- Supply-chain issues have limited stocks of hot Christmas toys, leading well-off parents to buy used.
- One parent paid nearly four times the retail price for a secondhand version of a hard-to-find toy.
- A few parents are taking advantage, flipping toys on Facebook Marketplace for a profit.
For the past six weeks, all of Chrissy Vanderwerff’s spare moments were consumed by securing the last Christmas gift on her shopping list: a Gabby’s Dollhouse for her 5-year-old daughter.
“I was refreshing Target’s and Walmart’s websites like it was my job. It really became an obsession,” the Chicago native explained. The 2-foot-tall, cat-shaped dollhouse — central to the wildly popular
series of the same name — is considered one of the “hottest toys of the year.” And because of supply-chain backlogs, it’s also the hardest to find.
At the suggestion of a fellow parent, Vanderwerff finally secured a Gabby’s Dollhouse doing something she’d never done before — buying a gift secondhand. She found a used Gabby’s Dollhouse on Mercari for $200, almost quadruple its $54.99 retail price. It was worth it, she said.
“I’ve never bought something used as a gift before, but I’ve been so desperate to get my hands on it that it seemed like the best option,” Vanderwerff said. “It feels weird to give something used as a gift, but at least on Christmas morning she’ll have it, and I doubt she’ll notice any difference.”
Since September, retail experts have warned of supply-chain delays, shortages, and delivery issues wreaking havoc on holiday shopping. Foreboding “Don’t wait!” headlines, news of choked ports on the West Coast, and concerns about counterfeit toys from third-party sellers have whipped parents into a froth.
Echoing the hysteria of the 1996 Tickle Me Elmo craze, parents have formed private Facebook groups such as Gabby’s Dollhouse Search, which describes itself as parents “helping each other find Gabby’s Dollhouses,” and Hard to Find Christmas Gifts in Chicago, which posts daily reports of stores restocking hot items, including “Mario Kart” Hot Wheels Rainbow Tracks, Xbox Series Xs, and “My Little Pony” Adventures Collections. In metro Detroit, school newsletters have included intel on “how to find toys” and “some local toy stores you might have missed.”
As this new-toy frenzy exacerbates the supply crunch, upper-middle-class suburban parents have begun turning to an alternative: the secondhand world that’s been there all along.
Parents are competing with ‘grown-ass men’ in eBay bidding wars
In interviews with a dozen parents, the hunt for used toys was a common theme.
A mom from Chicago’s wealthy Hinsdale, Illinois, suburb said she obsessively scrolled Facebook Marketplace to secure the Squishmallows she couldn’t find in stores. A software developer in Oakland, California, boasted of making a quick $5 to $10 by selling his kids’ used Magna-Tiles and Tonka trucks. And parents in a private Facebook support group for moms who’d once been squeamish about clearance items at stores described getting aggressive in eBay bidding wars over used Galactic Snackin’ Grogus — the interactive dolls that allow kids to feed the “Star Wars” character better known as Baby Yoda.
“I’ve been indirectly competing with grown-ass men for ‘Spidey and His Amazing Friends’ toys,” said Krista Kirkpatrick of Rochester Hills, Michigan. Her 3-year-old daughter wants the set of 3-inch Marvel figurines, which normally retails for $20. The set is now selling for upwards of $130 on eBay and Facebook Marketplace.
“Every time I tried to buy the damn toys, they were sold out because adults are hoarding them and reselling them for five times their value,” Kirkpatrick said. “They know parents and collectors will buy. It’s crazy — they’re made for preschoolers!”
Experts say the supply-chain crunch is hitting parents who are looking for specific toys the hardest.
“It’s not like you’ll walk into a store and not see any toys on the shelf,” said Adrienne Appell, the senior vice president of marketing and communications at the Toy Association, the industry’s trade group. “It’s the selection that is going to be an issue.”
The hottest toys are often impossible to predict, Appell explained. “The toy industry is very, very trend-driven. And at the end of the day, it’s the kids who make that decision. Parents are going to want to make the holidays magical for their kids, so if there is a product that they’re asking for, a lot of parents are going to move heaven and earth to find that product.”
That was Valerie Phelps’ position when her daughter asked for one of the year’s most unattainable gifts: a Magic Mixies Cauldron. “It’s essentially a toy cauldron for mixing potions, and then a stuffed animal pops out,” Phelps said.
When her daughter wrote a letter to Santa in October, complete with glued-in pictures of the cauldron, Phelps, aware of the toy shortages, ordered it from Amazon right away. It was scheduled to arrive on December 1, but in November, the delivery date was pushed to January 11.
Phelps hit the web to search secondhand marketplaces, where sellers were hawking used Magic Mixies for up to triple the retail price. Ultimately, she got lucky: A Target two hours away had a set still on the pallet in the back. Her husband made the drive.
The ‘perfect Christmas morning’ comes at a cost, especially for mothers
This high-stakes gift-giving pressure is what Shawn M. Burn refers to as the “Santa Claus problem.”
Burn, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University and the author of a book on “dysfunctional giving,” said Christmas in the US was “very gift-centric.” She added, “This is partly the result of relentless advertising and marketing, which promote a materialist holiday.”
“Many Americans tell young children that presents are magically produced and delivered by Santa Claus,” Burn said. “Parents, particularly mothers, must actualize the Christmas fantasy for their children to avoid disappointing them on Christmas Day. Given all the additional difficulties our children have faced due to COVID-19, parents may feel even more pressure to give their children the perfect Christmas morning.”
For Beth Beyer’s kids, Christmas is a rare opportunity for “normal” after a difficult past few years that have included COVID and her husband’s deployment as a Navy reservist.
“I had Amazon wish lists prepped by the end of August so that we would have plenty of time to get alternates in case a toy didn’t work out,” said Beyer, who lives in Detroit. For years, she’d been eyeing an easel from Ikea that was continually in and out of stock.
“I ended up using some PTO to drive the hour to Ikea for pickup in September, when I managed to snag one,” Beyer said. “I coordinated
Santa because I didn’t want my kids to miss out on yet another thing. Christmas is one big highlight for them, and I just wanted it to feel that way.”
That’s a common attitude among moms, said Karen Liska, a life coach. “In my experience, and from what I see from friends and coaching clients, gift shopping is part of the ‘mental load’ of what moms tend to take on. Particularly in heteronormative white families, the tradition of holidays seems to include a lot of work being done by the mother in the household.”
Attitudes toward secondhand gifts are changing fast
While the resale market has surged in recent years, growing 21 times as fast as the broader
, re-commerce for gifts largely remains taboo. But that may be changing.
In a November study commissioned by Mercari, the retail analytics firm GlobalData found that 77% of adults polled planned to buy at least one secondhand item this holiday season.
The study projected that consumers would spend $69.2 billion on secondhand holiday items, up 24% from last year. While a majority of respondents said saving money was their biggest reason for shopping secondhand, 10% said they would do so because of supply-chain issues.
For many parents who could otherwise afford brand-new gifts, the biggest hurdle to acceptance was overcoming the “ew” factor. “Especially during COVID, it’s hard for me to think about giving my kid something that has been used by a stranger or multiple strangers,” said Lindsay Olmetti in Los Angeles, who bought her son a used Nintendo Switch on Facebook Marketplace. “It’s funny,” she added. “I doubt my son would notice. It’s more in my head.”
Others feel constrained by the cultural belief that gifts should be brand-new. “I’m generally pretty open-minded about buying secondhand items,” said Bailey Faria, who lives in Chicago. “But there’s something about this being a gift that makes me feel like it should be new.”
A ‘paradigm shift’ in giving could be better for families — and the planet
But some parents enjoy the ease of re-commerce.
“In a world where every other 10-year-old boy wants a Galactic Snackin’ Grogu, it feels pretty good to be the dad that got one, no matter where it’s from,” said Kenny Rausch in Chicago, who bought a used Baby Yoda toy for his son on Facebook Marketplace during his lunch break.
Others have capitalized on the frenzy.
When Rachel Friedman joined Facebook Marketplace to get rid of her son’s outgrown toys, she simply wanted “a more minimalist lifestyle.”
“But when I heard about the toy shortage, I realized this could be a great opportunity,” said Friedman, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Parents need toys!” And the profits from “anything we sold could go right into my son’s gifts for this year,” she continued.
It was a time-intensive process — photographing items, listing them, going back and forth with potential buyers. But Friedman has now sold enough of her son’s gently used books, clothes, Magna-Tiles, and trendy Melissa & Doug toys to cover the cost of all his holiday gifts this year. And her shoppers, Friedman said, were surprised to see how well-cared-for used items could be.
The “ew” factor may have met its match in a pandemic-affected economy where kids determine the most powerful holiday currencies: Magic Mixies, Squishmallows, and “Paw Patrol” Cruiser Cars. And that could be good for the society (and planet) those kids are set to inherit, Burn said.
“I think that we need a paradigm shift — not only because psychological research is clear that the happiness that materialism buys is fleeting but because our current materialism comes at the expense of future environmental sustainability,” she continued.
Burn added, “Perhaps if parents thought more about their consumer behavior and its implications for the world their children will inherit, it would provide the strength to resist the materialistic social paradigm.”