Aaryn Costello is searching for the perfect dress, a 30-inch-long light-blue number with a sparkly bodice and a detachable white cape. That would be the Elsa dress from the Walt Disney (DIS) hit Frozen, the most sought-after fashion item among the kindergarten set. Many stores are sold out, and limited-edition versions originally sold by Disney have been offered for up to $1,600 on EBay (EBAY). Desperate parents are sewing their own or shelling out up to $225 for replicas on craft sites such as etsy.com. “Every mom in the world is dying for this dress,” says Costello, a Los Angeles marketing consultant with a Frozen-obsessed 4-year-old.
Toys, dolls, and clothes have always been a big part of strategy at Disney, the world’s largest licensing company. Even so, it’s hit an unexpected merchandise jackpot with Elsa, the Snow Queen of Arendelle, and her ice gown. “It took everyone by surprise worldwide,” says Stephen Berman, chief executive officer at Jakks Pacific (JAKK), a manufacturer that sells to chains such as Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and Target (TGT). “This is a new Disney princess franchise. It happens maybe once or twice in a business career.” In January, stores sold out of Jakks’s version—price, $20—and some retailers are ponying up to airlift reinforcements from Chinese factories.
Buyers stocked only about as many of the ice gowns as they did Rapunzel outfits from Disney’s 2010 Tangled. But since its Nov. 22 opening, Frozen has become the top-grossing animated film of all time, with worldwide theater receipts of $1.1 billion, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. “We are thrilled that audiences formed instant connections to the characters, and we are working hard to get additional products into stores as soon as possible,” wrote Tasia Filippatos, a Disney spokeswoman, in an e-mail. When shipments do come in, Disney stores limit customers to two dresses to curb black market sales. Filippatos declined to comment on the size of the Frozen merchandise market.
Early on, Elsa dress sales were slow, and stores thought they’d over-ordered. Then kids fell in love with the movie princess. As sales climbed and orders poured in after Christmas, Jakks had trouble restocking because of the Chinese New Year, which shut down manufacturing for a month until mid-February. It takes two to three months for retailers to receive new shipments from China, according to Jim Silver, editor of TTPM.com, a toy industry website. Demand picked up again in March when Disney issued the film on DVD. Berman says Jakks will roll out new merchandise this year, including Frozen-themed furniture and snow-cone machines. He also expects Elsa and Olaf, the snowman from the movie, to be top Halloween costumes.
Disney designers created fancier versions of the dress priced from $50 to $150 for sale at the company’s stores and parks. The sought-after limited edition, which has a white cape and a bejeweled cameo, is fetching top dollar online. Costello, the L.A. mother searching for the dress, says her daughter got an Elsa nightgown for Christmas and wears it every day—even to the park. Costello’s holding out for the limited edition of the ice gown. “I, of course,” she says, “want the real deal.”