The rise of Squishmallows and shelf clearing

Photo by Arianna Endicott

Squishmallows, a plush toy line launched by Kellytoy in 2017, have only grown in popularity since their initial release — in part, thanks to social media and influencers like Charli D’Amelio, who has over 100 million followers on TikTok, and 40.7 million on Instagram.

D’Amelio posted a photo February 1 of herself surrounded by her collection, and received backlash from commenters suggesting that by promoting the plush toys, D’Amelio would contribute to the difficulty of finding them.

However, Squishmallows’ success cannot be attributed solely to D’Amelio’s post; the plush toys have been winning awards since their debut year.

The over 500 designs come in sizes ranging from “Micromallows” — around 2.5 inches tall — up to 24 inches tall. Aside from the original Squishmallow design, they also sell Hug Mees, Stackables, Mystery Squads and Flip-A-Mallows. Squishmallows have collaborated with popular media icons, like Jojo Siwa and Disney.

Some collectors say they found a source of comfort with the plush toys amidst the chaos of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think they are a comfort item to many,” Brooke Grzesik, 24, a social worker from Michigan said. “Times became really hard and I think the need for something for those to take their minds off of their hardships came about. I think that’s where the craze originated.”

Some even compare the Squishmallow craze to the 2020 toilet paper shortage.

“I compare the Squishmallow craze to the toilet paper craze at the beginning of quarantine; it was impossible to find toilet paper and you wound up buying whatever brand was on the shelves and you just kept buying because you thought the stores would run out,” Sarah Bilza, 20, a retail manager from New Jersey said. “It’s the same with Squishmallows, at least for me. I see one at the store and HAVE to buy it even though it’s not one I like/am looking for. I have about 17 now, and have no room for them, and keep trying to sell the ones I don’t like that much, but apparently no one else likes them enough to buy them.”

Each Squishmallow is assigned a name and short biography. Some collectors say they relate to the Squishmallows’ personalities.

“My favorite Squishmallow of all time is probably Stacy,” Chloe S., 19, a student from Michigan said. “As someone who suffers from anxiety I really love her because I feel like that’s me as a Squishmallow.”

According to her tag, Stacy the blue squid’s biography reads, “Stacy is a shy squid, she prefers to be home with her friends or even by herself. Big groups of Squishmallows make her a little nervous, so she loves to learn and explore through books. She's quiet at first but all her friends know she can be very silly.”

Others collect Squishmallows that have names with significant meaning to them.

“My favorite is Carlos the Crab because my boyfriend Carlos bought it for me,” Sofia Garza, 23, a student from Texas said.

For some, collecting Squishmallows acts as a form of helping with a mental illness or neurodivergence.

“I have sensory processing disorder and ADHD, so they really help with that,” Julie Buchmann, 19, a student from New York said.

Some simply saw them as a source of comfort. Squishmallows are often sold in drug stores like Walgreens or CVS.

“I got my first Squish[mallow] at Walgreens when I got my medicine for my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome,” Kerry Crossman, 19, a student in Nebraska said. “The first time because I squished it and was like ‘ooooo’ and it made me feel better about having to get my medicine.” Crossman now owns an estimated “70-80” Squishmallows.

Psychological Science published results from a 2013 study done at VU University Amsterdam, which showed that people — especially those with lower self esteem — often felt more comfort when they had a plush toy.

“I love their happy faces,” Rebecca Way, 28, a restaurant manager from New York said. “I think that's what got me hooked on them from the start. I have anxiety, and coming home and seeing their happy faces relaxes me. I also love the versatility of their sizes. I can use some for pillows all the way down to something in my pocket while I'm at work.”

Different styles are released seasonally, and at different stores. Because certain styles can be harder to find, some people see a business opportunity. Reselling Squishmallows is common on resale websites like Mercari, eBay or Facebook Marketplace.

In a voluntary survey conducted for this article, 23.1% of respondents said they primarily purchase Squishmallows through resale websites.

Chart created by Arianna Endicott

“It’s fine if it’s for a reasonable price,” Garza said. “Some Squish[mallows] are exclusive to certain countries and stores that we don’t have access to, if someone buys to resell it’s okay but not for an outrageous amount of money.”

Since certain Squishmallows are only sold in specific regional stores, people may see online resales as a way to acquire these harder to find designs.

“Living on the east coast, I don't have any chains like Kroger over here, so it is nice to get things from elsewhere,” Way said. “But the prices are insane. I won't buy something that's three times retail or more.”

For others, it is simply more convenient to purchase online.

“Sometimes I can’t get to the stores since I work full time,” Taviah Smith, 27, a fast food employee from Ottawa, Canada, said. “If it means I have to pay more to someone who potentially does this to make money, sure. But I won’t pay ridiculous prices. $5-$10 more is okay to me.”

However, some resellers list Squishmallows — which generally retail anywhere from $3 to $60, depending on size — for hundreds of dollars on websites like Mercari or eBay.

“I think it's taking advantage of people and taking the fun out of it,” Fatima Magana, 20, a college student from California said. “Profiting over four times the price is pretty annoying, especially for people who want a Squishmallow and can't afford it.”

People who clear out stores only to resell them online — often referred to as "shelf clearers" — can be discouraging to some collectors.

“Sometimes I hate looking for Squish[mallows] because I can’t find anything for weeks on end because people buy them all at once,” Crossman said.

With the demand for Squishmallows as high as it is, it is not likely that resellers will stop any time soon.

“While [resellers] bother me, I understand that in any collector circle — especially a fad one like Squishmallows — they will exist, and people will give them money,” Bilza said. “So, yeah, it’s annoying to not find Squishmallows in stores because of [resellers], but I also do not allow myself to get butt hurt about it because I’m not going to die if I don’t have a Squishmallow I want, and [reselling] is just a natural part of a collectible item getting mainstream attention.”

A previous version of this article used the term "scalpers" to refer to resellers. Due to insensitive nature of this term, the article has been corrected with the term "shelf clearers."

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