The ‘90s are calling and they want their collectibles back — for millions.
Five years ago, just as the streetwear market began to go mainstream, Detroit-based StockX launched as a resale platform to connect sneaker enthusiasts with sellers of hard-to-find kicks. The company quickly gained steam as it evolved into a fluid platform that the company says is “a marketplace for consumers of current culture.” In a bit of serendipitous timing, many StockX customers have also turned their attention to the collectibles space as certain brands are becoming just old enough to now have products of great value. The platform is just one place where a sophisticated, new generation of collectors is seeking fun investment opportunities.
“Brands are harkening back to early childhood memories and creating products that activate buyers’ sense of nostalgia,” says StockX Senior Economist Jesse Einhorn. “Whether it’s retro video games, LEGO sets, or Pokémon cards, many of the products performing well today have ties to the past.”
THE RETRO SCALE SLIDES CLOSER
Traditionally, nostalgia runs about 30 years behind the present day. In the 1980s, there was a large obsession with the ‘50s that was solidified in the plot of Back to the Future. In the ‘90s, the Woodstock generation of the ‘60s was back in the spotlight. Now, we’re living in the right era that the ‘90s are having a resurgence, but in ways unlike any generation before it.
“We’ve seen a big uptick in anything from the ‘90s — Jurassic Park, Power Rangers, Dragon Ball Z, and beyond,” says Todd Jordan, owner of Kokomo Toys & Collectibles in Kokomo, Indiana. “A lot of that generation is coming into money now that they have secure jobs and their own families.”
While Tamagotchi is back and Furby waits to knock off the cobwebs, one franchise born in the ‘90s has never gone away and is bigger than most people realize. And, as Jordan says, the socioeconomic position of its original fans has a lot to do with it.
“Pokémon is the largest selling retail brand of all time across all entertainment genres,” says Jeremy Padawer, executive vice president and partner at Jazwares. “It’s the largest despite being around for only 25 years globally and just 22 in the U.S. Essentially, the 6-12-year-old consumer in 1999 is now 27-33 years old. This consumer is just coming into money. They are on their first or second job that actually pays reasonably. … [They have] never grown out of Pokémon and are coming into their own.”
GOTTA COLLECT AND FLIP ‘EM ALL
Padawer, whose company produces Pokémon toys under license from The Pokémon Co. International, has come into the spotlight himself over the past year due to the high-profile secondary market for Pokémon cards alongside other sports and trading cards. Padawer has been investing heavily in the market and has grown a large social media following by connecting with toy collectors and trading card enthusiasts.
“Pokémon as an investment-grade collectible absolutely exploded during the pandemic,” he says. “If you think secondary market values of rare, high-grade, vintage Pokémon cards are shocking now — with some individual cards approaching $500,000 to $1 million — just wait until these 27-33-year-old kids are 40-50 years old. The highest valued sports cards, currently, are worth more than $25 million each. It wouldn’t shock me to see a vintage Pokémon card eclipse the most valuable sports cards in the decades yet to come.”
At StockX, the average price of a PSA 10-graded Pokémon card is up 300% year-over-year. The amount spent on Pokémon products doubled between December 2020-January 2021, and then it doubled again between January and February. According to Einhorn, Pokémon now ranks among the top 10 biggest brands on the StockX marketplace based on monthly trades in March, even outpacing the major sneaker brands that the platform was originally built for.
“We’ve seen more than 5,000 trades of the 2020 Pokémon Champions Path Elite Trainer Box, which offers buyers a shot at pulling a rare and valuable Charizard card,” Einhorn says.
In February, eBay released its first-ever State of Trading Cards Report in an effort to crunch some extraordinary numbers. Unsurprisingly, Pokémon topped the charts with a 574% increase in total sales for the year. Basketball, baseball, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering, and football cards rounded out the top five.
“Last year saw an industry-wide surge in collecting and flipping trading cards due in large part to people staying home and finding new ways to spend their time, turning to cards while there was a lack of sports on TV,” says Nicole Colombo, general manager of collectibles and trading cards at eBay.
eBay data shows that last year, Pokémon sales averaged five items per minute, with Star Wars close behind with four sales per minute.
More time at home, a lack of in-person gatherings, and an early pandemic stock market dip created a perfect storm, according to Padawer. And all of those ingredients managed to bring people together as they built wealth in new ways.
“The truth is that the collectible asset class has over-indexed returns on investment for more than a decade, and during quarantine, this only accelerated,” he says. “So we embraced [online] collectible communities substituting for our physical communities and had a great ROI as a result.”
Within recent weeks, the surge in trading card interest has hit the mainstream as Target temporarily paused in-store sales due to customers fighting over the limited supply.
DROP IT LIKE IT’S HOT
As the lines between toys and collectibles have blurred, some toymakers have started doing limited “drops’’ akin to sneakers and streetwear. Hasbro first teamed up with NTWRK to sell exclusive products directly to consumers during fan convention season in 2019, and the movement spiked last year with the Mattel Creations launch. In February, more than 30 brands took part in NTWRK’s Unboxed Virtual Toy Festival by offering products for an ultra-limited time.
“By leveraging scarcity, brands can create a sense of exclusivity and generate excitement around limited-run products,” Einhorn says. “We expect more and more brands to test this out, and to combine these drops with a broader collaboration strategy. Collaborations with youth culture brands can give established brands the opportunity to build awareness with the next generation of consumers and generate hype.”
One big hit from the past year is the Travis Scott Cactus Jack Fortnite AR-Goosebumps NERF Elite Dart Blaster from Hasbro. The blaster was revealed in a virtual Fortnite event in April 2020 and StockX has facilitated more than 500 trades since it shipped last fall.
PREPARING FOR THE NEXT WAVE
At Kokomo Toys, one of the largest independent toy stores in the Midwest, Jordan has seen increased demand for vintage toys from some of the usual suspects, such as G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, and Star Wars. Those brands also have plenty of new, retro-inspired products on the market and continue to extend their reach by bridging the gap between modern and vintage collectors. But there are signs that other, lesser-known vintage brands from the late ‘80s to early ‘00s are returning to the forefront.
“I’ve seen a lot of interest in more obscure lines like Silverhawks, Centurions, and Visionaries — and even Toxic Crusaders and Starcom over the past couple of years,” Jordan says. “I could see some interest in retro reissues or remakes of those lines for sure.”
In 2016, the same year that StockX launched, retro toys and games were hailed as a trend that was expected to fade again within a year or two. But retro has essentially become a category itself as the trend has yet to go away.
Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition Mini debuted in November 2016 and was followed a year later by the SNES Classic Edition Mini. Both were officially discontinued in 2018, but interest continues at StockX, where the SNES Mini consistently commands an average of 56% more than its original retail price.
As the toy industry continues to look for new properties or the next big comeback, some of the hottest potential nostalgia brands may be lurking in the not-so-distant past. “Old” doesn’t feel as far off as it used to, and the turn-of-the-century brands that ushered in a new millennium first hit the scene two decades ago.
Calling the Bratz, LEGO Bionicle, HitClips, and Nintendo GameCube: You’re on deck.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!