Image: Shutterstock

Inside the Fidget Spinner Gold Rush

How spinning toys took over China’s factories overnight.

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May 10 2017, 7:11pm

Image: Shutterstock

In April, smartphone repair shop owner Michael Oberdick sold roughly 20,000 fidget spinners. He just ordered more from a supplier in China, but he'll have to wait.

"They're easy to get but it often takes a lot of time because they're so backed up," he told me. "I placed an order for 10,000 spinners eight days ago and I couldn't get them right away because someone else had just placed an order for 2 million, so they jumped to the front of the line."

Over the last month or so, the spinning toys have gone from an elementary-school fad to a nationwide obsession. Unlike many other toy crazes, fidget spinners offer a wild-wild west for global capitalists looking to cash in on the craze. For one, there are no patents or trademarks to worry about infringing, so any factory can spew them out by the thousands. They're cheap to make and buy, so there's little risk in investing in, say, 500 or 1,000 of them. And unlike hoverboards, the craze that Chinese factories were cranking out last year, they aren't going to explode or catch fire.

"I'm selling a couple thousand a week just walking around and asking stores if they want them"

"Anyone who has them can get rid of them," Oberdick, who owns the Bowling Green, Ohio-based smartphone repair company iOutlet and accessories and parts wholesaler Elevate Supply said. "I've been wholesaling to gas stations, Verizon chains, to people who are selling them out of the back of their cars. We've cut spending in other areas of our repair business to buy spinners. It's much easier than selling iPhone parts and other repairs."

According to wholesalers in China and in the United States, many of the factories in China that traditionally have made smartphone cases and accessories have essentially shut down those operations to focus on fidget spinners full-time.

A fidget spinner price list from a wholesaler in Shenzhen.

Mandy Xiao, a Shenzhen-based representative for Shenzhen LTS Technology, which wholesales iPhone screens and accessories, told me that fidget spinners have recently become a huge part of the company's business. The company sells 25 different types of fidget spinners (glow in the dark, LED lighting, metal, camouflage, Batman, etc) with a minimum order quantity of 100 units, starting at $1.10 a piece. She said that many factories had stopped production of other products to pump out fidget spinners.

Sunny Lin, who has a smartphone repair shop on St. Marks Place in Manhattan and a direct line to wholesalers and factories in China, says he doesn't even bother selling fidget spinners in his store—instead, he just walks up and down the streets of Manhattan hawking them to bodegas.

"Anyone who sells iPhone screens knows the same people who can buy spinners by the hundreds or thousands"

"The molds are really easy to make, so every factory that does plastic is making these," he told me. "If you're a small or mid-sized factory you can make the molds on the fly and make 10,000 of them the next day."

"My supplier says they're 25 cents to make, more or less," he added. "I get them for 60 cents and sell them for 85 cents wholesale. I'm selling a couple thousand a week just walking around and asking stores if they want them."

There are lots of people in the United States importing fidget spinners en masse, but I noticed that, in particular, the smartphone repair community has recently become obsessed with the craze. That's because many independent repair shop owners regularly deal with importing iPhone parts and accessories from China's grey market. It's easy, then, to have a supplier add 100 or 1,000 fidget spinners to normal parts shipments.

"Anyone who sells iPhone screens knows the same people who can buy spinners by the hundreds or thousands," Oberdick said.

Oberdick says he's paying between 90 cents and $2 a piece per spinner and tries to make a profit of about $2 per spinner on wholesale orders and $8 per spinner on retail sales. He says the product has been so profitable that he plans on donating much of the money he makes in May to nonprofits.

Smartphone repair shop forums and Facebook groups have been flooded with spinner advertising advice, wholesaling tips, and sourcing information. Even companies that haven't suddenly made spinners their focus have dipped their toes into retailing them as a marketing tool.

"I ordered 325 of them and got them last Wednesday. By Sunday I had sold out. I got 500 more and I'm planning on ordering another 2,000 of them," Nick Travali, founder of Smartphone Fix in Santa Maria, California, told me. "We get them for $1.50-$2 per piece, sell them for $8. We have people coming in for the spinners and saying, 'Wow, I didn't know you guys were here.' The Spinner is a fad but in the end they're going to come back to you for repair or accessories."

Stocking spinners is even easier than stocking iPhone parts, which can be of varying quality—and it's much easier than cashing in on last year's hoverboard craze.

"I had hoverboards and I knew which ones would explode and which wouldn't," said Pedro Ferrer, owner of TechRX in Macon, Georgia who started selling spinners after his teenage daughters told him that they kids they were babysitting for were going nuts for them. "These spinners have been huge for me, with all the kids dragging in their parents, who then learn that they can get their iPhone battery replaced or something."

With so much money exchanging hands, I wondered why any of the people I spoke with would want to give away their business secrets and pricing strategy. Each of them came to the same conclusion: The fidget spinner fad won't last forever, but for now it's so easy to sell them that it almost doesn't matter how many competitors enter the market.

"There's enough business to go around," Oberdick said. "Everybody should be doing it. We've sold so many and I can't bring them in as fast as I can sell them so it doesn't really matter who knows at this point."