HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Eleven-year-old Erich Marino saved up his birthday money for a cool new toy: little silicone bracelets in an array of shapes that have kids from toddlers to college going bonkers around the country.
"I love these things," he said, spending about $25 of his $80 stash on several packs, including dragons and sports equipment. "We trade them at school now."
Manufacturers and shop owners said the craze is spreading so quickly that it's hard to keep up. The array – from animals and pirates, to roses and water creatures – have turned some playgrounds into swap meets. Makers are constantly thinking up new shapes and colors to keep the interest high.
The average price for a pack of 24 is $5. Once taken off the wrist, they bounce back into shape, which is another feature kids like.
Peter Rivera, owner of Patty's Hallmark in Hollywood, Fla., where Marino and his sister Isabella bought their Zanybandz, said children started asking for them in January. He sold 240 packs the first week he got them in stock and just put in an order for 1,000 packs he hopes will last a week.
"Now I am noticing kids, instead of putting them on their wrists, they are getting a necklace and putting it on their neck," Rivera said. "The kids are just going crazy for these things."
The bracelets have been banned at some schools, including Marino's, because kids snap them at each other like rubber bands and, according to his mother, teachers said they're distracting. Other parents said hard feelings over trades gone bad have led to grabbing and tears.
In Brazilian cities, a more traditional stretchy style of cheap band that comes in numerous bright colors has been banned from schools after it surfaced that they were being used to indicate sexual activity. The bracelets reportedly have been linked to a game where hugging, kissing and other acts are expected when different colored bands are broken off the wrists of teens.
Such activity involving the specially shaped bracelets in vogue now around the United States hasn't surfaced.
David Marks, who does the ordering at his wife Alice's two Learning Express stores in Connecticut, said sales have more than doubled over the last three weeks. On one Saturday alone, about 800 packs were sold between the two stores.
"Not only is it attracting a lot of kids, but its attracting kids that normally wouldn't be caught in a toy store," he said.
Marks sells the bands for $4.99 in packs of 24. There are other brands as well, including Silly Bandz, Bama Bandz and Logo Bandz, which use shapes from major sports, colleges and popular attractions and entertainments like Disney and Marvel Comics.
"It's an enormous boon to our business," he said. "It's been a tough two years, but this has resulted in business beyond my wildest imagination."
Marks compares the bracelets to the mid-'90s Beanie Babies craze. "I think its a very low tech item in a very high tech society," he said.
Robin Sayetta, vice president of licensing for the children's magazine Highlights, said the trend incorporates a lot of things children care about.
"It touches on some of the classic attributes that make kids toys appealing," she said. "Nothing lasts forever, but I think it's going to be around for a while. It's fun, they're reasonably priced, they're collectible, there's a lot of ways they can be used."
When he first sold the bracelets at his Fad Banditz kiosks, Terry Lampo in Brentwood, Tenn., figured his market was going to be elementary school girls. Turns out it's not just girls, and not just grade schoolers.
"It's very hard for me to understand it," Lampo said. "I see it as being just rubber bands."
Michael Lewis, owner of Forever Collectibles based in Edison, N.J., makes Logo Bandz. He said the craze started in America about a year ago but has been going on in Asia for several years.
"It's a very unique phenomenon. There is no marketing," he said. "I have never seen anything like it." His company is selling more than half a million packages a day – and rising.
Zanybandz bracelets are now sold to about 8,000 stores across the country, said co-owner Lori Montag, of Broken Arrow, Okla.
Chris Byrne, an independent toy analyst and content director for timetoplaymag.com, said the trend, like others, has an expiration date.
"I am willing to bet maybe the end of the summer," he said. "But it's very likely to be something else when back-to-school time comes around."
Bama Bandz: http://www.bamabandz.com/
Silly Bandz: http://www.sillybandz.com/
Forever Collectibles: http://bit.ly/9QgpFB