Before eBay founder Pierre Omidyar became a self-made billionaire, he was auctioning off a broken laser pointer on the internet. He’d bought it for business presentations but wound up repurposing it as a cat toy before its untimely bust. Then, he traded the inoperative laser pointer for $14.83, making it the site’s first-ever sale.
Fast-forward 20 years, and not much has changed; eBay still hawks a lot of broken merchandise: potentially refurbishable electronics, fluidless disposable lighters, “as is” antiques looking for a new lease on life. No matter how absurd, faulty or shattered the item, there’s a buyer.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise to stumble on a seller offering up bulk orders of wholesale, misprinted beer koozies, available in sets ranging from 100 to 5,000 a piece. Granted, some would have spelling errors, explained the listing, others crooked text and nearly all of them an affiliation with a person or business that we’d never heard of. But, at less than 15 cents a pop for a set of 500, it was a pretty sweet deal (excess be damned!) especially considering that a single cat koozie can sell for nearly 100 times that much.
Over the past three decades, koozies—or “beer huggers,” “stubby holders,” “coolies” or even “candoms,” as they’re sometimes known—have established themselves as highly impactful and cheap-to-produce modes of advertising. They are, in fact, so effective that in 2009, Heineken’s sponsorship of the Austin City Limits Music Festival was unofficially usurped by a local brewery, Shiner, when they handed out no fewer than 10,000 custom-printed beer sleeves to concert-goers, effectively splashing their own name and logo over the beer giant’s cans. So ubiquitous is the koozie that it’s even made its way into national politics: Nearly every one of the candidates in the 2016 American presidential election has sold koozies as part of their campaign swag (see: “Chillary Clinton“) offering voters a chance to wrap their politics snugly around a well-chilled brew.
But it’d seem, at least according to eBay, that there’s something so inherently pleasing about the koozie that it goes beyond personal branding; our eBay seller reports having sold a whopping 500,000 misprinted koozies in bulk packs to customers presumably like us, who don’t really care what’s written on the piece as long as it performs at summer barbecues.
“The listing says it all. They are what they are,” wrote the Texas-based seller, promptly dismissing our requests for information as to how they happened upon this typographically defective jackpot. (For what it’s worth, they’re also selling a 10,000-gallon military-grade water bladder, a robust selection of bank deposit money bags and, rather ironically, a copy of the 1998 film, Knock Off, which feels darkly apropos.)
To get a sense of the more licit koozie market, we called on an expert, Bob Liddle, who co-owns North Carolina-based Kustom Koozies with his wife, Julie (and often sends his misprints to troops overseas, rather than peddling them on the web).
“Weddings . . . represent about sixty percent of our business,” says Liddle, noting the steady market for bachelor and bachelorette party koozies, too, as well as those for birthdays and graduations. More surprising, though, is the growing market for funeral koozies (often bearing the deceased’s “favorite team, picture of a motorcycle, their boat, something that is important to them,” says Liddle) and those for fantasy leagues, as vouched for by Twitter.
Fittingly, Liddle himself is really into koozies. Catch him without one, and you’ll get a $100 reward—which, for the record, has never been claimed. “I wash my pants with koozies in the pocket so I don’t have to reload,” he says. “As part of our employee agreement, any drink consumed during work must have a koozie.”
As for his own personal collection, he estimates that it’s among the country’s largest: “If you emptied my house, you would probably find more than 500.”
Glancing over at our similarly sized haul of multicolored beer sleeves, I can say that I’m rather pleased to know the feeling.
Editor’s Note: The sweepstakes has closed; keep an eye out for the next installment of “Sh*t We Found on eBay” for another chance to win a strange-yet-wonderful cocktail collectible.