin members' cards away several times," wrote Sedge Southworth, a counselor of a nine-year-old camper at Camp Leelanau in northern Michigan, to his parents this summer.
Other adults see benefits. "I think they teach socialization skills," says a special-education instructor in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who declined to give her name "because the district has a different opinion." Her nephew has joined a club that runs Pokmon board games and trading card swaps. "It allows them to develop negotiating skills and think about strategies and make plans."
But lessons in strategy are touching more than the children. The company that currently owns the top trading-card license, Wizards of the Coast (a New York firm, Topps, has a competing line), also owns many of the key retail games store outlets that sell the cards. "They make it impossible for other toy store owners to buy the cards directly from them," grouses Cat, who owns a comic-book store in Los Angeles and goes by that one-word name. He says it can take months to get a shipment of cards.
"We have to buy retail from them and then do these terrible markups to make it worth it," he says as he waits in line at The Gamekeeper, one such retail outlet.
Indeed, at a mall kiosk a mere 200 feet down from the official store, a deck of Pokmon trading cards sells for four times the $3.29 manufacturer's recommended retail price. A casual walk through a dozen different stores selling Pokmon paraphernalia reveals prices ranging from twice to five or six times the recommended price.
With a feature film looming in November, Pokmania only promises to grow. The question, as children head back to school with visions of pocket monsters in their heads, is how to handle the fad. "The question [parents] should ask is how badly is common sense being abused," suggests Prof. Ray Browne, chairman emeritus of Popular Culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) University.
"I know generally the world is trying to separate me from my dollar and will use any tactic possible, my love for my children or my spouse included," he notes.
At the end of the day, he says, it is up to individuals to draw the line on Pokmon purchases.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society