Delilah Johnson, 10, shows her Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty on April 9, 2016, at her Bensenville home. The owners of local toy stores say the putty is flying off their shelves. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
In the old days it was jelly bracelets and Cabbage Patch Kids.
These days, Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty — a cooler, hipper and pricier Silly Putty alternative — is poised to become the next big thing.
Local toy store owners say this soft, bouncy, stretchy goo, which sells for $12 to $15 for a 3.2-ounce tin is flying off their shelves.
That's because it's not only kids who are addicted to the putty — which comes in an array of colors and varieties that include magnetic and glow-in-the-dark — but their parents who can't stop touching the stuff.
For kids it provides fidget relief. For their parents, it's stress relief.
"Quite honestly, I've been known to grab it and squish it in my hands a little bit. It really does have a calming effect," said Jennifer Johnson, of Bensenville, whose two daughters, ages 8 and 10, are Crazy Aaron's putty collectors.
While Shopkins and "blind bags" — bags with an unknown figurine tucked inside — are all the rage at mass-market retail outlets, Crazy Aaron's has managed to steadily climb the toy popularity chain despite the fact that it is only sold at independent toy retailers, specialty stores and on its website.
And in an age where many toys are made popular because they have a corresponding movie, television show or YouTube series to accompany and help market them, retailers say Crazy Aaron's putty has picked-up steam the old-fashioned way: word-of-mouth.
"It's a unique thing and doesn't compete with anything else," said Katherine McHenry, owner of Building Blocks Toy Store, which has locations in Chicago's Lakeview and Wicker Park neighborhoods.
Last year, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association named the putty one of its best toys for kids. "It takes us back to the days of Silly Putty — a toy we treasured when we were young," said Kimberly Mosley, association president. "I think that's why it's taken off — it really engages and hits both kids and adults."
Kate Nicolai, 36, found herself playing with it alongside her 5-year-old daughter as they stood in line at a boutique near their home in Norwood Park. The mother of two carries the putty around in her purse for those moments when boredom might strike. "Anytime we're waiting for something," out comes Crazy Aaron's putty, she said. "It's just malleable enough that it can be entertaining for hours. It's been such a lifesaver."
Crazy Aaron's is a lot older than some of its biggest school-aged fans. It's been around for more than a decade.
Creator Aaron Muderick launched Crazy Aaron's Puttyworld, in 2001 after years spent looking for "the ultimate desk toy," to keep him focused on his website design job. At one point he sold the putty under his desk at work. Crazy Aaron's was sold online exclusively until 2010 when it branched out to independent toy retailers and specialty shops. It's also made three appearances on shopping network QVC, and sold out each time, according to Carrie Mason, marketing manager at Crazy Aaron's Puttyworld.
The Narberth, Pa., Puttyworld is privately held and does not disclose its revenues. However, Mason said sales of the putty have increased every year since its been on the market. It's made in the U.S. and employs special-needs people to pack and package the product, Mason said.
"It's been probably one of our best smaller gift items for a few years now," said Scott Friedland, shopkeeper at Timeless Toys in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. "I just had to place a whole new order on it," he said, adding that his most recent reorder was the quickest turnaround he's ever had.
"Even a lot of adults buy it for themselves, and I keep it on my desk," said Friedland. "People seek it out, we get phone calls all the time; people asking, 'Do you have Crazy Aaron's?'"
What doesn't endear some parents is the inherent stickiness of the product, which makes it difficult to remove from things such as hair and fabrics.
That's in part why Nicolai keeps it in her purse and why Jones researched how to remove the putty from fabrics before she bought it for her daughters. (According to the website, 99 percent rubbing alcohol is ideal.)
But the potential for putty-stuck-in-hair isn't stopping Nicolai from buying her 3-year-old nephew his own tin for his upcoming birthday. "It gives my brother-in-law great anxiety," said Nicolai, because her nephew recently got her daughter's putty stuck in his hair.
Puttyworld's Mason won't say if or when Crazy Aaron's putty will turn up in larger retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens or Target. "There's a lot of possibilities in our future," she said. "We're still deciding which way to go."