Before computers, kids turned to catalogs to escape. Some sifted through the latest offerings from American Girl instead of doing their homework. Around the holidays, they made wish lists based off the latest mailer from Toys R Us (RIP). Preteens did all their shopping through the pages of Delia’s. Others anticipated that flimsy pamphlet schools gave out before book fairs.
But if you wanted the ultimate inspiration or to be distracted for hours, you turned to the king of all catalogs, the one everyone seemed to receive but didn’t know they subscribed to, the tome that took days to get through: Oriental Trading, dubbed “the leading multichannel retailer and (eventual) online destination for value-priced party supplies, arts and crafts, toys and novelties, school supplies, educational games and patient giveaways.” You could find everything from party favors like slap bracelets to room decor like lava lamps — and you still can for the most part.
Founded in 1932 by Harry Watanabe originally as a wholesaler, Oriental Trading catalogs didn’t start hitting homes until the 1980s. Things really picked up in the ’90s, which isn’t hard to believe for those of us who were in our youth during that decade, since we couldn’t go to anyone’s house without seeing one.
“The 1990s were a time of big growth for us,” Oriental Trading’s president and CEO Steve Mendlik tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Catalog shopping was at its prime.” This was when best friend heart necklaces were the only way to express friendship, Koosh balls were annoying parents everywhere, leis were essential to any birthday party (even if they weren’t Hawaiian-themed), and going to the dentist meant getting a lot of really random tiny toys. And Oriental Trading was responsible for all of that.
“In the’90s, the hot items were Koosh balls (porcupine balls, as we call them), smiley face anything, hemp necklaces, Fimo clay beads, clackers, bubble necklaces, friendship bracelets, Hacky Sacks, putty/slime, sticky hands, disc shooters, peace and yin yang signs,” Mendlik recalls. “Wow — all a blast from the past!”
Yep. We had all those.
Even though many of them, including smiley faces and glow necklaces, were still hot items for Oriental Trading in 2017 (along with spinners, of course), we had completely forgotten about half the things on that list until now.
That’s what happens when you grow up. You move on from clay beads to crystal ones. We’re more likely to be sifting through dating apps than crafts catalogs or websites. Many former fans have children now, and for them, the brand has reappeared. But in speaking to some parents for whom this is true, it’s clear that in the age of Amazon, Oriental Trading doesn’t stand a chance as just a tchotchke seller.
Oriental Trading did some growing too, though. During the company’s journey, it hit major milestones, like becoming one of the top 100 online retailers, top 20 internet retailers for customer satisfaction, and top 10 for mobile customer satisfaction. But with the successes came setbacks. The 2008 recession hit the company hard, and it filed for bankruptcy in 2010. “The bankruptcy restructuring story really is more about the amount of debt on the business at the time than it was about business performance,” Mendlik says. “The business was certainly impacted by the recession, but with no debt, or even less debt, the business would have been able to navigate the recession without a restructuring.”
According to the Washington Post, Oriental Trading’s debt was estimated at nearly $700 million. And while Mendlik insists every decade has seen growth for the company, there’s no doubt those years reflect the fact that you haven’t thought about the catalog company in a long time. That, and the fact that kids became much more interested in video games and iPhones, which the company does not sell.
But the company’s emergence from that bankruptcy seven months later was pretty miraculous. “Oriental Trading emerged from Chapter 11 with a significantly improved capital structure and strong liquidity, having reduced its debt by nearly 70 percent,” Digital Commerce 360 reported in 2011.
“Our company came out of that much stronger,” Mendlik shares with Yahoo Lifestyle. He credits this makeover with getting the attention of Berkshire Hathaway — it was looking so good that even Warren Buffett wanted a piece.
So, his company bought Oriental Trading in 2012, and it’s been bliss ever since. Mendlik calls it a “historical moment for the company.”
The purchase didn’t really change the way the company operates; like many of Berkshire Hathaway’s brands including Dairy Queen, Oriental Trading still functions like the family-owned business it started as. “Warren likes to give his companies the autonomy to run them like a family business,” says Mendlik. “The purchase was extremely positive for our company and employees as a whole. It gave us the stability and pride of being owned by a company with strong roots and an impeccable reputation. It allows us the resources of one of the world’s largest public companies, yet we are encouraged to be entrepreneurial with an owner-operator mindset.”
From the outside, things look the same; they are still sending out Oriental Trading catalogs filled with dress-up accessories and party favors. “Today, our sales are primary through the website, but we still use our catalogs as a tool for marketing to our customers,” Mendlik notes.
But behind those reliably colorful and packed pages, the company has been very busy. In 2013, it acquired MindWare, a manufacturer, wholesaler, and direct retailer of educational toys and games. The following year, it acquired SmileMakers, a direct retailer of patient giveaways for dentists and doctors. These acquisitions have ultimately helped Oriental Trading expand its reach.
That still wouldn’t be enough to compete with the needs and interests of today’s population. So, the company continued to expand; last year was an exciting period full of launches that have the power to bring Oriental Trading back onto the playing field.
E-tailers like Etsy and sites like Pinterest have heightened the DIY and handmade craze. In tune with the trends, Oriental Trading launched Fun365, which puts together thousands of creative and cute DIY projects and content in one easy-to-find place. “And unlike other DIY sites, each project is accompanied by a digital shopping list that allows visitors to easily purchase everything for the project in one step, eliminating the need to shop across multiple sites and stores,” the brand brags. And it’s a good point. No one wants a zillion tabs open just to create a handmade “rosé all day bridal shower” or no-dye gold leaf Easter eggs.
Then there’s Custom365, which is sort of another piece of this party-planning puzzle. This section offers value-priced, custom-made apparel for any group and every occasion.
If you’re engaged, you may have noticed another catalog that constantly finds its way to your doorstep called Marry Me. Does it look familiar? That’s because Oriental Trading launched Marry Me in 2017. “We have successfully sold wedding supplies for many years, but as we analyzed our website search from brides-to-be, we realized customers were looking for even more items than what we offered,” Mendlik explains. “That ultimately led to our decision to launch our Marry Me brand, catering directly to these customers with the latest on-trend wedding products at affordable prices. We have an in-house product design team that is staying on top of, and ahead of, all the styles, themes, and trends brides are wanting, and they’re creating exclusive products specifically for our brand.”
Many of Marry Me’s items look like they could be sold on Etsy or placed on the tables at a barn-chic wedding, including the gold wooden calligraphy table numbers, candy buffet accessories, and gold-flecked mason jars. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t impressed by the quality and style of most of the wedding products — after all, these are the people who supplied us with those plastic blow-up guitars. Staying true to its roots, though, there are of course kitschy items like diamond rings keychains and cardboard glitter chandeliers, which make for great bachelorette party accessories.
“A young child of the ’90s who knew and loved Oriental Trading may not have interacted with our brand in their young adult years but is now getting reacquainted with the brand as they plan their wedding or begin planning parties for their own children,” Mendlik says of how special it is to be one of those brands that evokes feeling of nostalgia.
During the emotional roller coaster of wedding planning and becoming a parent, it’s nice to have an old friend back.
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