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Walmart scores lucrative win with 7-year-old millionaire YouTube star

The 7-year-old YouTube star named Ryan generated tons of buzz this week as the highest-paid YouTuber (GOOGL), raking in an estimated $22 million from June 2017 to June 2018, according to a new Forbes list.

Even more impressive, though, this young internet phenom is set to become a toy tycoon himself after catching the attention of the world’s largest retailer earlier this year.

Debuting first in Walmart (WMT) stores back in August, his namesake toy line “Ryan’s World” is one of the season’s biggest sellers, according to Brad Bedwell, a senior buyer in toys for Walmart.

“The hot item this fall has been the [Ryan’s World] Giant Mystery Egg,” Bedwell told Yahoo Finance, before adding, “That’s really been the big winner of the season.”

At $34.82, the Mystery Egg offers surprise elements like slime, putty, squishy, figures, and a lights-and-sounds vehicle. When Yahoo Finance visited a Walmart in the retailer’s hometown of Bentonville, Ark., the egg was sold out in that store.

“We’re getting more in as we speak. Every day, we have more hitting stores,” Bedwell said, adding, “It is going to go fast because they’re so many kids that want it.

Ryan handpicks the line. It features characters like Combo Panda and Gus the Gummy Gator from his YouTube channel, Ryan ToysReview.

Pictured: Ryan and his parents, Loann and Shion, at a Walmart store event in Bentonville, Arkansas in July. (Photo courtesy of Walmart)

Bedwell gave a Ryan’s World Mystery Blind Bag to his nephew for his fourth birthday last weekend.

“[My nephew] exclaimed ‘Combo Panda!’ And I was like, I can’t believe he recognizes this character. This is a character that’s on Ryan’s channel and nowhere else. And he recognized it at the drop of a hat.”

That example speaks to the broader trend of how kids and where kids are consuming content.

“Years ago, kids would have been glued to the TV watching the traditional channels, and now they’re watching content everywhere. They’re still watching TV, but they’re also watching it on tablets and parents’ cellphones. Everywhere they are, they can look at and consume content. And YouTube is now up there with the major TV channels with how many kids watch it,” Bedwell said.

Moving at a record pace

Big-box retailers like Walmart typically plan their toy offerings anywhere from one year to 18 months out. They first learned about Ryan’s World after meeting with a kids entertainment company, Pocketwatch, at The American International Toy Fair in New York held in mid-February.

Bedwell knew he found something special and immediately texted Anne Marie Kehoe, the vice president of toys for Walmart, so that they could move fast.

“It just all made sense,” Bedwell said of his first impression.

Walmart partnered with Pocketwatch and Bonkers Toys to bring the line to the big box retailer exclusively beginning on August 1, a new record for the toy team at Walmart.

“That’s one of the things that’s changing and is a big change for in the industry is speed because the manufactures, the retailers, everybody has to rethink the paradigm of the timelines because kids are not on that timeline. And so, that’s a big shift for all of us to be able to be that nimble and fast,” Kehoe explained.

Christmas in July

Walmart was sure Ryan was going to be big back when they hosted a meet-and-greet event with the YouTube star at a Bentonville store in July. A massive crowd showed up at the store. As one Walmart employee put it, “It was like The Beatles at Shea Stadium.”

A crowd shows up to see YouTube star Ryan at a Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas.

“The moment we arrived and saw how big it was, we knew,” Bedwell said. “This is bigger than we ever thought it was going to be. That day, the suppliers were there too, we started buying more. ‘Let’s buy more. This is going to be big.'”

One of the appeals of Ryan to his fans is that he’s a normal kid.

“What I love about YouTube as a platform… these are home movies for them. Ryan’s fame is not sold out crowds in a stadium or walking red carpets. It’s the numbers on a screen,” Pocketwatch CEO Chris Williams said.

The Ryan Toys Review YouTube channel averages a billion views each month and has over 17.3 million subscribers.

Like many kids these days, Ryan began watching YouTube videos as a toddler, starting with the nursery rhymes and eventually moving to videos of kids unboxing toys, his parents Shion and Loann told Yahoo Finance. Ryan’s family keeps their last name and home state confidential for privacy reasons.

Inspired by the other kids he saw on YouTube, Ryan asked his mom if he could make a video too.

“It was my spring break. I was a teacher,” Loann said. “So my husband was working. I thought, maybe, it would be fun if [Ryan and I] could make videos together.”

Loann took a then three-and-a-half-year-old Ryan to the store to select a toy, a Lego Duplo Number Train, for the inaugural video. 

“We made a video. We had so much fun. Money never crossed our mind. In fact, we just started then because it was something to do over spring break.”

The intention was to make videos for friends and family to enjoy. However, Ryan’s videos quickly began to attract a sizable viewership.

“At first, we thought somebody was hacking or pranking,” Shion said. “For months and months, we were trying to observe the information each month. There was a point where it was taking off each month it doubled, tripled. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ryan’s parents, who frequently appear in the videos, eventually left their prior jobs and now work full-time producing YouTube videos. They run a production company with 23 employees.

As Ryan’s Youtube channel grew in popularity, viewers began asking for merchandise. Some viewers were even making their own versions based on the characters featured on the channel.

Screenshot from Ryan ToysReview

At the end of last year, Ryan’s family partnered with Pocketwatch to launch Ryan’s World. It’s not just toys, but also things like clothing and bikes. Ryan’s content is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime. They also launched a book with Simon & Schuster.

Williams, a Disney (DIS) veteran, said Ryan’s massive scale and the adoration he attracts from fans is a “rare combination” that comes along “once in a decade.”

Ryan’s family owns a “substantial” equity stake in the company and participate “significantly” in all revenue streams from Ryan’s World, according to Williams.

While headlines have circulated that Ryan is a multi-millionaire, he doesn’t have access to that money, and he doesn’t live a celebrity life.

“We feel so fortunate that he stays the same after the Youtube phenomenon. He’s still the Ryan we remember,” Shion said. “That’s the part I love the most. He stays humble. He’s funny and positive throughout, not just in the videos, but outside the videos.”

They try to give him a normal life as possible.

“He goes to a regular school. He does extracurricular activities like swimming and music lessons,” Loann said.

Lately, the first grader has been focused on reading and expanding his vocabulary.

“The kids at school see him as their friend. They don’t put him on a pedestal. He’s not a celebrity. He’s just another kid in class.”

Ryan wants to be a game developer when he grows up. And for the holidays, he wants to travel with his family on a cruise.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter. Send tips to laroche@oath.com.