5 Ways To Win ‘Toy’ Money From Adults, From Target, Amazon And Build-A-Bear

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Adults are spending more “toy” money on themselves than on their kids this year. If Walmart, Target and Amazon want in on this game, they should know a few rules.

First, they should know the rule of good timing. From the post-holiday months of January to April, more toys were purchased for consumers over the age of 18 than for any other age group, including preschoolers, according to a report by Circana. Those toy sales added up to more than $1.5 billion —and that isn’t Monopoly money.

Toy sellers can use that real money. In 2023, overall toy sales dropped by 8% from 2022, The Toy Association reports. The organization predicts category sales to decline in 2024, as well.

Adults, therefore, represent a spark of opportunity. Retailers can ignite that spark by positioning and promoting areas of their toy departments to capture adult interest. They’re almost halfway there already. In the past year, 43% of U.S. adults purchased a toy for themselves, Circana’s research shows.

Why Adults Are Buying Toys, From Escapism To “Boardom”

Nearly half of U.S. adults are experiencing a second childhood through toys for reasons of escapism, socialization and collecting, according to research. Consider Circana’s overall top-selling toys of 2024: Squishmallows plush toys, Hot Wheels, Pokémon collectibles and NFL trading cards.

All of which add up to another rule: Try to see toys through the eyes of a playful adult.

But one can’t ignore the events of recent years and dismiss nostalgia as an emotional, motivating factor, either. Being forced to cocoon at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, with lots of time on their hands, many adults sought escapism through creature comforts.

Add in post-pandemic inflation, climate change and working from home, and it’s no wonder a person would want to hold a teddy bear.

Nostalgia is, in fact, the leading reason nearly 60% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers consider themselves “kidults,” according to a report in Retail Wire (and why 38% of them keep toys or collectibles on display). The pandemic is credited with a sharp rise in “kidulting,” although the term has existed for generations (see: Peter Pan Syndrome).

The pandemic also can be credited for the “game night” trend, which persists today. Instead of birthday parties or happy hours, quarantined friends connected via Zoom to play Cards Against Humanity or Clue. Statista projects U.S. board game sales to reach $2.25 billion in 2024 and to continue to grow by 8.7% a year.

It’s Not A Monopoly, But It’s So Much Money

This grownup quest for escapism has indeed caused more adults to buy teddy bears. At Build-A-Bear, the chain of make-your-own plush toys, teens and adults generated nearly 40% of its record sales in the first half of 2023, company executives told analysts in August (transcribed by Seeking Alpha).

So here’s another new rule: Reinvent the total retail toy experience, in store and online because 66% of consumers buy toys through both channels.

Here are five ways retailers can play into it:

1. Build house toys. Private label toys could make a lot of sense because house brands generate better margins and can be niched to suit a retailer’s core shopper base. In early 2024,Target introduced its own toy brand, Gigglescape, which includes games, books and plush items for less than $20. The line is designed for Generation Alpha (kids), but the price points will appeal to adults. And with correct data analytics, Target could test certain goods in the line for adult purchase. Maybe the rainbow unicorn?

2. Go to the movies. One reason Circana predicts toy sales to decline in 2024 is because there will be fewer toy-based films this year. Toy makers and film producers have a long history of partnering on toy and brand launches, with the classic example being Toy Story. In 2023, Mattel teamed with Gap, Aldo, Hot Topic and Bloomingdales (which added pop-up shops) to sell Barbie-themed goods. Retailers and licensed brands can partner on similar kinds of ventures that are temporary and, therefore, lower risk. Can you save the day in 2024 “Inside Out 2?”

3. Put grownup toys by the checkout. Toys represent 20% of all impulse buys, Chain Store Age reports. And many retailers know the checkout counter is fertile ground for selling on-a-whim items. So why not add a few strategically chosen collectibles and playthings that grownups would like for their own comfort and self-indulgence? Amazon Prime subscribers who watch a lot of Marvel pictures could receive suggestions for collectibles on their personalized shopping cart pages, for instance.

4. Treat adult “kids” like grownups. Online, toys can be filtered by age, but not many include “18+” categories. Target, Walmart and Best Buy do have “adult game” categories. And on its website, Build-A-Bear added an age-gated shop, called “The Bear Cave,” featuring cheekier products and gifts, Retail Dive reported. It’s important, however, that retailers make these offerings easy to find—online and in store. Physical toy aisles can display QR codes that read “scan to see our line of grownup board games.”

5. Make the online experience fun. Any retail website should be regularly toured to find ways to make checkout easier, to include more payment options and to ensure products are displayed in relatable environments. In the toy category specifically, images of adults at play with kids could help shoppers see themselves in those roles with those toys. A Squishmallows product video on Amazon and Target’s websites, for example, features kids and adults enjoying the squishy plush toys. (Tagline: “There’s a Squishmallows for everyone.”)

Final Rule: Play Fair

Of course, retailers and brands should separate opportunity from opportunism as they seek ways to get toys into grownup hands. Adults might be nostalgic for the carefree times of their youth, but they’ve still got the savvy of their years. Gen Z and Millennials, especially, prioritize authenticity from retailers and brands and retailers.

Adults want to play, but they can always change the rules of the game. Don’t toy with it.

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