“My price will only go up”: Collectors bet on nostalgia as they resell McDonald’s Adult Happy Meals

One of the most fascinating things about the collectibles business is the way in which 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 liquor store parking lot in Kentucky and prop up a dozen bottles of bourbon on his unlocked tailgate. A few minutes later, another man, cradling a single bottle under each arm, met him there. After a few moments of small talk, they switched collections.

It’s like trading Pokemon cards, bullets or Beanie Babies. To the right buyer, one 1999 Pokemon Japanese Pocket Monsters Venusaur card can be worth two 1999 Pokemon Japanese Pocket Monsters Blastoise cards. A special edition Princess Diana Beanie Baby could be exchanged for a 1993 lot 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., a human resources professional from Chicago, a hamburger from the new McDonald’s Adult Happy Meals hosted both his Birdie and Grimace figures.

“The hamburger figure was exceptionally rare in the Chicagoland area,” he told me via Facebook Messenger after I saw his offer to trade his 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. was immediately smitten by the toys.

Collection of McDonald's Happy Meal toys for adults for saleCollection of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys for adults 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 really nostalgic about old Happy Meal toys back in the day. So I wanted to collect the whole set for myself.”

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

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“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 will go up for them,” Quinain Jr. wrote. “Which they have, but only because people have artificially raised prices for no real reason.”

For reference, Adult Happy Meals cost $10.79 in North Chicago, which is $2.40 more than the same meal without the toy. The current resale value for 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 picked up for $30 each. He has three Cactus Buddies, a Grimace, a Birdie and a Hamburglar currently left in stock.

“Retail is hot for anything with a ‘hype tag’ behind it. Personally, I’m not buying into it, but I wasn’t going to waste the easy opportunity to possibly capitalize on it.”

“I just bought them on a whim, thinking the hype would make a lot of influential chasers pay extra for them because of the ‘hype brand,'” he said. “I just went on eBay and checked the going rate. Retail sales are hot for anything with a “hype brand” behind it. Personally, I don’t buy into it, but I wasn’t going to waste the simple possibility that ev. take advantage of 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 on the fact that people will continue to pay a premium for these collectibles — at least for now.

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Currently, there’s such fervor around 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 collusion through their “veritable Russian doll of scarcity marketing tactics.”

“There’s a natural connection 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 now our diets are different, or simply because they are no longer sold.”

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For that reason, Goldsmith said, when we have an 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. “However, in an act of marketing genius, McDonald’s took it a step further. They partnered with Cactus Plant Flea Market, a modern streetwear brand, to create unique, collectible toys that were placed in their happy meals for adults. In this way, they took advantage of the shortage in a different way. If you didn’t get your adult meal now, your chance to get the collectible may be gone for good.”

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

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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 toys for adults for sale (Photo courtesy of Christine Luther)But 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 like McDonald’s count 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 capturing 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 vendors and collectors remains to be seen.

Christine Luther is both a collector and seller of the figurines. Her interest was piqued after she received several Grimace toys in her Happy Meals and realized that time might be running out to assemble 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 tagged all the crazy listings for them,” she said. “Right now, part of me is trying to sell them but also want 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 piece from the 1990s.”

“It honestly feels like a gamble 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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