Aug 25, 2023 - Economy

"Kidults?" "Eldertainment?" Toymakers target grown-ups

Photo illustration of an Earring Magic Ken doll peeking out of a suit pocket.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

As children migrate from playthings to screens, toymakers have been tweaking their products to cater to the nostalgic tastes of adults, from Gen Z to senior citizens.

Why it matters: The "Barbie" and "Transformers" movies have helped fuel a retro toys craze among adults — and bolstered the hopes of toy sellers, who are trying to recover from a slump that even the pandemic couldn't shake off.

Driving the news: For the last several years, "kidults" — teenagers and adults who like cartoons, action figures, board games, building sets and puzzles — have been driving global toy sales, per Circana, a consultancy created from the merger of NPD and IRI.

  • That's expected to intensify this year, as Mattel and others pin their hopes on adult collectors and others who are snapping up Barbies, "Star Wars" memorabilia, Lego sets and more.
  • Millennial and Gen Z parents are introducing their children to the brands of their youth, some of which have reintroduced themselves for a modern audience.
  • Those include Tamagotchi Uni (an internet-connected version of the familiar virtual pets), Spirograph (now on an LCD screen!) and Potato Head. (The "Mr." has been not-quite-dropped.)

Case study: Lego has an "icons" series of products aimed at adults, featuring major undertakings like a $680 Titanic set.

  • "Retro nostalgia sets are super, super popular," Catherine Maddrey, a Lego spokeswoman, told Axios at a recent toy expo in New York City, standing in front of a new Lego Donkey Kong and a Lego Super Mario.
  • "This is obviously a super nostalgic set for a lot of people," she said, pointing to a $270 Lego Pac-Man Arcade game with 2,651 pieces. "It has all of the original features."
  • Lego wants adults to show off the complex sets after they build them. "That's what Lego is moving towards, is 'play and display,'" Maddrey said. "No longer shoved in the closet."

What they're saying: "Kids that grew up in the '80s are adult consumers, and they're the ones driving so much of the market," said Bobby Sevenich, a spokesman for Jazwares, which makes "Star Wars," Halo and Call of Duty figurines (and licenses brands such as Pokémon and Squishmallows).

  • "They want nostalgia," Sevenich told Axios at the summer toy expo. "They want to go back to the things that they played with as kids and introduce them to their kids, and also just build their collections as adults."
  • That nostalgia includes re-watching the legacy "Star Wars" movies as a family and anticipating the newly released "Ahsoka" series on Disney+.
At left, a Pac-Man Lego set; at right, a Bob Ross figurine.
At left, Lego's Pac-Man arcade set, with 2,651 pieces to assemble, may appeal to people who may have real Pac-Man arcade games in their homes. At right, the Bob Ross Pop Taters figurine is aimed at people who watched the "Joy of Painting" star, whose show ran from 1983-1994. Photos: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

What's new: "Eldertainment," or toys and games geared toward senior citizens, is an emerging category touted as a way for older adults to sharpen their memory skills or connect with their grandchildren.

  • At next month's Toy Fair in New York City, several companies will display their "eldertainment" wares.
  • One is a Hasbro licensee called Ageless Innovation that sells animatronic companion dogs and cats, plus updated versions of the Game of Life, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit with easy-to-grasp pieces and bigger fonts.

The big picture: "Kidults" — also known as "rejuveniles" and "adultescents" — have emerged as an important marketing category beyond toys.

  • Among other things, they've fueled a flourishing selection of adult Halloween costumes, and prompted McDonald's to introduce limited-time Happy Meals for adults.

By the numbers: 41% of parents have bought toys for themselves in the past 12 months, according to a July survey by The Toy Association, which puts on the big annual North American International Toy Fair.

  • 43% will buy toys for themselves this holiday season, and 89% say they'll buy toys for other grown-ups, according to the survey, which polled 1,000 U.S. parents with children in their household.
  • 20% plan to buy toys for their elderly relatives this holiday season.
Which adults are on parents' toy shopping lists this holiday season
Data: The Toy Association Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between the lines: Pandemic isolation prompted many adults to turn to puzzles, board games and collecting favorite objects — trends that toymakers are capitalizing on.

  • Atari just released the Atari 2600+ ($130), which can play original video game cartridges from the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Pop Taters has released figurines of Bob Ross from "The Joy of Painting," Adam Bomb from Garbage Pail Kids, the Demon from KISS, and Optimus Prime from Transformers. "These are aimed at adult collectors, or kidults," spokeswoman Marinee Sirob told Axios.
  • A fidget cube for adults called Shashibo has become an Amazon bestseller. "It'll keep you off your phone," Laura Tommervik, director of marketing for its maker, Fun in Motion Toys, told Axios at the summer toy fair.

Of note: The growing popularity of toys among adults has helped lift some of the stigma that teens and tweens feel about play, Jennifer Lynch, a toy trends specialist with The Toy Association, tells Axios.

  • "Everybody sees the value of play more today" as a result of the pandemic, she said.

Where it stands: The toy business was battered by the 2018 bankruptcy and liquidation of Toys R Us, and toy sales continue to be moribund. But there are positive signs.

  • Toys R Us is undergoing a rebirth, with boutiques now opening in Macy's stores ahead of the holidays.
  • The Hollywood Reporter declared 2023 "Hollywood's Summer of Toys" — noting that many new products are geared toward adult collectors.

Yes, but: 2022 ended with a 0.2% decline in overall U.S. toy sales, according to Circana.

  • Even Mattel, the maker of Barbie, reported a 12% sales drop in the second quarter — right before the release of the eponymous movie.

What's next: The retail impact of "Barbie" and Disney's 100th anniversary could be a bonanza for toymakers, which are already seeing the mercurial effects of merchandise tied to the summer box office — like a run on Ken and Allan dolls after the portrayals by actors Ryan Gosling and Michael Cera.

  • Normally, "You can't get rid of Allan, seriously," Marl Davidson, a vintage Barbie seller, told CBR.com, a comics industry news site. "But now you can't have enough Allans."
Go deeper