20 minute read

Feature: Kidult

The kidult market comes of age

Kidult toys, games and collectibles appear to have benefited from a major boost since the start of the pandemic, with the sector being hailed as a strong growth category within the industry. Rachael Simpson-Jones spoke to a raft of retailers and suppliers to find out what defines a kidult, how kidult products differ from traditional toys, and how stores can carve out their own corner of this part of the toy market.

Hands up if you bought yourself a game, collectible toy, model kit or pack of trading cards during lockdown. Congratulations, you’re officially a kidult. The term broadly refers to adults who ‘enjoy or purchase activities and products traditionally intended for children’, though in the most practical sense, what constitutes a kidult is much harder to define – and varies wildly depending on who you speak to. The NPD Group, which says toy purchasing for kidults has increased 19% in the past four years, classes kidult purchases as toys bought by or for anyone over the age of 12 years old. Midco Toys’ Dave Middleton leans more towards kids aged 16 and above and Paul Reader, Toymaster’s marketing director, says he sees kidults as anyone aged 20 or above. I do love a consensus.

To try and get a clearer picture of what a kidult is and isn’t, we spoke to several retailers within the space, asking how they can tell a purchase is a kidult one, as opposed to simply an adult buying a toy for a child. Unfortunately, a lot of what I was told is too tongue in cheek to include, but Dave Tree, owner of All The Cool Stuff in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, was kind enough to offer some (printable) insight.

“The price point of the product is a giveaway; when an adult is dropping £50+ on a whim, it’s for themselves - rarely outside of birthdays and Christmas do you see that kind of purchase being made for kids,” he tells me. “Another is the length of time a shopper will spend looking at multiples of the same thing, looking for the ‘perfect example’ before making a purchase. The kidult market depends on raising awareness of each product far in advance of its release; more often than not, if you engage with a potential customer, they will tell you exactly what they are looking for in detail. That specific knowledge is often another clue you’re dealing with a kidult.”

I then asked how Dave distinguishes between the products themselves – kidult, or kid? “Packaging is usually the first clue,” he comments. “If there is any hint of nostalgia in the packaging, it’s aimed at the parents. Then play value - does it do anything, or just look pretty? If it is meant to sit on a shelf and be admired, it’s kidult.”

Matt Booker, meanwhile, the owner of Corsham Toy Shop and Automattic Comics, told me: “I’ve run a comic book shop for 27 years and written for numerous fan sites too - I can spot kidults a mile off. Last year, something did take me by surprise, though. I sold a Lego Technic Land Rover to a guy, and I was sure it was for him, but then he asked me for a bag to hide it in. It turned out it was a gift for his 80-year-old mother, who was waiting in the car outside. I’m not sure what you’d have called her. Granult, perhaps?”

Setting aside efforts to pin down exactly what a kidult or kidult purchase is, what we know for sure is that this is currently an area attracting a lot of attention. During the pandemic, with many consumers enjoying more disposable income (and time) than they would usually have, sales of games, puzzles and construction kits boomed, with a significant number of those purchases made by kidults. Mid-January to March is usually one of the quietest times of the year for All The Cool Stuff, Dave tells me, but during the third lockdown people appeared to need the distraction of a new hobby, as the novelty of staying at home all but vanished. “The resignation and frustration helped fuel purchases during what is otherwise a quiet time of year,” he notes.

Lego was a major beneficiary of this; Marius Lang, UK & Ireland head of marketing at The Lego Group, says data shows that its 18+ sets have been selling particularly well, suggesting an influx of Adult Fans of Lego, or AFOLs, as they are affectionately known by the leading construction company.

“We know from our adult fans that the joy of Lego building transcends age as well as gender and culture – Lego Play really is for everyone,” explains Marius, when asked why Lego appeals so strongly to grown-ups. “The timeless, creative play opportunities that Lego bricks offer are loved across generations, and our adult fans tell us they build to relax and get

creative, enjoying moments of joyful focus. The 2020 Lego Play Well Report found that seven in 10 adults often research new ways to de-stress, and eight in 10 say play helps them relax. We believe that our sets can provide the perfect perennial project for those looking to get creative and find moments of mindfulness.”

Matt Booker confirms that sales of Lego have indeed increased at his store, noting the company’s clever marketing efforts, which recently have focused on key annual events that appeal largely to adults. Valentine’s Day, for example, saw the Lego Creator Flower Bouquet and Bonsai Tree being heavily promoted across social media. He adds: “Lego’s latest Minifigures launch is Looney Tunes, and you can’t argue these are for kids - your average eight-yearold isn’t going to have a clue who Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are. Brands such as Lego are definitely migrating more and more into the kidult space, while others have been doing it, and doing it well, for a long time.”

Here, Matt’s referring to NECA - specifically its 80s style Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Aliens, Chuckie, Gremlins, and Back to the Future figures - as well as McFarlane, Diamond Select, Black Hole, Hasbro’s Star Wars: The Black Series and Star Wars: The Vintage Collections, and Funko. Alongside most of Matt’s recommendations, Dave Middleton also throws Hasbro’s Marvel Legends and Transformers ranges into the mix when asked for his kidult bestsellers. Dave Tree, meanwhile, counts Hot Toys, Ravensburger, Trefl, Hornby, Airfix and Scalextric among his recommendations, along with many of those named above.

Dave has previously told Toy World that despite not being one of his specialties, modelling kits such as Airfix have been selling well over recent months. To find out why this may be, I spoke to parent company Hornby Hobby’s Martyn Weaver, who told me the appeal lies partly in the brand being something of an icon in the modelling space, and partly from a desire among consumers to relive their coming-of-age years. He notes: “People have been building plastic kits for 70+ years, so brands like Airfix have benefitted from high levels of awareness across three generations. Whilst technology evolves and fashions come and go, Airfix kits, alongside our other brands – Hornby, Corgi and Scalextric – have stood the test of time. Airfix offers classic kits that the older fans will remember, modern subject matter relevant to the younger fans, and kits that offer different levels of complexity to appeal to new entrants to modelling, regardless of their age.”

Bachmann, which boasts a long history of making products aimed at adult collectors - primarily model railways - recently unveiled a range of Thunderbirds plastic model kits under its Adventures in Plastic (AiP) brand. Debuting in the UK in 1965, Thunderbirds has been enjoyed around the world and is currently airing on Britbox. With such a huge fanbase, the enthusiasm for this series never fades. Carrie Woods, the creative brand manager at Bachmann, says the company has seen a lot of interest in its Thunderbirds range since launch, both from modellers who want to build, and fans more interested in adding the models to their collection. The range is based on the classic version of the TV series, making it particularly appealing to the 45-60-year-olds age group who grew up watching the series as children.

Which brings us to retro properties and their impact on the kidult category. We often see toys based on retro or classic properties referred to as kidult, but whether they are or not entirely depends on the nature of the product. Complex model kits such as Bachmann’s AiP Thunderbirds range are clearly for adult enthusiasts and can therefore be classed as true kidult products. But what about a modern plush range, for example, based on a kids’ property from the 90s? Or modern-day relaunches of toys from the 70s and 80s, designed for kids but attractive to parents that recognise them from their own childhoods? A nostalgic grown-up impulsively buying such a product doesn’t automatically make it a kidult toy in the truest sense, and it’s clear from speaking to a number of specialist retailers that that there is a definite point of difference.

To complicate matters further, however, consider properties like Pokémon. As reported on extensively by Toy World, retailers have been seeing record sales of Pokémon cards this year, driven largely by January’s Shining Fates expansion and the hype surrounding The Pokémon Company’s 25th anniversary. Whether you would class Pokémon as retro is a matter of opinion and age, and although it’s hugely popular among adults, it’s not exclusively an adult property. Walk into any traditional toy store and you’re likely to spot the trading cards on a shelf or in a CDU, alongside Pokémon toy ranges from the likes of Character Options, clearly aimed at kids. So is the anime franchise a kidult property, or a kids’ property co-opted by adults? I suspect that, once again, the answer would depend who you ask.

Anime forms a core part of Bandai’s business model. The company actually has two distinct areas, identifiable by the colour of its logo. Kids’ toys falls under the red Bandai label, while the blue label ‘Bandai Spirits’ denotes what the company refers to as its ‘high-target’ product ranges – anything aimed at kids aged 12+. The market has changed since Bandai decided to adopt this approach, Bandai UK MD Nic Aldridge tells me, and the kidult market is therefore becoming an increasingly important area of the business. The massive rise in demand for collectibles based on anime properties has been fuelled, in part, by the improved accessibility of these properties on on-demand streaming services. “If you went on Netflix two or three years ago you wouldn’t have found much; look today, and there’s a whole anime category with tonnes of VOD content ready to watch,” Nic says. “It’s likely Netflix will continue adding anime to its platform, as it’s clearly a growing area of interest that offers something markedly different to Western cartoons and animations.”

As Nic explains, Bandai is very well placed to serve the UK appetite for anime products. In fact, it’s seen more than 500% growth in sales of Bandai Spirits in the past five years, and this upwards trend looks set to continue. Currently, Bandai boasts several brands that are performing very well in the kidult space, including own IPs such as Banpresto. In Japan, these resin models of anime characters are used as prizes in arcade claw machines and can’t be sold at retail. Outside Japan, however, they retail happily for between £14.99-£70. The anime properties Banpresto covers include Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Demon Slayer and many more, around 20 in total, all highly sought-after, and very collectible.

Mentioning the C-word raises yet another interesting topic of some debate – the difference between toy ‘collectibles’ and collectibles. “The toy market and the collector market work very differently, and I think confusion has arisen within the toy industry,” explains Nic. “For kids’ toys, we think of ranges like Moshi Monsters or Shopkins as collectibles, but you have to ask if they are truly collectible – or are there are just a lot of them to collect? In our Bandai Spirits division, we see collectibles as items that are rare and high-value, produced in short runs and sold by the thousand, not by the million. The term collectibles is used interchangeably by the toy industry when discussing two vastly different types of product, and this has muddied the water a bit. High-target collectibles benefit from a broadly enthusiastic consumer base that knows when they visit their local store, there will probably be something new for them – and that if they don’t buy it then and there, they probably won’t have the opportunity again. That’s what makes it collectible, and that’s what keeps kidults going back to the stores or websites looking for the next new thing. Some collectors will go after everything available for the one property they are passionate about, while others will collect only a very particular type of model – Banpresto Grandista, for example – across a range of anime. It’s really interesting to see how this market differs from the wider toy market.”

Bandai’s success with anime and own-IP means it now distributes McFarlane action figures, which lie within the high-target mass collectibles sector and cover comic franchises like the DC Multiverse, video games including The Witcher and Mortal Kombat, tabletop gaming properties like Warhammer 40k, and anime such as My Hero Academia. Nic tells me that McFarlane has huge growth plans, and that its 2022 portfolio is ‘really exciting’. He adds: “I believe that Bandai is the best-placed company in the marketplace to distribute this kind of product. We have really good footprint at retail, and at the same time we have a deep, continually improving understanding of the collector market and how to target it.”

Like Bandai, Eaglemoss also specialises in adult collectibles. The company’s Hero Collector brand celebrates the best of fan-favourite superhero, fantasy and science fiction universes with collectible models, statues, vehicles, ships and memorabilia. 2021 sees the expansion of its Marvel line beyond the popular figurines to include a range of prop replicas which Eaglemoss refers to as the Hero Collector Museum. This new offering allows fans to create desktop or shelf displays featuring items like Iron Man’s Helmet, Captain America’s Shield or Thor’s Hammer. Eaglemoss Hero Collector’s brand manager Chris Thompson told Toy World he was ‘really excited’ for the debut of the iconic Eagle Transporter from Space 1999 later this year, which marks the brand’s first foray into the worlds of Gerry Anderson. Hero Collector will also be expanding into new areas via its upcoming range of collectibles based on the popular Bethesda gaming properties - Fallout, Elder Scrolls and more – as well as taking on new licences and product areas for the first time.

Gaming properties are certainly gaining traction in the kidult toys community. Piggy is a free-to-play 2020 survival horror game, hosted on Roblox and created by MiniToon. The objective of the game is to escape the map by finding and using keys, tools and more, all while avoiding an evil anthropomorphic animal. To say the game has been a success would be something of an understatement; it’s picked up multiple Bloxy Awards, boasts over 8b plays and is a Top 5 game on the Roblox platform.

Demand for product among the game’s passionate fanbase is incredibly strong, and Click Distribution is therefore understandably pleased to be serving the marketplace with a raft of licensed product this year including action figures, plush, mini figures, head bundles and construction toys.

According to the NPD Group, the No. 1 category for kidults is Games & Puzzles, accounting for 23% of kidult spending. Dave Middleton ranks Dungeons & Dragons (which has enjoyed an uptick in popularity since Stranger Things was first released on Netflix in 2016) and other niche board games among his bestsellers at Midco, and Toymaster’s Paul Reader says the buying group is seeing far more adults buying into games too. “It’s way more ‘vogue’ now to be a gamer,” he says. “The likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Catan and some really quite obscure gaming titles are gaining a lot of traction among adults, and we expect this to increase with the easing of lockdown, which will let adults meet indoors once again for games nights.”

Asmodee, which distributes a huge selection of games including Catan, Pandemic, Skull and many more, expects the popularity of adult games to remain high this year, despite the easing of lockdown restrictions and the opportunity for travel, as Roger Martin, Hobby & Independent Channel director for Asmodee UK, explains. “We have always found that once people discover or rediscover the joys of modern board games, they don’t forget about them,” he said. “Consumers who discover games they really love become enthusiastic ambassadors – the opportunity to see more people will allow these players to introduce their favourite games to friends and family. Travel-friendly, component-light titles such as Skull and Just One lend themselves enormously well to beer gardens, meaning the opening of hospitality may ultimately lead to even more game-playing opportunities among adults than before.”

Paul Reader also told me: “At Toymaster, we’re also seeing more higher-ticket puzzle sales. I’ve been selling puzzles all my life, but got massively into doing them during lockdown; Gibsons and Trefl puzzles are my personal favourites. The average age of a puzzler has come down and it’s seen as quite a cool hobby now, unless you’re caught doing a 30-piece floor puzzle…. then less so.”

Paul’s point about puzzling becoming cool is a good one. While retailers like Matt Booker have been selling kidult products for decades, arguably only more recently has it become socially acceptable to buy these things for yourself. Dave Middleton reminisces: “When he was 16 or 17, buying Star Wars figures, I didn’t tell anyone because I thought I’d get beaten up. Now though, 16-year-old me would probably be considered cool. People have got to stop thinking this is a niche market for weirdos; it’s not. In America, this stuff is everywhere - Target, Walmart, Barnes and Noble – and it should be everywhere here too.”

Marketing kidult products leans heavily towards community management, speaking to existing adult fans on social media platforms to drive engagement and awareness of upcoming launches and events, as opposed to trying to instigate child pester-power or reach parents buying for their children. When Lego speaks to adult builders, Marius tells me, the company tries to reach them via their ‘hobbyist passions’ in ways that will resonate. For example, the company has previously partnered with Top Gear to

talk to adult fans with a passion for vehicles, and, as we heard earlier, launched the Lego Botanicals range around Valentine’s Day, providing couples with an inspirational and fun activity to do together.

“In addition, we are showcasing how Lego building offers adults an opportunity to relax and clear their mind through hands-on, minds-on creation and the joy that can be experienced with this,” Marius explains. “We have looked at the ways adults relax and spend their free time. With the audio space identified as a growing trend we activated our first audio campaign, reaching adults using relevant adverts linked to travel, art, vehicles and movies. We’ve also worked with popular podcast hosts to demonstrate the joy and creative fun building that Lego sets offer.”

At Bachmann, the company’s Thunderbirds products benefit from large fanbases, as does its Chopper bike models, the perfect example of a kidult gift. The company’s YouTube videos have helped build awareness of these products in the marketplace, and Facebook groups and fan pages have also been utilised. The momentum has spread from these platforms, with fans sharing images of themselves enjoying the products over social media. Carrie comments: “Marketing kidult toys is quite different to targeting a broader audience range. Buyers are looking to invest in something that helps them indulge in their passion. It is not a toy that a child may grow out of; this will be something to be kept and treasured. You need to demonstrate the quality and authenticity of the product you are making. But more than that, your product needs to touch the buyer on a personal level and evoke that desire to buy.”

Recent data and retail feedback suggests there’s clearly plenty of desire to buy in the kidult marketplace, and with that comes plenty of opportunities for toy retailers to either expand their existing ranges or explore the category for the first time. I asked our experienced kidult retailers what advice they would have for novices, and all were generous in their responses.

“My advice is this; speak to the reps at distributors like A.B.Gee or Click Distribution to get singles and smaller cases that won’t eat into your budget,” says Matt Booker. “Buy characters you recognise. If you don’t know who it is or where they’re from, avoid them. And if a customer then asks for a particular character, do your research and reconsider. Pure comic shops that stock adult collectibles do it really well, because they know the products and their consumers inside and out. I’m a little different in that my shop is half comic shop, half traditional toy shop, so I’ve been involved in both for a long time. I’d tell any toy shop wanting to dabble to try a little bit first and see how it goes. If it doesn’t fly out, don’t worry. Most kidult stuff isn’t mass-market and therefore holds its value, not being subject to discounting. If you’re investing in stock, you know that worst case scenario, you’ll make at least what you paid for it back. If you do your research, quality kidult products will be a reasonably safe bet.”

Dave Tree, meanwhile, reiterates Dave Middleton’s earlier comments regarding being open-minded, saying that retailers need to break free of the thinking that what they are selling is only intended for children - and encourage customers to think the same way too. He says: “Even if you think you do not cater for the market, you probably have been selling to kidults for years without considering that they fall into the category. That big Lego Technic set you were asked to order in? The customer who pays a visit every couple of weeks and buys an Airfix kit? And what about the regular jigsaw puzzle enthusiast who loves a new challenge?”

Dave Middleton is his usual lets-not-beat-aroundthe-bush self, telling me he thinks every toy retailer out there should be offering at least a bit of kidult stuff, and only stocking the best toy ranges for each property. The Black Series is the best Star Wars range, he says, so stock that. Hasbro Marvel Legends is the best Marvel range, so stock that too. Retailers need to be offering the best products out there: “If there are clear market leaders, why would you stock anything else?”

Suppliers are making it easier than ever for retailers to get in on the kidult action too. Asmodee’s key ranges were revamped at the start of this year to support different consumer groups more ably with go-to products; those looking to increase their kidult games offering are advised to start with the Family Games range. Asmodee supports these lines through advertising, POS materials and more, while initiatives like its AsmoFair virtual trade show – which returns for a fourth iteration this month – enables the company to communicate proactively with its retailers. Lego increased the adult appeal of its products last year with a stylish new design that spans packaging, store displays and digital experiences, which it says makes it easier for adult builders to find Lego products designed with them in mind at retail.

Hornby, meanwhile, says the heritage and brand loyalty behind Corgi, Scalextric and Airfix often results in repeat purchases, whether by collectors of die-cast models, modellers after Humbrol paints and accessories to improve their Airfix kits, or Scalextric racers wanting to make their track layout even bigger. Martyn Weaver tells me: “We have seen an increase in demand across all our brands in the last six months. Scalextric traditionally peaks in Q4, but there has been an increase in demand for nonseasonal products driven by two things. Firstly, the introduction of TV- and film-themed Scalextric cars, such as the 1960s Batmobile and Back to the Future

DeLorean, and secondly by a high level of families setting their Scalextric set up again and adding to their layout with new track pieces and cars. This element of repeat purchase really boosts sales at retail, making Scalextric a strong option for any kidult range.” Over the next few pages, Toy World brings you details on the latest kidult ranges hitting shelves this year.