Not just for kids: American toy makers are targeting more products at adults

Since the pandemic, Elizabeth Hulanick has turned to her childhood toys for stress relief.

She and her co-workers chip in to buy Lego at Target and play on their desks. She also started playing with Silly Putty again, noting that she was comforted by the gummy things that change color.

Even her American Girl doll named Samantha, which she keeps in her china closet, resonates more these days; she waited a year for her mother to buy her that doll when she was little and now, she says, it served as a reminder to always be patient.

“(This) will probably be with me forever. I always need something to tinker with, and this is probably the safest bet for me to stick with a toy rather than keep trying to figure out how to fix cars or something ” said the 37-year-old Piscataway, New Jersey resident. . .

Long before the pandemic, many adults turned to Lego toys to collectibles to tap into their inner childhood for comfort. But all the stresses of the health crisis accelerated and solidified the trend, according to Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TTPM, a toy review site.

And even as the threat of the pandemic recedes, makers of Mattel’s American Girl toys at Build-a-Bear Workshop Inc. You see that adults’ interest in games is long-lasting and they create new products, services and websites aimed at the larger group.

This so-called “child-adult” market is important. 18+ accounted for 14% of US toy industry sales, or $5.7 billion in the 12 months ending September 2022. It grew 19% from the 12 months prior end in September 2021, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. This group also enjoyed the second fastest increase after customers aged 12-17.

Earlier this year, Mattel’s American Girl Cafe added more grown-up dishes like beet and goat cheese salads and cocktails like Aperol spritzes and Bloody Mary’s after seeing adults show up without kids. Last year, Build-a-Bear launched a website called Bear Cave for 18-year-olds and older, featuring items such as stuffed rabbits with a bottle of wine. And Basic Fun put a high-tech twist on the classic 1960s Lite Brite toy and recreated it as wall art with thousands of pegs and 45 LED lights aimed at adults just in time for the holidays, with a of 99 dollars.

Lego A/S has been steadily increasing its products for adults since 2020; now has 100 sets, including intrepid space exploration and luxury cars.

“The pandemic certainly served as a catalyst for this trend as adults found themselves stuck at home with nothing else to do with a lot of time on their hands,” said Genevieve Cruz, senior director of Lego, that sees adults of all ages embracing the colorful building blocks. “But we think the trend goes beyond the pandemic.”

Executives say what makes this time different is that consumers are really getting into the role-playing game. Build-a-Bear says adults are taking their stuffed animals to bed. At American Girl, women dress up in outfits inspired by their favorite dolls and bring their childhood dolls to cafes and sit with them, said Jaime Cygielman, CEO and president of American Girl. They also take them to the doll hospital or in-store hairdressers to have them repaired or styled, she noted.

This role play was on display on a recent visit to the American Girl Cafe in Manhattan, where Marisa Dragos, 23, along with her childhood friend Lisa Costantino, 24, were dining, with two of dolls they borrowed from the store. They were visiting from Los Angeles.

“(My mom) feels sad that I’m still in my childhood bedroom because I can’t afford to move right now,” Dragos said. “I think it’s funny. I still have the dolls, kind of sitting in my room, but I feel like they’ve grown with me. They’re my little friends that I hang out with.”

Among the most popular items for adults: Star Wars and Harry Potter-themed Lego sets, plush items like Squishmallows, whimsical stuffed animals from Jazzwares, and Marvel-sized action figures, according to NPD.

McDonald’s is also tapping into this group, launching Happy Meals for adults in October featuring nostalgic figurines designed by fashion brand Cactus Plant Flea Market. McDonald’s President and CEO Chris Kempczinski said the company sold half of its supply of collectibles in the first four days of the promotion.

The toy industry, which generated roughly $38 billion in annual sales last year, could use some help from adults.

In the first nine months of this year, the number of toys sold fell by 3%, while spending increased by the same amount due to higher prices. That’s a big change from the first two years of the pandemic, when sales soared as parents splurged on toys from board games to dolls to entertain their children who stayed close to home .

Sharon Price Johnson, general manager of Build-a-Bear, said she started noticing adults buying the stuffed animals for themselves five years ago, and it’s only grown since then. In response, the company is focusing its online business with adults in mind. In 2019, he launched his “After Dark” collection of bold bears that one adult Valentine gives to another.

“There are a lot more teenagers and adults in our stores who are just enjoying the experience and not just with their families, like with each other,” Johnson said.

Now, 40% of its total sales at Build-a-Bear come from adults and teens, up 20% from 2012.

Finding that inner youth through toys isn’t just about being embraced by consumers in their 20s and 40s.

Loren Brereton, 61, was recently visiting the American Girl store with her 7-year-old granddaughter Alana. She said that during the pandemic, she took comfort in looking at her own daughter’s dolls. He also took out some of his son’s Legos and other toys and played with them. Now she’s thinking about buying a few games for herself.

“All these games comforted me as a kid, but, you know, they changed you at different times when you needed it,” she said. “And you needed it.”

AP Business Writer Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this article.

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