Hess Toy Trucks Celebrate 50 Years

Nostalgia keeps sales brisk as the toy marks its 50th anniversary

At 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving, James Galdo and his 22-year-old son made their annual trip to a Hess gas station on New York’s Long Island to buy the oil company’s latest holiday toy truck. It marked the end of an era for Galdo, who owns each retail toy truck Hess has produced since 1964, and the end of an almost 50-year family tradition. Come next year, the ritual of heading to a local Hess station will be replaced with a visit to Hess’s website. Hess’s toy truck business is moving online following the sale last spring of the New York-based energy company’s stations.

Hess has made more than 1 million trucks a year over the past decade, up from about 150,000 when the program started in 1964. The trucks typically sell out by Christmas.

“I think there’s an urgency that Hess creates in shoppers,” says Tim Walsh, a toy designer in Sarasota, Fla. “Certainly a million or a million and a half a year is a very healthy number. If that was a new Tonka truck or a new Hot Wheels from Mattel, it would get noticed.”

Company founder Leon Hess conceived of the toy truck program to market Hess gas stations and thank customers during the holidays. The first truck, which featured working headlights and taillights, cost $1.29; this year’s model, a flatbed truck that comes with a space cruiser, is on sale for $29.99.

“It’s about parents and grandparents passing on that fond memory,” says Richard Gottlieb, chief executive officer of Global Toy Experts, a consulting firm in New York. “It sells well because it’s a well-remembered brand.”

Galdo, 50, was introduced to the trucks by his father, who used to take him to a Hess station each Thanksgiving morning, the day the new models were released. He estimates he’s spent about $10,000 on his truck collection. In 1993 he paid $1,500 to a diesel fuel dealer in Queens, N.Y., for a limited-edition truck. Galdo covets a rare model made for employees of Amerada Petroleum when Hess bought the company in 1969; he says he would be willing to pay as much as $2,500 for it, if one were available.

Earlier this year, Hess agreed to sell its 1,342 gas stations, which span the East Coast, to Marathon Petroleum for $2.8 billion. The deal closed in October, and all the stations will be rebranded over the next three years. Hess immediately reassured collectors that it would still make and sell the toys, “as a gesture of goodwill” to customers, says Justin Mayer, general manager of the toy truck program. Hess will continue to design the trucks in New York and make them in China.

Hess started selling some trucks on the Web in 2012. On Oct. 2, for the 50th anniversary of the program, it issued a limited-edition collector’s tanker, available online only, for $45.99. The truck, evoking an earlier era when the toy trucks closely resembled vehicles in the Hess fleet, sold out before Thanksgiving.

“I know we have customers who will buy them online every year,” Mayer says. “When the stores are gone, we’ll see how much the demand migrates online.”

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