The buzz around hoverboards, or “self-balancing scooters,” has been building momentum at just the right time to make them a highly sought after, though still pricey, holiday gift this year.
But don’t expect to easily find them on the shelves of your local big box store before Christmas.
While retailers have been hustling to capitalize on the craze, they have been slowed down as they wade through patent disputes, a wide array of products flooding the market including copycats of questionable quality, and more basic things such as being able to secure enough stock for the holidays.
The curious contraptions, a sort of modern spin on skateboards, are two-wheeled, battery-powered vehicles similar to a Segway but without any handles. Despite the name, they don’t levitate. Hoverboards first started popping up earlier this year at such trade shows as the Consumer Electronics Show and the annual toy fair in New York.
They have been on a meteoric rise since then as they were quickly adopted as a quirky and cool accessory of celebrities. The rapper Wiz Khalifa made headlines when he was arrested for riding one at the Los Angeles airport over the summer. Justin Bieber has posted videos of himself doing spins on a hoverboard on his Instagram account. And Jamie Foxx rolled onto the “Tonight Show” on one and let a wobbly Jimmy Fallon try it out, too.
Some of the first, more well-known models such as IO Hawk and PhunkeeDuck sell for upward of a $1,500. But now there are lots of knockoffs and lower-priced versions available for less than half that price.
The fact that there’s not a single major brand in the marketplace makes it more challenging for retailers to immediately hop on the trend, said Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant. And with some reports of some cheaper versions catching on fire in England when left plugged in overnight, retailers are likely t o be a bit more cautious in wanting to wait for some safety testing and quality control.
On top of that, there are ongoing disputes over patents. Most prominently, billionaire Mark Cuban had threatened to sue companies that might infringe on the patent of one of the hoverboard companies he was backing. But the situation has been rapidly changing. Cuban told BuzzFeed about a week ago that he’s planning to make his own boards, especially amid safety concerns.
“It’s an obvious opportunity, but there’s also a lot of liability for this particular craze,” Spieckerman said. “No retailer wants to be the one who had the hoverboard incident, whether that’s a safety issue or a high-profile legal case.”
After being uncertain for weeks whether it will have hoverboards in time for this holiday, Target started selling one model, the Swagway, on its website for $500 last week. The Minneapolis-based retailer likely won’t have them in stores until next year.
“This is a hot item for the holiday season, and we needed to find a vendor that could provide us with adequate inventory,” said Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman.
Richfield-based Best Buy plans to sell a hoverboard in a limited quantity online, as well as in some of its warmer-weather stores by early December. The electronics retailer didn’t disclose which brand it will carry. Brookstone sells the Hovertrax for $1,000. And Kohl’s has listed one model from the Sharper Image as a Black Friday deal for $369.
Wal-Mart initially told BuzzFeed it expected them to be a hot seller and would sell them online this holiday season, but the world’s largest retailer later said it will not have them in time. Some are available via third-party sellers on the marketplace portion of Wal-Mart’s website, a company spokeswoman noted.
Toys ‘R’ Us also vacillated on availability in recent weeks. It announced last week that it will have a “limited number” of $800 Razor Hovertrax on its website starting around Dec. 1.
Hoverboards are being sold online on sites like Amazon as well as at mall kiosks. They also showed up in one somewhat unlikely place — Eden Prairie-based Evine Live. The home-shopping network, a third place competitor to HSN and QVC that previously went by the names ShopHQ and ShopNBC, started selling the Swagway last month for $400. It often sells out when it features them on the air, but customers can still place orders for them on its website.
“This by far the most exciting item we’ve jumped on that is a ‘now’ item,” said Mark Bozek, the company’s chief executive, who has been pushing the network to be more relevant with its merchandising. “They are an incredibly hot product. We’re selling them in a big way.”
Hoverboards have been a good fit for Evine Live because on-air demonstrations of them make for good TV. And the company’s business model allows it to move much more quickly than big box stores since EvineLive can get a new product on the air within a week without the risk of being stuck with a large inventory if sales later slide, he said.
Bozek learned how to ride the Swagway himself and has rolled through the company’s call center, cafeteria and studios on one. Many of the network’s high-profile on-air guests have tried them out backstage, too.
“I had Lisa Vanderpump on it in heels,” he said, referring to the star of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” who sells an exclusive jewelry line on Evine Live. “Once you master the mounting and dismounting, it’s great fun.”
The Mall of America in Bloomington has two popular hoverboard kiosks — Galaxy Scooters and Glydboard — that draw crowds when employees ride around on them.
Isaac Berdugo, a Florida businessman opened the Glydboard kiosk near the Apple Store last month to hawk his hoverboard, which is priced from $650 to $800. He sold the 70 units he had in stock within the first two weeks. “We didn’t know it was going to sell out so fast,” he said. “The mall kind of got upset at us.”
A new shipment arrived last week, though they weren’t branded with the company’s logo. Branded boards should arrive soon, he said. He added that the manufacturer he works with in China has its own patent for the boards.
There are a lot of boards on Amazon and eBay that look the same. Berdugo said some companies use cheaper materials for wheels, batteries and plugs. “You use it for a week or two and it breaks down,” he said.
For a smoother riding experience, he recommends consumers opt for bigger wheels. He noted that his 8-inch wheel model has been selling better than the 6.5-inch option.
“When you go on the sidewalks, you can take bigger bumps,” he said.