Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

The Great Hot Wheels Famine of 2021

The PopCulteer
December 31, 2021

We’re going to end the strange year of 2021 with a rather strange story.

There is currently a Hot Wheels famine afflicting the country.

America’s best-selling toy (almost half a billion units moved each year) started  seriously disappearing from the shelves of Walmart and Target about a month ago. At first, this was isolated to specific regions, but by the week before Christmas, the nation’s two top toy-sellers were virtually uncontaminated by basic Hot Wheels cars.  Some collectors on message boards have even observed shortages going back several months.

The reasons why are probably predictable, but still complex.  Part of it has to do with the supply chain, and the backlog of cargo ships at our country’s docks.  Also Mattel had streamlined production and closed four factories due to the bankruptcy of Toys R Us, but they then got hit by an unprecedented increase in demand during the pandemic as parents bought their kids more games and toys to keep them from going crazy during the lockdown.  They were caught off guard, and shipping delays actually started happening in 2020.

However, it’s not just a case of Mattel cutting production or failing to find raw materials. What’s happened is that Hot Wheels, despite being a huge seller, go for such a low retail price (usually 94 cents to a dollar) that they aren’t terribly profitable per unit. Add to that the licensed toys that Mattel makes, which contractually have to be on store shelves by a certain time, and it makes Hot Wheels even less of a priority when it comes time to decide with boat to unload first.

Mattel also made the decision to focus on high-ticket items at the expense of their lower-priced offerings, and that pushed basic Hot Wheels even further to the back of the line.

Taken en masse, Hot Wheels bring in big money for Mattel and their retailers, but when you’re unloading stuff at the docks and you have your choice between a boatload of iPhones, or a boatload of Hot Wheels, it’s easy to figure out which product is going to get the priority treatment. Reports of basic Hot Wheels assortments showing up weeks or even months late started surfacing in May, but it didn’t really become a widespread issue until late November.

The collectors noticed the problem long before then, but probably 95% of Hot Wheels are sold to kids (or their parents). It became a real problem as Christmas neared because Hot Wheels are one of the most popular items to put in a kid’s stocking.

One interesting facet of this shortage is that it lets us get an idea just how big the Hot Wheels distribution pipeline is. Multiple reports say that Mattel has not delivered any new basic Hot Wheels to retailers since last August.  Yet it took until November for most people to really notice the dearth of new product.

I should point out that, so far, this Hot Wheels shortage is mainly hitting Walmart and Target. Locally I’ve been able to find Hot Wheels in the last week at Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar and Kroger.  In particular, the Dunbar Kroger has so many Hot Wheels on hand (some dating back four years) that they have some displayed in the frozen food aisle.

Hot Wheels are still out there, if you know where to look. They aren’t the latest assortments, but they are there to be had.

The question is, how long will it take for this shortage to be allieviated? That’s not something I’ve figured out yet. There could very likely be tens of millions of Hot Wheels sitting on cargo ships at our docks now, just waiting patiently to be unloaded and whisked off to warehouses and then to retailers across the country. This is something that might be back to normal in two weeks, or in two or three months. Maybe even longer.

The backlog at the docks has been largely eliminated (thanks to our new and very competent president), but that doesn’t change the fact that Hot Wheels are not exactly a priority for the folks in charge of determining what ship gets unloaded next and which trucks get sent to which warehouses.

Yet the supply chain is not the only issue at hand here.

The Hot Wheels scalpers, one of the lowest forms of humanity to be found outside of the world of politics, got wind of the shortages early, and started buying up every Hot Wheels car they could find with the goal of gouging desperate parents during the holidays.  A lot of these folks will likely be attempting to return their unsold stock early in the new year, and if they are successful, retailers will likely be restocking their shelves with the returns, most of which will have creases or minor knicks on the cards so that they’ll be less valuable.

It’d be great if Walmart and Target refused to accept returns of more than two Hot Wheels cars per day, just to punish these evil people. Make ’em spend a small fortune in gas to return all the cars they stripped from the shelves. I have long ago given up any hope of anything like this ever happening but it’s a nice pipe dream.

What will be interesting when they do get the distribution kinks ironed out will be if Mattel takes advantage of the pent-up demand and the (largely-exaggerated by the press) inflation story to raise the price of Hot Wheels up to $1.25.  It’s not the kind of price increase that’s going to kill anyone, and it’d probably put around another dime per unit in Mattel’s coffers (which adds up when you sell half a billion units per year), so they might try to break the one-dollar barrier that keeps Hot Wheels such a “hot” seller. They can always drop the price later if consumers resist the move.

I’m just hoping that the scalpers, collectors and regular customers can ride this out without losing their cool. If “making a scene” in the Hot Wheels aisle becomes as common as it did with folks buying Pokemon and Baseball cards earlier this year, we might see Target and Walmart decide to dump Hot Wheels all together.  However, at the moment, they make much, much more money on Hot Wheels than they do on trading cards, so that isn’t terribly likely. It is not outside the realm of possibility though.

In a world where we can see a shortage of toilet paper as a reaction to a pandemic, anything can happen.

That is our big year-ending PopCulteer column. It’s a weird pop culture phenomenon that will likely be completely forgotten in six months or a year, but I felt it was worth pointing out. Thanks for making 2021 our biggest full year since we left the Gazette-Mail.  Now, it was also our first full year since leaving the Gazette-Mail, but thanks anyway. Check back for fresh content every day. We’ll see you next year.

Oh and if you like Disco music, tune in to The AIR starting at 7 PM Friday for a 29-hour marathon of Mel Larch’s MIRRORBALL!


  1. Thomas Wheeler

    I will say that before the “big two” were completely wiped out of Hot Wheels around here, I saw a smattering of 2022 cars, distinguishable by the fact that the logo on the package card is somewhat larger and runs off both sides of the card. I doubt these were intended to be put out as early as August, so SOME stuff was getting through, but otherwise — yeah, this has been a serious fiasco.

  2. Patricia Darling Atkission

    I was in a hardware type store a couple weeks ago and they had 6 boxes of the 2018, 50 vehicle box. I looked at them and each box seemed to be unopened. One had a few small dirty spots, apparently from being set on a dirty shelf. The owner said they had been there for a year or so.

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