Did the Cabbage Patch Kids Riots Set the Stage for Black Friday?

The danger of high demand and low supply

A “closed” sign with red letters on a black background.
A “closed” sign with red letters on a black background.

What do you get when you take one of the hottest toys of all time, brilliant marketing, low inventory, and the holiday season? You get the perfect retail storm.

The Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983 happened because of the frenzy of the newly released dolls. High demand, mixed with low inventory, led to in-store riots, trampling, and violence.

There have been some really hot toys over the years that kids want more than life itself, including Tickle Me Elmo, Beanie Babies, Furby, Tamagotchi, and Hatchimals.

As popular as some of those toys have been, there was one toy craze to rule them all. Before Black Friday violence became a thing, nothing compares to the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1983.

What Were the Cabbage Patch Kids?

Depending on your age, these might be new to you. But if you grew up during this time period, you are all too familiar with what a Cabbage Patch Kid is.

But were they a stolen idea that ended up being worth millions?

The Cabbage Patch Kids go back to the 1970s, but were first called “Doll Babies.” Martha Nelson Thomas, who wanted to make dolls that could actually be played with, created them.

Dolls of the past were fragile with porcelain faces and looked like they could come to life in the middle of the night and kill you.

But she had an interesting idea that would end up being the driving success behind the marketing of the future Cabbage Patch Kids. Instead of simply buying the doll, what if you also adopted it? This would give kids a sense of ownership and make it feel unique.

How Xavier Roberts “Borrows” the Idea

You might not have ever heard of Thomas and are only familiar with Xavier Roberts with the Cabbage Patch Kids. He comes on the scene because he attended the craft shows where Thomas displayed and sold the Doll Babies.

In 1976, the Doll Babies caught his eye. He liked the look, and the whole concept of adoption, and bought some to sell at his own shop in Georgia. He also sold them at a higher price. Thomas found out about this and took them back. He allegedly said that if he couldn’t sell her dolls, he would sell some just like them.

He then mass-produced them in Hong Kong and took the adoption idea. He also came up with a backstory for the dolls leading to the name Cabbage Patch Kids.

How Did They Market the Cabbage Patch Kids?

Before they were launched, Roberts made one more smart move. Either from guilt or from not t wanting his “idea” stolen, he branded his name right onto the little rear ends of the dolls. This was a way to copyright the dolls and avoid counterfeits.

Coleco launched The Cabbage in 1982. Along with the backstory, adoption certificate, and branding, Roberts created one more valuable feature that may have helped lead to the high demand.

Instead of making one standard doll, he would create several iterations of the concept. Nine different heads were available to match with various bodies, clothing, and accessories. This created an endless amount of unique dolls. Kids could find a special one of their own that their friends did not have.

Each doll also had its own specific name, and you’ve now got a toy that feels custom made for each individual.

Why Were These Things So Successful?

The customization factor is really what made these toys catch on. There’s no better way to make a kid feel special than by making them feel unique. That’s what the Cabbage Patch Kids offered: the doll you owned was unique for you, and no one else could have it.

It was a brilliant marketing strategy to create ownership. And with ownership comes a stronger connection. With other successful toys, you just grabbed one off the shelf as they were all the same. Choosing a Cabbage Patch Kid took time, thought, and consideration.

The marketing really drove home how unique the dolls were. Since there were only three networks in the 1980s, most kids watching Saturday morning cartoons knew all about them.

The commercials made them look cute, fun, and special. Kids viewing at home could envision themselves playing with them, just like the kids they were watching. This is dangerous, but effective, marketing as toy companies take advantage of kids' vulnerabilities and desires.

Children also have trouble differentiating between a TV show and a commercial, and that made the dolls even more appealing.

Eventually, regulations had to be put in place to stop the manipulation of kids by toy companies and corporations, but they had free rein in the 80s. You can read more about that here:

So now, you’ve got a unique toy, a strong desire for it from kids subject to an effective marketing campaign, and an upcoming holiday season.

The Great Cabbage Patch Kids Riots of 1983

No surprise here, but if you don’t get your toy out in time for Christmas, you’re pretty screwed. The Cabbage Patch Kids came out in the fall of 1983, and the demand was immediately through the roof.

Kids were screaming for these dolls, and no parent wanted to come up short on Christmas morning. This was genuine hype for a unique product perfectly marketed in commercials. There wasn’t the internet, blogs, Amazon reviews, or YouTube videos to create any false demand, kids just genuinely wanted it more than they wanted oxygen, just ask my sister.

The problem was that Coleco didn’t anticipate such high demand. And that’s where the problems began. Not only did they not expect the demand, but store owners didn’t either.

With so many new toys released each year, store owners can only stock a certain amount of each to cover their bases. So many toys have fallen by the wayside, so you don’t want to be stuck with excess inventory.

Many large stores were only stocking 200 to 500 dolls, max. Smaller stores only had a handful. This was the calm before the storm, but the storm was brewing.

Cabbage Patch Kids were first on every Christmas wish list that year. As people ventured out to pick up the hot toy of 1983, they would find just a few left or none at all.

The Riots Begin

Parents stop at nothing to provide for their kids, and that includes consumer goods. There seems to be a competitive aspect to this as they want to come through for their children and look like the ideal parent.

People quickly snatched up the dolls, and many showed up to find empty shelves. People would venture to other locations only to find the same issue. Parents were running into other parents facing the same problem: where the hell can I find a Cabbage Patch Kid?

At this point, news reports came out doing features on these unique new dolls and how they are the top Christmas toy of the year. This added fuel to the fire, and the craze moved into full gear.

Another enormous problem was that the media was reporting how few Cabbage Patch Kids were available. Nothing drives up demand like scarcity. This wasn’t fabricated scarcity that many companies construct in their marketing campaigns today, there genuinely weren’t many available.

Stores that had stocked 200–500 dolls were now getting thousands of customers. When new shipments finally arrived, there would be a mad scramble to get one. Some stores would only get a dozen dolls for hundreds of customers.

People began to line up outside the stores, waiting for them to open the same way they would years later on Black Friday. In Charleston, West Virginia, 5000 people showed up at a Hills Department store for only 120 dolls.

The Cabbage Patch Kids Riots Move Into Full Gear

We’re now getting into Lord of the Flies territory. Angry mobs are trying to trample their way into the stores. Regular department stores had to bring in extra security, and even police, to appease the crowds.

Some stores issued “purchase tickets” to help control the crowds. The tickets were given out to several hundred customers, but because of limited supplies, hundreds left empty-handed. There were also hundreds of customers that didn’t even get a ticket in the first place.

People were now heading to other states to try and track one down.

At this point, the news had started reporting on the riots and that always fuels mob mentality. People were now trampling, biting, kicking, and clawing to try to get the coveted doll. There were stories of people carrying baseball bats to fight off others. And it wasn’t just the customers, store managers also armed themselves for control and protection.

At this point, I don’t think parents even cared about what they were brawling for, they just wanted one for their kid. I don’t think they even knew why they were popular.

People without children saw the opportunity to get their own and sell them off at exorbitant prices, just like Dwight Shurte selling Princess Unicorn dolls on The Office.

Several news reports would interview people that said they didn’t necessarily even like them, they just feel they had to have one. Keep in mind: this isn’t a few days before Christmas, this was only late November. With Christmas rapidly approaching, Coleco could not keep up with the demand.

Stories From the Front Line

There are many stories, but one from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Pennsylvania ties in nicely with Dwight Shrute. Store managers in Wilkes-Barre, armed with bats, would remark that the shoppers were acting “like crazed maniacs.”

In Syracuse, New York, new reports would dub it the “Cabbage Patch Massacre” at the Penn-Can Mall. People were being suffocated as the crowds pushed up against unlocked doors. One lady wrote to the editor that:

“As I was lying on the floor being trampled and calling for help, I feared for my life. I arose stocking footed, face bleeding, and knees badly bruised.”

Mall Santas must have had to explain to kids why he might not be able to bring them a Cabbage Patch Kid that year. How do you explain that to a kid? Santa-believing children couldn’t understand why his magical ability couldn’t produce the toy they wanted. I guess Santa should have done more market research.

Parents interviewed also expressed the same sentiment:

“What are we supposed to tell our little girl Christmas morning? What do we say? You’ve been good, but Santa ran short.”

Radio got in on the action, too. In Milwaukee, two DJs caused more pandemonium by announcing on the radio that a B-29 bomber was going to drop dozens of Cabbage Patch Kids onto a crowd that was holding up catchers mitts and American Express cards.

Dozens of people believed it and showed up at the county stadium in deadly cold conditions. Many compared this to Orsen Welles’ War of the Worlds moment and dubbed it “War of the Cabbage Patch Kids World.”

The Riots Begin to Calm

Like every other toy and product in history, supply eventually caught up and interest went down. Stores now had hundreds of Cabbage Patch Kids — but no customers.

Stores had to cut their orders, even though they were still selling. Cabbage Patch Kids continued to sell well going into 1984 and even 1985 — but by then, they could be found everywhere. And you didn’t even need to worry about having your chest caved in by a baseball bat.

But the marketing and the hype worked, as they quickly became one of the most profitable toys in history. By the end of 1985, they had made $600 million. Converted for today, that’s nearly $1.5 billion.

Final Thoughts

Mob mentality always emerges when there’s hysteria for commercial products. The Black Friday riots we are familiar with today seem to have their roots in the Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983.

The thing is, there were never any other commercial riots on this level until Black Friday became more established. Black Friday as a retail concept arguably goes back to the early 60s, but the violence associated with it is still relatively new and seems to have taken a page from the Cabbage Patch Kids riots.

There’s just something about telling people they can’t have something. People are then willing to risk having their pelvis shattered to buy a Blu Ray player they could get the week before, or after, Black Friday. Shopping seems to have been elevated to the level of sports.

Call it survival of the fittest, or some primitive connection to scarcity, but the Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983 showed the dangers that can come from high demand and insufficient inventory.

Written by

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 80s| The Startup, The Ascent, Better Marketing/Humans, PSILY|

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