These days, toys are more than just kid's stuff. Items such as video games, yo-yos and model cars are proving just as popular with adults as they are with children, and retailers are eagerly cashing in on the craze.
The Sharper Image, a San Francisco-based chain with a local outlet in the Gallery at Harborplace, is frequently described as a "toy store for adults." Along with cordless phones and tiny TVs, the Sharper Image sells an amazing array of model cars, ranging from $15 Corvettes to a $299 remote-control-operated monster truck. These miniature vehicles give everyone who loved playing with Matchbox cars a way to carry their passion into middle age.
"The people who are buying [the cars] are typically men and they are about 40 years old," says Sara Wong, public relations coordinator for the Sharper Image. "They work hard during the day, and they want to come home and play."
This is probably one of the first times in history that there has been such a grand interest on the part of adults in toys, not only for their children, but for themselves," says Jody Levin, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America. "And of course we have to go after the adult market. The baby boom generation is such a huge proportion of the population. It has tremendous spending power."
But while baby boomers still cherish their childhood favorites, such as model trains and Monopoly, they've also been quick to embrace modern, high-tech toys, particularly video games. Nintendo spokesman Jeff Fox figures that when parents noticed what a good time their children had playing the games, they wanted to get in on the fun.
"As more and more adults started playing Nintendo, they started developing more and more software for adults," says Mr. Fox. "They're finding out that their market is just expanding." By the end of the year, according to the company's statistics, 29 percent of American homes will have at least one Nintendo unit.
Grown-ups particularly go for sports and brain teasers, with four-player games proving quite popular. "A lot of adults, as well as children, like playing not only against the computer but against other people," says Mr. Fox. "A lot of families like to play together. We grew up playing Monopoly with our families, and now kids and adults are playing Nintendo."
Sherry Fairbanks, sales floor manager of Toys R Us in Glen Burnie Mall, agrees that Nintendo is tops with her adult customers. "I think right from the start, they've been just as involved in it as the kids have," she says. "It's kind of like a joint effort. Dad will come in and buy a new game so he and the kids can use it."
Most makers of computer software now offer a wide selection of games, too. Look beyond the spreadsheet and word-processing programs at your local software store, and you're likely to find a wide variety of games aimed at adults. Wacky romps, such as the "Leisure Suit Larry" series and the Elvis-inspired "Search for the King," and action-packed adventures, including "Ninja Garden II" and "Hero's Quest," allow computer users to take a much-needed break.
Of course, toys don't have to use advanced technology to be terrific. Board games are still well-liked, particularly old favorites like Monopoly, Scrabble and that '80s sensation, Trivial Pursuit. Also, according to Ms. Levin of the Toy Manufacturers of America, adults buy a lot of stuffed animals and collectible dolls.
Victoria Campbell, manager of the Nature Co. in Annapolis, has witnessed the way grown-ups go wild over small, simple toys. One of the 52-store chain's most popular features is its array of inexpensive novelty items, including yo-yos, tops and buzzing cicada key rings.
"One of the neatest things is seeing, during lunch hour, five or six men standing there in suits, playing with the yo-yos," says Ms. Campbell. "It's just hysterical to watch that. Most adults, when they see the toys, their eyes get wide and they get really excited and start playing with the stuff, as any child would."
Still, some grown-ups just can't get used to the fact that it's OK for them to play. "I think there's a tendency for them to become a little embarrassed when they realize that some of the sales associates might be watching them," admits Ms. Campbell. "Then they act like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' ".