Nick’s body buzzed and heart rate quickened as he zigzagged through the aisles of Walgreens. His eyes darted left and right.
The fandom is often likened to the Beanie Baby craze — and on its way to be an enduring brand like Hello Kitty and Pokémon
No, it’s not a lottery ticket or a rare baseball card. It’s a Squishmallow — the soft, squeezable plush toy designed as animals or inanimate objects with big bellies and sweet faces. Nick has about 400 and estimates he has spent over $2,000 in the past two years.
In just a few years, the toy, which ranges in size from two to 24 inches and costs between $5.99 and $39.99, has surged in popularity with all age groups. According to Jazwares, which acquired Squishmallow parent company KellyToy in 2019, fans 18 and up are driving sales.
And the growth has been organic. Jazwares has never done an advertising campaign for the toy. Instead, a combination of timing and strategic expansion has propelled Squishmallows to an elite status — named last year by market research firm Circana as a top toy property alongside Lego, Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. A private company, Jazwares does not release sales figures, but Circana reported the 16-inch Squishmallow was the top-selling toy of 2022 in the U.S. and Canada.
With over 11 billion organic impressions on TikTok, the fandom is often likened to the Beanie Baby craze — and on its way to be an enduring brand like Hello Kitty and Pokémon.
The toy isn’t a fad, said toy expert and consultant Chris Byrne. It hasn’t become mainstream yet. Rather, it’s all about the fans. “They are loyal and they are passionate and they are buying enough to make Jazwares very rich,” Byrne said. “So will these become classic? Absolutely.”
Sunny Cho was a designer at KellyToy when her boss asked her to come up with designs for a stretchy, soft fabric she had recently sourced. Cho wanted something different — something that resembled the Japanese-style of plush that hadn’t yet made its way to the United States.
First came the egg shape, then the belly and face. She first designed a cat, then penguins, hedgehogs, owls, llamas and foxes, making 12 in total. Now the senior director of product design, Cho credits her experience as a plush designer in understanding popular market trends.
The first “squad,” as the company calls it, was released in 2017 and mainly sold at amusement parks and specialty mom and pop shops.
Customers instantly connected with Squishmallows, but KellyToy was limited in its ability to scale distribution and manufacturing, according to James Zahn, editor in chief of the trade publication the Toy Book and senior editor at the Toy Insider.
“It took off in a way no one really expected,” he said. “Part of the initial appeal of Squishmallows was the fact that they were a little harder to get.”
That changed in 2019 when Sunrise, Fla.,-based toy manufacturer Jazwares acquired KellyToy. Now Cho can walk into most big-box grocery and drugstores and see her designs for sale — a feeling she describes as “just incredible.” The plush toy is now available in Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, Costco, Five Below, TJ Maxx, Hallmark, independent toy stores and more.
It was during the pandemic when Squishmallows really expanded, according to Byrne. Children found them soothing, and parents didn’t mind picking one up during a grocery haul thanks to its reasonable price.
“There’s a real comfort in squishing them,” he said, noting how parents told him of the toys’ calming effect during the pandemic, when many children were overwhelmed with anxiety.
It’s not uncommon for toy sales to do well during economic and social turmoil, Zahn said, adding: “Plush has been one of those categories since the beginning of the modern toy industry.”
But Squishmallows are different from other modern plush toys in their unusual attraction among adults. Nancy Ferrell, 31, was gifted a few Squishmallows when she was recovering from surgery in March 2020.
“It brings joy,” said Ferrell, who works in career services and community-based learning at Goucher College in Towson, Md. Soon after she recovered, she admits, she “started to become kind of obsessed.”
Collecting with her friends gave her a way to connect with a new community that is largely online, she says. Ferrell and her wife now have about 200 Squishmallows.
This organic progression from casual buyer to super fan is Squishmallows’ secret sauce. Gerhard Runken, Jazwares senior vice president of brand and marketing, attributes this growth to a “grass-roots approach.”
The “fan base just grew and grew,” Runken said. So, following the acquisition, he focused on making it as “a narrative-based brand — character-driven, squad-driven.”
The toys “let people collect deep into characters,” he added.
Each Squishmallow has a name, a “squish date” for when they were born and a detailed backstory. There’s Winston, an aspiring chef owl; Leonard, a vegetarian lion who loves to nap; Tatiana, a dragon who has dance-offs with friends and goes to the library; and Lalinda, a polka-dot giraffe pop star.
Nadia Lindstrom, who has about 30 Squishmallows, said she bought a “sort of sad-looking” one solely because of its bio. (His name is Shep and he’s a long-haul truck driver looking for a travel companion.)
“Okay, he’s coming home with me,” is how the 30-year-old describes her reaction after reading the tag.
Squishmallows are also diverse and inclusive. They include characters who are nonbinary as well as characters who are deaf, blind or use a wheelchair.
“There was nothing else like them,” said Zahn, of Toy Book and Toy Insider. “They hit every interest level and they always kept it fresh.”
You “have this fan base … [with] an insatiable appetite for more sizes, more styles, and they love the thrill of the hunt,” he added.
In the corner of Carter Kench’s bedroom is a mountain of Squishmallows stacked so high it nearly brushes the ceiling. The 20-year-old in Los Angeles works full time as a content creator, and most of his posts involve the plush toy. He has over 9.6 million followers across YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. His first viral video — of him as a life-size claw machine being lowered into a pit of Squishmallows — has about 43 million views across his social media channels.
But most of Kench’s content involves him going on “Squish hunts” — outings to several stores to buy a certain plush.
Kench, who has about 430, called the experience “something special.”
“I feel like Indiana Jones every time I’m on the hunt,” he said.
Nick, who also has about 400 Squishmallows, said he has traveled 90 minutes to camp outside a store at 5:30 a.m. waiting for it to open.
“It’s an addiction,” he said, going so far as to sneak behind the store and open a box sitting unattended in hopes of locating the Squishmallow he had traveled so far to buy. He found it.
The fandom around Squishmallows is fervent. Enthusiasts often organize meetups where they hang out and trade Squishmallows. They follow Squishmallow influencers, track new squad releases and licensing deals, and trade information on the Squishmallows subreddit. Many are involved in local Squishhunting Facebook groups, where fans flag new inventory drops at local stores.
The community also skews older. The toy industry has coined it “kidulting,” when adults seek out products that remind them of their youth.
Lindstrom, who works in insurance, sees that connection. “I love my sort of childish things, but I feel like a lot of people are leaning into that.”
Also appealing is that the Squishmallows community is welcoming and cooperative, a “special love,” Kench noted.
“We all want to collect as many as we can, but we also want to help everyone else also collect the same thing,” he said.
As the fan base grew, Runken worked with his marketing team at Jazwares to feed the frenzy. The company has partnered with major brands like Star Wars, Pokémon, Disney, Hershey’s, Godzilla and Hello Kitty. Jazwares also has exclusive lines with some retailers.
“It’s a great strategy,” Byrne, the toy consultant, said. “It’s a way of driving traffic and preserving margins, because if Target has an exclusive at $9.99 and Walmart has an exclusive at $9.99, they’re not really competing on price.”
Squishmallows are now sold in over 50 countries and Jazwares has more than 60 consumer licensees — all of which were carefully chosen and curated, Runken said, to usher the plush toy into a lifestyle brand.
“We started really slow because we wanted to see how that resonated with our fan base,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is oversaturate a market with products … that kill the core brand.”
There are Squishmallow backpacks, apparel, stickers, nail polish, slippers and bath bombs. Celestra Acosta has a T-shirt and uses her Squishmallows stationery at her job in finance in the Bay Area.
“The plush is not something I can bring around all the time,” the 26-year-old said. “But I could use a notebook, I could use a pen, and it kind of makes the day feel a little more fun — adds a little whimsy.”