We all have fond memories of playing with toys when we were young. Whether it’s trading Pokemon cards or snuggling a favorite stuffed animal, it’s hard not to have at least one happy childhood toy story.

Toys have been in the hearts and homes of kids for decades, centuries, even! But what might surprise you is that toys are increasingly in the hearts and homes of adults too.  The toy market is massive and its audience has been growing over the years.

But what I find most interesting is not the size or speed at which the toy industry is growing, but rather the age of the customers. And no, it’s not just 35-year-olds buying toys for their kids. Something else is going on.

So what’s driving the sales of adorable plush toys and building blocks for people old enough to have wrinkles?

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Millennials & nostalgic toys: a match made in heaven?

If you are skeptical about whether it’s really the adults buying the toys for themselves, these statistics will change your mind. US toy sales revenue was $32.61 billion in 2020. This is expected to keep increasing by 4% year-over-year from 2020 to 2025 too. Let’s just say that if all the kids in the United States pooled together their allowance, they still wouldn’t even come close to $33 billion in spending power.

And speaking of millennials, there are a lot of them, and they have a lot of money. At the time of writing, millennials range from age 25 to 40 – give or take a couple of years on each end of the range, depending on who you ask. That’s about 76 million consumers in the US, and they collectively have about $1.4 trillion burning holes in their pockets.

Now that alone doesn’t prove anything, but according to Mailchimp, “around 70% of millennials alone bought themselves a toy to fill the downtime [in 2020].” And lest you think that this trend spans beyond millennials, note that Gen X and Baby Boomers – a much larger cohort that covers just about everyone older than 40 these days – only account for 50% of “kidult toy purchases.”

So go ahead, boomers, blame the millennials for this one – the data is backing you up!

Adults started buying toys in the 1990s…

Now before we talk about how adults are buying themselves toys more than ever before these days, we need to acknowledge that the concept is not entirely new. Adults have been playing with toys for a long time. You might have heard old stories about a great-grandfather with a train set. Parents have been playing their kids’ video games after they go to bed for generations now.

But what we are seeing now, especially after the mid-2010’s, is something else entirely. And the true first instance of kids buying toys in this manner was Beanie Babies. They came out in 1993 and arguably were the first toy to “go viral” on the internet.

At the time, there were a lot of adults buying Beanie Babies. The company that created Beanie Babies – Ty – had seen sales revenue of $280 million by the end of 1996. That’s almost half a billion dollars today. 

The common excuse adults used at the time? “It’s a collectible / investment item.” While some earnestly believed that, for others, that was the line you used to hide from the still very real stigma of being an adult who buys toys for themselves.

…But toy sales for adults went way up in the mid-2010s

Now yes, Beanie Babies were the first instances of adults spending tons of money on toys. But what we have today is different, because adults are spending a lot more money than ever and because they’re openly playing with the toys.

The simple fact is that toys have developed leaps and bounds since the 80s and 90s. That makes them so much more desirable to adults with money that they didn’t have as a kid.

When we were kids watching Star Wars, GI Joe, and Transformers, we wanted all the cool toys. And maybe you got one or two and had a lot of fun.

But now as an adult? The only limit is the one on your credit card. 

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But it’s more than just nostalgia. Nostalgia, after all, is a feeling, and it came from somewhere.

There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that nostalgia is really good for helping us cope with stress. Anxiety is everywhere these days – it affects 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. This is only increasing too.

Nostalgia and anxiety are pushing toy sales for adults up, but those aren’t the only factors. Social media is making it easier for adults to find out about interesting new toys – the Squishmallow, which I’ll cover later – is a great example. Simultaneously, the stigma for adults buying toys for themselves is fading away.

Taken together, these factors create the perfect storm for a wildly successful toy industry for millennial consumers.

The statistics are clear, but examples tell the story better

When you look at the toy industry as a whole, it’s clear that millennial consumers are purchasing more toys for themselves than the generations of adults before them. The statistics alone, and the likely reasons behind them, are interesting in their own right. 

However, the toy industry is huge. So huge that we would be doing a disservice by not providing specific examples. So in this post, we’ll talk about three toys that have had a lot of luck with adult consumers, all for different reasons: weighted bears, LEGOs, and Squishmallows.  

Case Study 1: Weighted Bears

We all know the pandemic caused stress and anxiety for billions of people around the world. It created a very lonely time due to the separation from friends and family. And for a lot of adults, they bought a teddy bear to help them cope.

Build-A-Bear conducted a survey in 2017 that found out “56% of respondents have owned (and held onto) their favorite stuffed animal for more than two decades. Additionally, [72%] said they plan to keep their stuffed animal forever.” You can imagine how the pandemic further accelerated this trend.

You’ve likely heard about weighted blankets which alleviate anxiety and insomnia due to their pressure. There have been studies on them, though it is too early to say if they conclusively work at this purpose. What we know for sure is that the market for weighted blankets is nearly $400 million and is growing 14% year over year.

So it’s no surprise that many enterprising businesses have found a way to marry weighted blankets and teddy bears. Enter the weighted bear.

Weighted bears have a playful appearance, but provide real comfort

The origin story of the weighted bear market is surprisingly heart-wrenching.

Marcella Johnson‘s son passed away shortly after childbirth and experienced broken heart syndrome also known as Takotsubo syndrome. A rare heart failure that stunts the heart muscles and the left ventricle changes shape. 

Recovering from this tragic event, she accidentally found out that holding a weighted potted plant helped ease her physical pain. And with this knowledge, she realized that mothers seek weighted objects after losing a child.

From this heartbreaking story of loss came the Comfort Cub, a weighted teddy bear, and a not-for-profit company. You have the choice to buy a Comfort Cub teddy bear for $50 or apply to get a cub. According to their website, they have combined sold & given away 75,000 cubs.

The market has since grown beyond its original not-for-profit origins. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, loneliness, or grief, there is a massive selection of weighted teddy bears to help you cope.

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Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the US alone, and weighted bears help with that

We touched on this earlier, but it’s important enough to repeat. Anxiety is affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. And when we’re feeling anxious we seek out something soft.

It’s one of the reasons people have sent teddy bears and other stuffed toys over to Gaza. Having something soft to hold that comforts people stuck in a warzone. It helps them feel happy and safe in such a horrible condition.

These are not just anecdotes either. 

Just three weeks after receiving the stuffed dogs, the children showed improvement. Two month later 71% had lost their severe stress reactions. This is twice as many as the children who didn’t have stuffed dogs.

Stuffed Party

“Our findings show that even touching an inanimate object — such as a teddy bear — can soothe existential fears,” notes Koole. “Interpersonal touch is such a powerful mechanism that even objects that simulate touch by another person may help to instill in people a sense of existential significance.

Psychological Science

The science is real, and we can only imagine the healing power of teddy bears is enhanced by adding anxiety-soothing weightedness. No wonder the market is booming in these stressful times!

Case Study 2: The Rise of Adult Fans of LEGO

The consumer product revenue of The Walt Disney Company in 2018 amounted to a whopping $4.65 billion. With a revenue statement like that, you might wonder how Walt Disney can do better. But they managed to do just that by building a blocky relationship with the $1.33 billion dollar company, LEGO.

A weighted blanket or bear may soothe the physical manifestation of anxiety, but it’s not for everyone. Some people seek the psychological comfort of nostalgia. And Disney and LEGO both run on it.

How LEGO monetizes nostalgia

Star Wars is a behemoth franchise and a magnet for nostalgic fans from multiple generations. That’s why products like the LEGO Imperial Star Destroyer can charge £650, which is more than it cost Darth Vader to produce the Death Star. 

That’s $860 USD at current exchange rates, which is a certifiably adult-sized price tag. I would hazard a guess that a majority of Millenials have watched Star Wars, and Disney has made more movies in the franchise to capitalize on that too.

Think about it! The Imperial Star Destroyer ticks all the boxes an adult wants in a nostalgic toy:

✔ Hella Nostalgic

✔ Looks Incredible

✔ Collectors Item

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LEGO openly targets adult fans

Thanks to an exclusive interview by Brick Fanatics, we learned that LEGO started an 18+ adult LEGO section in 2020 and has dedicated Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL). But what does that mean?

AFOLs are mainly a group of people who discovered the true joy of building LEGO as kids. And I believe that among all the kids who have received a LEGO set and played with LEGO bricks, I think the experience connects with some of them more than the others.

Tormod Askildsen, Head of AFOL Engagement

They also briefly disclose that 20% of sales now are going to adults who buy for themselves. It also represents a fourfold increase over the revenue the adult LEGO market was bringing in a decade ago. All of this speaks volumes to the desire that AFOLs have: to construct and collect awesome sculptures and relive their childhood. (Maybe this is why Minecraft is popular too!)

There’s even an online community for AFOLs. They’ve come together through Youtube with notable names such as ZaziNombies, Brick Builder, and Beyond The Brick. These adults have an accumulative total of over 4 million subscribers. They create epic LEGO structures, LEGO content, and more. These content creators appeal and inspire adults to get involved.

And as if that weren’t enough, LEGO now appears to be running some PR campaigns specifically for adults. You want a 1:1 replica of a Bugatti Chiron? It exists, though you’ll have to settle for the smaller version for your collection.

The only Bugatti where you don’t want to “step on it.”

Case Study 3: Squishmallows

Squishmallows are line of adorable stuffed toys released in 2017. Their menacing goal? Make you as happy as you possibly can. There are over 1000 to collect, and since their launch, they have sold over 50 million units.

Sound like the second coming of Beanie Babies? It sort of is, and it sort of isn’t.

Like Beanie Babies, each toy has a name and, in lieu of a unique birthday and poem a la Beanie Babies, each Squishmallow is said to have a few personal interests. That makes each one a little more relatable to the consumer. In turn, this makes each Squishmallow purchase a statement about the consumer’s identity.

And the big brain marketing team at Kelly Toys made a range of sizes, from clip-on Squishmallows at 3.5 inches to a pretty sizable 24 inches. Meaning you can have a Squishmallow everywhere you go! You can start your collection for $10 and you can stop when the bank repossesses your car.

Other than unique sizes, they are loved because you want to squish the heck out of their cute faces. I mean, look at this and tell me you don’t want to squish it like a cat. If I needed a hug, I would hug the living fluff out of this.

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We also have an interview with Jon Kelly, the CEO of Kellytoy who confirms that this is the intention:

[Our success is] a combination of the large variety of Squishmallows characters and exclusives as well as being part of the engaging online community. we have also seen how Squishmallows help people cope with stress and anxiety, by offering comfort that’s especially welcoming during a global pandemic.

How Squishmallows used social media to soar to new heights

What sets this apart from weighted bears is that Squishmallows are largely a social media phenomenon. This is even different from the online LEGO community, as LEGOs are an old, nostalgic toy and Squishmallows are something entirely new.

One of the driving forces behind Squishmallows seismic success is TikTok, a platform that has garnered a dedicated following from Millenial and Gen Z consumers. And these adults have propelled videos under the #squishmallows hashtag to a massive 2.1 billion views. From scrolling, you can see that a majority of the highest views are adult content creators who own the toys themselves.

And it doesn’t stop with TikTok, as celebrities Lady Gaga and Charli D’Amelio have shown off their Squishmallow collections on Instagram. Celebrity influence is a HUGE deal as they drive sales of products through the roof and further spin the flywheel of social media fame.

Squishmallows are so popular that it has attracted scalpers

Social media success has been so profound for Squishmallows, that a seedy underground scalping market has emerged. Don’t be alarmed, no Squishmallows are hurt during the hunt. Just casual consumers.

“Hunting” is the term the community uses when consumers want to collect a specific Squishmallow, and there is a TikTok hashtag called #squishmallowhunting and a hunting counter on the Subreddit /r/squishmallow/.
Now sure, the bulk of these hunters are just happy-go-lucky collectors. But some are genuine scalpers, who run the price up on rare Squishmallows like Jack the Cat, which sold for over $2000. And if you fancy some anec-data, here’s a Reddit thread where Squishmallow fans talk about their experiences with scalpers.

Final Thoughts

Millennial consumers are changing the toy industry for good. No longer is it an embarrassment for an adult to buy “kid toys” for themselves. The market is continuing to explode in popularity and there’s no reason to think it will slow down any time soon.

Life is tough. Anxiety rates are through the roof, and cuddly animals and nostalgic toys help us cope with day-to-day grinding. The revolutionization of the toy industry in the mid-2010s just goes to show how good the market is at addressing new emotional needs.

So with that in mind, are you an adult with a favorite toy? Let us know in the comments below!

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