Creating the most popular product of the year will make consumers and investors happy. But making an all-time bestseller can transform an industry and define a business for decades.
Many of the best-selling products were first in a new category. Apple (AAPL), which has sold more than 500 million iPhones, was the first to introduce a touchscreen smartphone that could seamlessly handle music, Web browsing and phone calls.
Other bestsellers took a niche market and made it mainstream. Before Star Wars, film was either comedy, romance or drama. The Harry Potter book series was so successful that The New York Times Book Review created a separate children's bestseller list in 2000 to account for the series' popularity.
In some cases, top-selling products were simply better than their competitors. Before Sony (SNE) PlayStation, video game consoles were largely cartridge-based. With the advent of the PlayStation, which relied on the new CD-rom format, game files could be large enough to support 3D gameplay and full-motion video. Lipitor, which has become the world's best-selling drug with $141 billion in sales, was far more effective than previously-released drugs at lowering bad cholesterol.
A number of these products continue to dominate their markets. The iPad remains the world's best-selling tablet, with a 32.5% market share last quarter, despite challenges from Amazon.com's (AMZN) Kindle Fire and Samsung's Galaxy tablet lines. The PlayStation 4 has sold over 7 million units since it launched last year, well above the Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox One.
Despite their success, some of these products face challenges. Sales of Pfizer's (PFE) Lipitor dropped each year after its maker, Pfizer, lost patent protection on the drug in 2011 and cheaper generic drugs came on the market. The ongoing Star Warssaga may lose its status as the all-time best-selling movie franchise to Walt Disney's (DIS) Marvel franchise. The Avengers broke box office records, grossing $203.4 million on its opening weekend.
To determine the best-selling products of all-time, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed categories of products widely purchased by consumers and identified individual products that had the highest sales in their category. In some cases, we gathered figures from multiple sources and estimated the final sales figure. In other instances, where one company had a clear market lead, figures reflect data from previous years.
These are the best-selling products of all time.
• Category: Video game console
• Total sales: 344 million units
• Parent company: Sony
When Sony released the PlayStation in the United States in 1995, its 32-bit processor was the most powerful available on the console market at the time. Sony sold more than 70 million PlayStations worldwide by the time the PlayStation 2 was released in 2000. The PlayStation 2 also sold very well in the U.S. and abroad. Sony released the PlayStation 3 in 2006, and it sold 80 million units to retailers by November 2013. The latest generation, the PlayStation 4, has been wildly successful thus-far, already selling 7 million units as of April.
• Category: Pharmaceutical
• Total sales: $141 billion
• Parent company: Pfizer
Pfizer's Lipitor is prescribed to lower LDL (or bad) cholesterol — high levels of bad cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. Lipitor is classified as a statin, a class of drug used to reduce the risk of heart-related ailments. However, Lipitor sales have plummeted in recent years after its U.S. patent expired in 2011. Lipitor has lost patent protection in other major markets since. In 2013, Lipitor sales totaled $2.3 billion, down from $9.6 billion in 2011 according to Pfizer's 2013 annual report. Still, since its introduction in 1997, no other drug came close to Lipitor's commercial success. The closest competitor for all time sales is Plavix, which had slightly more than half of Lipitor's lifetime revenue, according to Forbes.
• Category: Vehicle
• Total sales: 40.7 million units
• Parent company: Toyota (TM)
Toyota announced last month it sold 1.2 million Corollas in 2013, a 5% year-over-year increase. Since its introduction in Japan in 1966 — the car became available in the U.S. in 1968 — Toyota has sold more than 40.7 million Corollas, more than any other car model. The Corolla's success on the market is likely due to its reliability, relatively low gas mileage and affordability. The newly redesigned 2014 Corolla is the model's 11th generation, and it claims to have better gas mileage and a slightly larger interior. Brand new, the Corolla's starting MSRP is $16,800.
4. Star Wars
• Category: Movies
• Total sales: $4.6 billion
• Parent company: 20th Century Fox
Only Gone with the Wind brought in more money than the original Star Wars movie. Combined, however, the original trilogy grossed $2.4 billion, accounting for inflation. When Star Wars: Episode I was released more than 20 years later, it grossed $675 million, considerably more than the later installments — Episodes 2 and 3 — which each still grossed more than $400 million. In total, the Star Wars movies, including special editions and re-releases, grossed $4.6 billion adjusted for inflation in the U.S. While 20th Century Fox still owns the rights to the original Star Wars, Disney purchased the Star Wars universe — Lucasfilms — for $4 billion in 2012. Disney will release the final three movies under J.J. Abrams' direction. The first of the three is scheduled to hit the box office in 2015.
• Category: Tablet
• Total sales: 211 million units
• Parent company: Apple
Despite losing market share in the first quarter, Apple's iPad is still the best-selling tablet. The iPad held 40% of the tablet market in the first quarter of 2013, but only 32.5% in the first quarter of this year, according to market research firm IDC. Close rival Samsung picked up much of that market share. IDC analyst reported that iPad lost some of its market share because consumers are holding onto their tablets for longer rather than immediately purchasing the newest version. Apple sold 16.4 million units in the second quarter alone, and more than 211 million since the iPad was first introduced in 2010.
6. Mario Bros. franchise
• Category: Video game franchise
• Total sales: 262 million units
• Parent company: Nintendo
Since debuting in 1981 in the popular Donkey Kong arcade game, the Italian plumbers have appeared in 115 titles and in their own cartoon series. According to the company, as of 2011 more than 262 million units of "core" Mario Bros. games have been sold worldwide. Mario originally was known as Jumpman in a Japanese arcade game before being converted into a plumber in the U.S. In 2011, the Guinness Book of World Records named the original Mario the top video game character of all time as voted-on by more than 13,000 readers.
7. Michael Jackson's Thriller
• Category: Album
• Total sales: 70 million units
• Parent company: Epic records
Michael Jackson's Thriller is not only the best-selling album of all time, but is also credited with ushering in the MTV generation, bringing the moonwalk into mainstream culture, and giving Jackson the moniker "The King of Pop." According to michaeljackson.com, a website run by Sony Music and owned by the Michael Jackson record label, 70 million copies of the album have been sold since its release in 1982, although various sources have estimated that as many as 110 million copies have been sold. The album featured hits: "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," and "Thriller." Perhaps what made the album most famous was the 14-minute long Thriller movie/music video. The Thriller album also sold 101,000 copies the week after Jackson's death in 2009, and downloads of Jackson's songs totaled 2.3 million.
8. Harry Potter
• Category: Book
• Total sales: 450 million units
• Parent company: Scholastic (U.S. publisher)
Roughly 450 million Harry Potter books had been sold in 73 different languages as of mid-2013, making it the best-selling book series of all time. The books has also made author J.K. Rowling the highest-paid author in the world. In 2007, Harry Potter's U.S. publisher Scholastic sold 8.3 million copies of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the first 24 hours. The book series inspired eight movies between 2001 and 2011 that, combined, grossed $7.7 billion worldwide. In 2012, Rowling launched Pottermore.com, a site that offers new Harry Potter content and interactive experiences. The site reportedly had 1 billion viewers in the first two weeks it went live.
• Category: Smartphone
• Total sales: 516 million units
• Parent company: Apple
Apple took the smartphone market by a storm when it launched the iPhone in 2007. Despite suggestions from some analysts that the iPhone's market share has peaked, unit sales remain massive. In its fiscal first and second quarter, the company sold nearly 95 million iPhones, and sales this year are poised to exceed the 150 million mark set in 2013. With the exception of a brief period in 2012, Apple's iPhone has been the best-selling smartphone since its inception. According to Counterpoint Technology Research, the iPhone 5S and 5C were the two top-selling smartphones in February, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 was a distant third.
10. Rubik's Cube
• Category: Toy
• Total sales: 350 million units
• Parent company: Seven Towns
The Rubik's Cube remains the top-selling single toy of all time with 350 million sold since 1980. The Rubik's Cube remains so popular that in the decades since its creation, it has spawned entire speed-cubing competitions. The toy still has a large fan base, among young and old. One developer even created an iPhone application that instructs users how to solve a Rubik's Cube in 20 moves. Unlike other best-selling toys, such as Monopoly and the Gumby Doll, the cube was not originally intended to be a toy. Its inventor, Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik, created it in 1974 as a way to teach his students three-dimensional geometry. The combined collections of Mattel's Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels have both outsold the Rubik's Cube, but none of them have as a single toy.