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‘My price will only go up’: Collectors bank on nostalgia as they resell McDonald’s Happy Meals for adults




One of the most fascinating things about the collectibles business is the way objects are assigned value in relation to other objects that may appear almost identical to outsiders. For example, I once saw a man pull into a Kentucky liquor store parking lot and prop up a dozen bottles of bourbon on his unlocked tailgate. A few minutes later another man with a single bottle under each arm met him there. After a few moments of banter, they switched collections.

It’s like trading Pokemon cards, marbles or Beanie Babies. For the right buyer, one 1[ads1]999 Pokémon Japanese Pocket Monsters Venusaur card can be worth two 1999 Pokémon Japanese Pocket Monsters Blastoise cards. A special edition Princess Diana Beanie Baby could be exchanged for a 1993 batch of five Beanie Babies – a pink bear, a panda, a koala, a duck in a hat and a goose in a baby blue ribbon.

And for Rowan Quinain Jr., an HR professional from Chicago, a Hamburglar from new McDonald’s Adult Happy Meals was worth both his Birdie and Grimace figures.

“The Hamburglar figure was exceptionally rare in the Chicagoland area,” he told me via Facebook Messenger after I saw his offer to trade figures on the social media platform’s Marketplace.

In early October, McDonald’s announced that it would be partnering with Cactus Plant Flea Market, the buzzy streetwear label signed by celebrities like Travis Scott and Kanye West, to produce limited-edition Happy Meals complete with collectible toys. One of four figures – a Grimace, a Birdie, a Hamburglar or a “Cactus Buddy” – would be in each box.

After seeing an ad for the new meal on the McDonald’s app, Quinain Jr. immediately turned off the toys.

‘My price will only go up’: Collectors bank on nostalgia as they resell McDonald’s Happy Meals for adultsCollection of McDonald’s Happy Meal adult toys for sale (Photo courtesy of Christine Luther)“I honestly loved the design of it,” he said. “I thought it was unique and it made me very nostalgic about old Happy Meal toys at the time. So I wanted to collect the whole set for myself.”

But what he didn’t want to do was enter the predictable, if occasionally capricious, resale market that has developed for McDonald’s collectibles, which include everything from old-fashioned Happy Meal toys to packets of expired sauce.

“I really liked these figures for my own collection without any hype behind them. But I know a lot of other dealers just want them because everyone else wants them and they think the price is going to go up for them,” Quinain Jr. wrote. “Which they have, but only because people have artificially inflated prices for no real reason.”

For reference, Happy Meals for adults cost $10.79 in North Chicago, which is $2.40 more than the same meal without the toy. The current resale value of the figures starts at $20, while full packs of the toys sell for around $150 on eBay.

Shane, an Idaho-based vendor on Facebook Marketplace who asked that I only use his first name for privacy, is currently selling the toys he collected for $30 each. He has three Cactus Buddies, a Grimace, a Birdie and a Hamburglar in stock.

“Resale is hot for anything with a ‘hype brand’ behind it. Personally, I don’t buy into it, but I wasn’t going to waste the easy opportunity to possibly capitalize on it.”

“I just bought them on a whim and thought the syringes would make a lot of players pay extra for them because of the ‘hype brand,'” he said. “I just went on eBay and checked the going rate. Resale is hot for anything with a “hype brand” behind it. Personally, I don’t buy in, but I didn’t intend to waste the simple opportunity to possibly. exploit it.”

Dealers like Shane are one of the reasons why Quinain Jr. chose to trade his figures in an attempt to get the full set; according to him, it is a cheaper and cleaner process. However, Shane isn’t the only one betting that people will continue to pay a premium for these collectibles—at least for now.

Currently, there’s such fervor about the collaboration that Ava, a marketplace vendor who similarly asked that I only use her first name for privacy, is selling just the boxes the meals came in — no toy — for $50. “Years ago I 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 collectors’ items through their “veritable 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 current lives – perhaps because our diets are now different, or simply because they are no longer sold.”


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For that reason, Goldsmith said, when we have the opportunity to engage in the scarce 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 a chance to recapture some of the magic of a favorite childhood experience,” she said. “But in an act of marketing genius, McDonald’s took it one step further. They partnered with Cactus Plant Flea Market, a contemporary streetwear brand, to create unique collectible toys that were placed inside their adult meals. In doing so, they capitalized on scarcity in a different way. If you didn’t get your grown-up meal now, your chance of having intercourse could be gone forever.”

In many ways, the Adult Happy Meal craze is reminiscent of when McDonald’s briefly re-released Szechuan Sauce in 2017, a limited-use condiment offered as part of a promotion for the 1998 film “Mulan.” The sauce had developed something of a belated cult following after that it was referenced in an episode of the popular adult animated series “Rick & Morty.”

The relaunch was messy—there wasn’t nearly enough inventory, leading to riots at some McDonald’s locations—but the resale value of the sauce packets was strong. Packages were listed on eBay for $200 each (and there was a report that one package eventually resold for $14,700).

Collection of McDonald's Happy Meal Toys for adults for saleCollection of McDonald’s Happy Meal adult toys for sale (Photo courtesy of Christine Luther)As Goldsmith points out, the success of the Adult Happy Meals partnership shows that this level of consumer interest isn’t the result of lightning in a bottle. It’s replicable – and that’s what brands McDonald’s relies on during these releases.

“Given how effective scarcity marketing tactics can be, it’s no surprise that the meals sold out quickly and the toys are catching interest on the secondary market – being resold on eBay and the like,” she said.

“Right now part of me is trying to sell them, but also wants to keep them for the future when they could potentially go up in price.”

Whether they will ultimately be worth it in the long run for suppliers and collectors remains to be seen.

Christine Luther is both a collector and seller of the figures. Her interest was piqued after she received several Grimace toys in Happy Meals and realized that time was running out to put together a complete set.

As a result, she and her boyfriend spent days searching McDonald’s locations in their county for leftover toys.

“We took to eBay and noticed all the crazy listings for them,” she said. “Right now, part of me is trying to sell them, but also wants to keep them for the future when they can potentially go up in price. I definitely think the resale market is crazy high because it’s like a throwback from the 1990s.”

“It honestly feels like an opportunity because Happy Meals are going up in price,” she added. “The figures are super cute though! McDonald’s definitely knows what they’re doing with this one.”

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