One of the most fascinating things about the collectibles business is the way items are assigned value relative to other elements that can appear almost identical to strangers. For example, I once saw a man pull into a Kentucky liquor store parking lot and place a dozen bottles of bourbon in the unlocked tailgate of his truck. A few minutes later, another man cradling a single bottle under each arm found him there. After a few moments of chat, they exchanged collections.
It’s like trading Pokémon cards, marbles, or Beanie Babies. For the right shopper, one 1999 Pokemon Japanese Pocket Monsters Venusaur card could be worth two 1999 Pokemon Japanese Pocket Monsters Blastoise cards. A special edition Princess Diana Beanie Baby could be traded for a batch of five 1993 Beanie Babies: a bear pink, a panda, a koala, a duck with a hat and a goose with a baby blue ribbon.
And for Rowan Quinain Jr., a Chicago human resources professional, a Hamburglar of McDonald’s new Adult Happy Meals was worth his Birdie and Grimace figurines.
“The Hamburglar figurine was exceptionally rare in the Chicagoland area,” he told me via Facebook messenger after I saw his offer to trade his figurines on the social media platform’s Marketplace.
In early October, McDonald’s announced that it would partner with Cactus Plant Flea Market, the lively streetwear brand co-signed by celebrities like Travis Scott and Kanye West, to produce limited-run Happy Meals with collectible toys. One of four figurines—Mueca, Pajarito, Hamburglar, or “Cactus Buddy”—would be in each box.
After seeing an ad for the new food on the McDonald’s app, the toys immediately caught Quinain Jr.’s attention.
McDonald’s Adult Happy Meal Toy Collection for sale (Photo courtesy of Christine Luther)“Honestly, I loved the design,” he said. “I thought it was unique, and it gave me a lot of nostalgia for old Happy Meal toys in the past. So, I wanted to collect the whole set for myself.”
But what he didn’t want to do was wade into the predictable, if occasionally capricious, resale market that has developed for McDonald’s collectibles, encompassing everything from old-school Happy Meal toys to discontinued sauce packets.
“I really enjoyed these figures for my own collection without any hype behind them. But I know a lot of other resellers want them because everyone wants them, and they think the price is going to go up for them,” Quinain Jr. . wrote. “They have, but only because people have been artificially inflating prices for no real reason.”
For reference, Adult Happy Meals are $10.79 in North Chicago, which is $2.40 more than the same meal without the toy. The current resale value of the figurines starts at $20, while complete packages of the toys sell for around $150 on eBay.
Shane, an Idaho-based seller on Facebook Marketplace who asked me to use only his first name for privacy reasons, currently sells the toys he picked up for $30 each. He has three Cactus Buddies, a Grimace, a Birdie, and a Hamburglar currently in stock.
“Resale is all the rage for anything with a ‘fashion brand’ behind it. Personally, I wouldn’t buy it, but I wasn’t about to pass up an easy opportunity to capitalize on it.”
“I just bought them on a whim thinking the hype would make a lot of influence hunters pay more for them because of the ‘hype branding,'” he said. “I went on eBay and checked the going rate. Resale is all the rage for anything that has a ‘hype brand’ behind it. Personally, I wouldn’t buy it, but I wasn’t about to pass up an easy opportunity to possibly capitalize on it.”
Resellers like Shane are one of the reasons Quinain Jr. opted to trade his figurines in an effort to get the full set; according to him, it is a cheaper and cleaner process. However, Shane isn’t the only one betting on the fact that people will continue to pay a premium for these collectibles, at least for now.
Currently, there is such fervor around the collaboration that Ava, a Marketplace seller who also asked me to use only her first name for privacy reasons, is selling just the boxes the meals came in, no toys, for $50 . “Years ago she collected Precious Moments and Hummels and Hallmark ornaments,” she wrote via messenger. “I know how collectors can be.”
According to Kelly Goldsmith, the E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Marketing at Vanderbilt University, McDonald’s and the Cactus Plant Flea Market essentially created a bait for collectors through their “true Russian doll of scarcity marketing tactics.”
“There’s a natural relationship between scarcity and nostalgia,” Goldsmith told Salon Food. “Things we are nostalgic for, like foods from our childhood, are inherently scarce in our lives today, perhaps because our diets are different now, or simply because they are no longer sold.”
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For that reason, Goldsmith said, when we get a chance to engage in that rare but special nostalgic consumption, we often jump at the chance.
“McDonald’s first capitalized on this by offering ‘adult happy meals,’ designed to give today’s adults the chance to recapture some of the magic of a favorite childhood experience,” he said. “However, in an act of marketing genius, McDonald’s went one step further. It partnered with Cactus Plant Flea Market, a hip streetwear brand, to create one-of-a-kind collectible toys that were placed inside their happy meals for adults. In doing so, they took advantage of the shortage in a second way. If you didn’t get your adult happy meal now, your chance at the collectible toy could be gone forever.”
In many ways, the Adult Happy Meal craze is reminiscent of McDonald’s in 2017 briefly relaunching Szechuan Sauce, a limited-run condiment offered as part of a promotion for the 1998 movie “Mulan.” The sauce had developed something of a late cult following after it was mentioned in an episode of the popular adult animated series “Rick & Morty.”
The relaunch was messy: there was not enough inventory, leading to riots at some McDonald’s locations, but the resale value of the sauce packets was strong. The packs were listed on eBay for $200 each (and there was a report that one pack was eventually resold for $14,700).
McDonald’s Adult Happy Meal Toy Collection for sale (Photo courtesy of Christine Luther)However, as Goldsmith points out, the success of the Adult Happy Meals collaboration shows that this level of consumer interest is not the result of lightning in a bottle. It’s replicable, and that’s what brands like McDonald’s are counting on during these launches.
“Given how effective scarcity marketing tactics can be, it’s no surprise that meals are selling out fast and toys are garnering interest on the secondary market, being resold on eBay and the like,” he said.
“Right now part of me is trying to sell them, but also wants to hold on to them for the future when they potentially go up in price.”
Whether they will ultimately pay off in the long run for sellers and collectors remains to be seen.
Christine Luther is both a collector and a seller of figurines. Her interest was piqued after she received several Grimace toys in her Happy Meals and realized that she was running out of time to put together a complete set.
As a result, she and her boyfriend spent days scouring McDonald’s locations in their county looking for the remaining toys.
“We went to eBay and noticed all the crazy listings for them,” he said. “Right now part of me is trying to sell them, but also wants to keep them for the future when they potentially go up in price. I definitely think the resale market is incredibly high because it’s like a throwback piece from the 1990s. “
“Honestly, it feels like a gamble because Happy Meals add to the price,” he added. “The figures are super cute though! McDonald’s definitely knows what they’re doing with this one.”
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