From nostalgia to art: why adults love toys

In his free time, Stefan Will delves into his toy kingdom one floor below.

From nostalgia to art: why adults love toys

In his free time, Stefan Will delves into his toy kingdom one floor below. His Playmobil worlds fill an entire apartment in Heroldsberg, Central Franconia. "I like the attention to detail. That has always fascinated me," he says and proudly shows the medieval town with half-timbered houses, blacksmith shop, church and defensive towers, which he has built up on a shelf like a diorama. Will is 53 years old and has long since passed the toy age – or so one would think.

But there are many other adults who are still or have regained an interest in toys. Will also has to do with them professionally. He is the managing director of Ultra Comix in Nuremberg, a store that, in addition to comics, also sells lots of toys for adults: action figures like Masters of the Universe, electronic Star Wars helmets, Lord of the Rings collectible figures, toy sets from iconic films and series like A-Team or James Bond as well as miniatures games, where the fantasy or science fiction models are first painted and then brought to life on the playing field.

95 percent of the customers in the store are adults or teenagers, says Will. “We have been serving this customer group for a long time.” These include people who were looking to slow down or take a break from everyday life. Action figures are often about nostalgia. “What we sell well are the characters that adults grew to love in their childhood,” explains Will.

Adults who love video games or collect toys, for example, have been around for a long time. “Kidults” – a word created from kid (child) and adults (adults) is what experts call this group. “This is a development that we have been seeing for 10, 15 years,” says trend expert Toan Nguyen, managing director of the Jung von Matt Nerd agency. But this has now received a new boost.

The world's largest toy fair in Nuremberg also sees adults playing as an important trend and is therefore highlighting products for them at its next edition in early 2024. “Kidults represent a high-sales target group for retailers due to their purchasing power,” says Christian Ulrich, CEO of the Spielwarenmesse. In the USA alone, these are responsible for around 25 percent of toy sales, around nine billion dollars per year. There are already stores in Japan and South Korea that focus on Kidults products. In his opinion, more such shops and trading platforms could be created in this country too.

“Adult toys have become an important area,” confirms Ulrich Brobeil from the German Association of the Toy Industry in Nuremberg. “All manufacturers are adapting accordingly.” This is a good opportunity to open up new markets, says Munich market researcher Axel Dammler. "In the children's market, many toy manufacturers are fighting for the children's favor. Products that adults pick up can also command completely different prices."

An example of this are building block manufacturers such as Lego. In his free time, Dammler himself likes to build complex sets made up of many thousands of stones. He says there is a Titanic and several princess castles in his basement. But he just builds some sets and then sells them again.

A set like this can cost up to a few hundred euros. Children are not the target group here either. For some time now, Lego has had sets that are specifically designed for builders aged 18 and over. The Lego Group said there is a growing number of adult fans “for whom we offer products tailored to their interests.” The Danish toy company could not say how much these contribute to sales. However, the focus is still on children and their needs.

But what drives adult toy fans? Trend expert Nguyen has identified three different types: There are the nostalgic people. These are adults who buy the toys from back then - and possibly also the things they wanted as a child but couldn't afford.

This also includes Stefan Will. When he became a father, his Playmobil memories came back to him. He built the worlds with his son, played role-playing games with the characters and recreated historical battles. “As a child, he often accused me of having more Playmobil than him,” says Will with a grin. The son got older, but Will's passion did not subside. Last year, his son moved out of the apartment on the ground floor of his house - and took over the Playmobil collection, says Will.

The second type of adults playing are the super fans, says Nguyen. "These are people who have never stopped collecting." Over the years, a collection grew significantly with age and increasing income.

The last type, according to Nguyen, is the avant-garde. These included US rapper Travis Scott and other celebrities who created hype with a chunky red boot inspired by cartoons. "Toys become a status symbol. You not only show that you have money, but also that you have taste," says Nguyen. People used to look at watches and sneakers, but now toys are taking over the role. Nguyen also decorated his office with toys. He says that some of it comes from Hong Kong or the USA. “It’s almost more like art.”

And like with art, toys can also be an investment. This applies, for example, to rare trading cards from Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokémon. “We’re currently experiencing a renaissance in trading card games,” says Will. There are platforms where these are traded and agencies that evaluate the condition. “Some cards are purchased by financial speculators because they are worth six figures.”