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U.S. teens, adults spend billions on toys, stuffed animals for themselves

A father and his son are kneeling on the floor as they look through a basket of toys that the son picked out. They are inside a toy store.
Kaleb Roedel
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Oliver Yochem, 15, center, shows his father, Jonathan, the toys that he plans to buy at Learning Express Toys in Reno, Nev., on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.

When the pandemic started, many items flew off the shelves – including toys. Now, years later, toy stores are still seeing their sales grow and consumer bases expand.

On a Friday afternoon inside Learning Express Toys in Reno, Nev., the staff had their hands full ringing up and wrapping toys. It was mid-December, so many of the shoppers were buying Christmas gifts for their kids or grandkids.

A number of them, however, were teenagers and adults buying toys for their friends – or even themselves. One of those people was 15-year-old Oliver Yochem.

“Squishmallows – I’m obsessed with Squishmallows,” he said. “I have a ton of them on my bed.”

Yochem started collecting these plump, brightly-colored plush toys in 2020 when he was stuck at home, away from his friends. The stuffed animals come in sizes ranging from 2 inches to 2 feet.

“They’re super soft and cuddly,” he said. “I’ve been attracted to them since the pandemic.”

He’s not alone. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these huggable stuffed animals have exploded in popularity. In fact, four of the nation’s top 10 selling toys in the third quarter of 2022 were Squishmallows, according to market research firm the NPD Group.

A woman poses for a photo inside the toy store she owns in Reno, Nevada. She is smiling.
Kaleb Roedel
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Jenny Frederito, co-owner of Learning Express Toys, in Reno, Nev.

“They’re on track to kind of overtake what Beanie Babies were in the ‘90s,” said Jenny Frederito, co-owner of Learning Express Toys in Reno. “So people go crazy about these. We have everyone from small children to teenagers to moms to dads, grandmas, grandpas. I mean, people are collecting these things like crazy.”

Some eager collectors even get to the store before it opens, she added.

“We would have people waiting outside for the FedEx trucks when they arrived and rushing in before we even unpacked the boxes, looking for that certain one they’re looking for,” Frederito said.

Squishmallows are just one of many items luring more and more teens and adults to spend on toys – from stuffed animals to fidget spinners to action figures.

It’s a pandemic-related trend that’s here to stay, said Richard Gottlieb, CEO of consulting firm Global Toy Experts.

“It went from being an embarrassment or made you considered to be immature,” Gottlieb said. “To today, when Gen Z and Millennials proudly play. And it’s OK. We need to play.”

And toy companies are recognizing that, said Jeremy Padawer, chief brand officer at Jazwares. The company makes Squishmallows, as well as other popular collectible brands like Pokémon and Star Wars.

“We believe that adults and older-age consumers and non-toy oriented, where it’s no longer about imagination-play as much, is a growth area in the toy and collectible business,” Padawer said.

Back at the toy store in Reno, Oliver tried to figure out how many toys he could afford to buy, and his father, Jonathan, helped him budget. Jonathan wasn’t looking for any toys for himself on this particular day but does occasionally buy them – fidget toys, specifically – and feels that playing with toys or collecting them is a healthy hobby for all ages.

“There’s just a desire for physicality, being able to use things that aren’t just electronic or just on a screen,” Jonathan Yochem said.

That desire is driving sales. According to Gottlieb, at least $5 billion worth of toys is sold in the U.S. each year to adults for their own use.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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