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

An Adult Happy Meal costs around $10.79. The accompanying toys are being sold in $150 collector's packs on eBay

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 22, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Adult Happy Meal Toys (Photo courtesy of McDonald's)
Adult Happy Meal Toys (Photo courtesy of McDonald's)

One of the most fascinating things about the business of collectibles is the way in which items are assigned value in relation to other items that may seem nearly identical to outsiders. For instance, I once watched a man pull into a Kentucky liquor store parking lot and set up about a dozen bottles of bourbon on his unlatched pick-up tailgate. A few minutes later, another man cradling a single bottle under each arm met him there. After a few moments of chit-chat, they swapped collections.

It's like trading Pokemon cards, marbles or Beanie Babies. To the right buyer, 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 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 to Rowan Quinain Jr., a human resources professional from Chicago, one Hamburglar from the new McDonald's Adult Happy Meals was worth both his Birdie and Grimace figurines.

"The Hamburglar figure was exceptionally rare in the Chicagoland area," he told me via Facebook messenger after I spotted his offer to trade his figurines on the social media platform's Marketplace.

In early October, McDonald's announced they would be partnering with Cactus Plant Flea Market, the buzzy streetwear brand co-signed by celebrities like Travis Scott and Kanye West, to produce the limited-run Happy Meals complete with collectible toys. One of four figurines — a Grimace, a Birdie, a Hamburglar or a "Cactus Buddy" — would be in each box.

After seeing an advertisement for the new meal on the McDonald's app, Quinain Jr. was immediately struck by the toys.

Collection of McDonald's Adult Happy Meal Toys for saleCollection of McDonald's Adult Happy Meal 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 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 occasionally capricious, resale market that has developed for McDonald's collectibles, which encompasses everything from old-school Happy Meal toys to packets of discontinued sauce.

"I genuinely enjoyed these figures for my own collection without any hype behind them. But I know that a lot of other resellers 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 been artificially inflating prices for no real reason."

For reference, the 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 of the figurines starts at $20, while full packs of the toys are selling for around $150 on eBay.

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

"The 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 thinking the hype would make a lot of clout chasers pay extra for them because of the 'hype brand,'" he said. "I just went on eBay and checked the going rate. The 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."

Resellers like Shane are one of the reasons Quinain Jr. opted to trade with his figurines in an effort to get the full set; according to him, it's a cheaper and cleaner process. However, Shane's not the only one betting on the fact that people will continue to pay a premium for these collectibles — at least for now.

Currently, there's such a fervor surrounding the collaboration that Ava, a Marketplace vendor who similarly asked that I use only 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 Cactus Plant Flea Market essentially created collector bait through their "veritable Russian doll of scarcity marketing tactics."

"There is 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 present day lives — perhaps because now our diet is different, or simply because they are no longer sold."

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For that reason, Goldsmith said, when we have an occasion to engage in that 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 present-day 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 one step further. They partnered with Cactus Plant Flea Market, a modern-day streetwear brand, to create unique, collectible toys that were placed inside their adult happy meals. In doing so, they leveraged scarcity in a second way. If you didn't get your adult happy meal now, your chance to get the collectible toy might be gone for good."

In many ways, the Adult Happy Meal craze is reminiscent of when in 2017 McDonald's briefly re-released Szechuan Sauce, a limited-run condiment that was 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."

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

Collection of McDonald's Adult Happy Meal Toys for saleCollection of McDonald's Adult Happy Meal Toys 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 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 is no surprise that the meals sold out quickly and the toys are captivating 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 may potentially go up in price."

Whether they'll 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 piqued after she received multiple Grimace toys in her Happy Meals and realized time might be running out to put together a complete set.

As a result, she and her boyfriend spent days canvassing McDonald's locations in their county for remaining 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 may potentially go up in price. I definitely think the resale market is crazy high because it is like a throwback piece from the 1990s."

"It honestly feels like a gamble because the Happy Meals do add up in price," she added. "The figures are super cute though! McDonald's definitely knows what they're doing with this one."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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