When the Hostess shutdown was announced and stores quickly ran out of supplies as overweight Americans hoarded processed foods the way Glenn Beck listeners hoard precious metals, Twinkies quickly started popping up on eBay — at huge premiums to their retail price.
Of course, many of the people buying up Twinkies are just Overeaters Anonymous flunk-outs; but some are, no doubt, buying them in the hope that in a few years, nostalgic adults and history buffs will give them a strong return on investment. How have past examples of discontinued foods and drinks fared as investments? Better than I’d thought! Here are a few examples:
- New Coke, Coca-Cola’s 1985 effort to change the formula that had made it one of the most valuable brands in the history of the world, is a universal symbol of the problems that come when market research takes over common sense. Consumers were outraged and 400,000 letters poured into the company’s headquarters, including one politely requesting the CEO’s signature on the grounds that the autograph of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history” would surely one day have value. New Coke was quickly discontinued but has been the topic of numerous academic papers, parodies and cultural references. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the New Coke failure in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. But 27 years after the flop, it’s the people who bought and hoarded the cans who are looking smart: an unopened can of New Coke recently sold for $39.99 on eBay; assuming the can cost 50 cents, that would give the buyer an annualized return on investment of close to 18% in the 27 years since New Coke launched — beating just about every professional money manager in the world (and shares of the Coca-Cola Co.) by investing in failure.
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- There’s been no official announcement that Post’s Waffle Crisp cereal has been discontinued, but it’s no longer available in most stores — and diehards are routinely paying $15 per box for it on eBay.
- When President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy wasn’t busy losing his bid to become mayor of Plains, Ga., or embarrassing the President with drunken antics and a bizarre Libyan influence-peddling effort that led to a Senate investigation, he was a bit of an entrepreneur. In 1977, he introduced Billy Beer, with his own endorsement on each can: “I had this beer brewed up just for me. I think it’s the best I ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot. I think you’ll like it, too.” The beer was discontinued shortly thereafter, and Carter had no choice but to sell his house to cover an IRS debt. While the opened cans were saved in huge quantities and have little value, an unopened six-pack recently sold for $22.49.
- Orbitz, a soda introduced in 1997 by the Clearly Canadian Beverage Corp., was revolutionary because it contained little floating balls that gave it kind of a cool space-age look. The drink was discontinued quickly because it tasted terrible, and the company’s domain name was sold to the travel agency of the same name. But Orbitz has found a second life on eBay: a set of five unopened bottles recently sold for $46.10 with six bids.
- Remember Hi-C Ecto Cooler? Me neither. But apparently it was introduced in 1994 as part of an X-Men promotion, and depending on the character, it can sell for a lot of money — like $47.46 for a used juice box. Americans: interesting folks!
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- Licensing characters popular with children is big business because children are stupid and easy to sell garbage to. The result of this is a lot of weird products — including the Nintendo Cereal System, which contained two kinds of cereal! In one box! One for Zelda and one for Mario! An empty box from 1990 recently sold for $87.
- And finally, one last failed Coca-Cola product: Surge, which was based on a Norwegian drink called Urge, was Coke’s 1997 effort to match the success Pepsi was having with Mountain Dew. It didn’t work, and the drink was dumped in 2003. A full can recently sold for $56.