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December 05, 2016

'Hatchimals' buying binge turns into family's financial nightmare

Toys Holiday Shopping
Hatchimals Courtesy of Sara Gruen/for PhillyVoice

Sara Gruen purchased 156 'Hatchimals' as a way to raise money for a criminal defendant who she says is wrongfully incarcerated. Now, she faces the nightmare of online-retailer restrictions governing the sales of popular Christmas toys.

As soon as Sara Gruen’s husband showed her what “Hatchimals” were, she saw this year’s Cabbage Patch Kid, Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, Teddy Ruxpin, Beanie Baby and every other must-have Christmas present rolled into one.

Judging by the public’s reaction thus far this shopping season – parents scrambling to get their hands on the $59.99 spotted eggs with creatures inside that were selling out and facing substantial markups online – her “Spidey sense” served her well.

So, she did what anybody with a nose for fundraising and the patience for online auctions would do the day after Black Friday: She bought 156 of them.

Gruen – a New York Times best-selling author from Asheville, N.C. – wasn’t looking to turn a profit. 

She planned to use the proceeds to help fund the defense of “an innocent man who’d run out of options while serving life without parole.”

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She can’t say much about the case, beyond the fact that she’s working on a “Making A Murderer”-type docuseries about a man for whom she’s already racked up $150,000 in debt working on his behalf. She said everybody who pays attention to that legal genre will soon know his name. You can't put a price on righting legal wrongs, she said.

Sure, spending $23,595.31 on toys – at an average price of $151 and change – may strike people as an insane idea. Considering their resale-market value, though, the idea makes sense.

“It never occurred to me that I’d have trouble getting rid of them,” she recalled over the phone on Monday. “They were already selling at double, triple the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but I figured I could sell them at a profit and put a dent in the extremely hefty lawyers' fees.”

That's the type of thing that tends to happen when manufacturers can't keep up with demand, and post disclaimers on their websites saying they're sold out for now, but that "we have increased production and a whole new batch of Hatchimals will be ready to hatch in early 2017."

At the end of her four-day purchase binge, she learned some harsh realities about listing numerous toys-of-the-season for sale on websites like eBay, Amazon and Bonanza.

“It never occurred to me that I’d have trouble getting rid of them.” – Sara Gruen

It was around 2 a.m. when she got a message from eBay that sent her into a world of Hatchimal-related nightmares.

“Thank you for listing Hatchimals!” it read. “This item has limitations on the quantity that may be listed each week. You’ve reached this limit and will not be able to list at this time. You will be able to list another Hatchimals seven days after your LAST Hatchimals listing.”

That message arrived after listing just three of her 156 items. At that rate, she’d be able to sell another nine before Christmas.

Courtesy of Sara Gruen/for PhillyVoice

Sara Gruen's home is now a warehouse for the popular Christmas item, Hatchimals.

“It felt like I got hit with a freight train. I waited until the next morning to tell my husband that I’d completely ruined us,” she said. “He should have murdered me. I ran up the credit cards for this. But, he feels sorry for me. He feels bad that I feel bad. I married a saint.”

That eBay dead-end was followed by similar responses from other online sales websites that couched it as a way to prevent counterfeiters and people selling items they didn’t actually have.

She said site representatives told her that she’d need a letter from the manufacturers or other documents (not including receipts from the eBay sellers from whom she purchased them in the first place) since she didn’t have a history with those sites.

“I told them, ‘Look, this is who I am and this is what I’m using the money for,’” she said. “How am I supposed to have a history of selling Hatchimals when nobody will let me sell them?”

Now, she's having nightmares about the creatures (like, all of them hatching at midnight, or children sneaking in and activating them all). That could be inspired by the fact that her place is a mess with Hatchimal boxes and bubble wrap everywhere.

"There's a bunch of boxes on the porch right now," she said. "Another 63 haven't arrived yet."

Despite her fears that friends would see her message as spam, she wrote an in-depth explanation of this debacle on Facebook on Monday afternoon.

It was her way of mitigating the damage through a Shopify storefront, and parents who read this story in pursuit of buying hard-to-find Hatchimals for their kids are advised to read it. (And yes, there's still a mark-up.)

“So – and here I cringe and hang my head in shame and feel sick to my stomach — if you or anyone you know wants a Hatchimal, here is a link to my Shopify storefront,” she wrote. “I have a fortune invested, only one venue to offload them, and in only three weeks they will magically transform into useless pumpkins that will take up space in my office forever, and have caused my financial ruin.”