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Middlemen On Both Sides: A Retailer Perspective
By John Denning
October 14, 2006
Don't ever accept a carton of milk from FAT TONY. Just trust us...
© 2002 Playmates
Any point of view comes with assumptions, but it's surprising how often in a subculture as small as toy collecting how little communication there is between them. Customers wonder why toy stores don't have the toy they wanted last month still in stock, retailers wonder why customers keep buying a series of toys that is poorly made but widely advertised, and I'm certain that the distributors and manufacturers wonder about some things, too, though I've never been in their camp so I couldn't say. There are multiple layers to the toy industry, each in their own little world, but I think the point of exchange between retailers and collectors is the key relationship, where collecting and appreciation of the figures by consumers meets the business mindset of the store. The better communication is between them, the better figures will become, because if customers don't buy them, stores won't order them, and the manufacturers will eventually have to shift gears to see a profit as well.
Call this a grassroots argument if you like, doomed to fall on deaf ears, but the statement remains true: if people don't buy a product, it will stop being made. Unfortunately, we live in a society that falls for the hype of movie trailers over and over, going to the opening weekend for the film no matter how terrible it is, and scoring Hollywood the profit it needs to justify doing it again. We've been so hardwired for instant consumption, I don't intend to change the world of toy collecting by appealing to a little common sense. It is considered a maxim of our society that if you make it, someone will buy it. That said, customers might learn a thing or two from the retailer's mentality and maybe influence the quality of their favorite toys if only they can resist buying figures until they actually look at them.
First thing any retailer knows: a license sells itself. If there is a new line of Simpsons toys, people will buy them, because people like Simpsons. You don't have to try to sell them at all so long as a customer sees they exist. A Simpsons toy doesn't need articulation, it doesn't need a faithful sculpt, it almost doesn't need a toy inside. If you made an empty box and put the Simpsons logo on it and told people who asked that there might be a toy inside, you'd still sell it. Even after it was known there was nothing inside (or maybe 1 toy in a 100, just so you're not lying), the kitsch factor of the "non-toy" and the Simpsons license would ensure that the product would move given a little time, especially if the one that actually has a toy is that rare.
This is an exaggeration, of course, but the fact that it's conceivable is depressing to any retailer that actually likes the toys they're selling. The best part of the day for any retailer that loves what they are selling is to turn a customer on to something new or sell them something they both appreciate. Sure, it's nice to know that any series of Marvel Legends you order is going to sell at least a certain number of cases. Everyone has to make a living. In retail, the difference between making a living and liking what you do, however, rests almost solely in the hands of the customer. I think making giant bags of green army men painted like Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man would be the coolest toy in the world. Unfortunately, that's a minority viewpoint so the toy is still only a dream.
The biggest lesson for toy collectors, then, is patience. We all know you've been waiting months for the latest Marvel Legend or DC Direct series, ever since you saw it in your favorite toy magazine. You know as well as I do, however, that the picture you saw is a prototype. If what the retailer gets in the store ends up looking more like that thing your kid made in art class he swears is an ashtray, don't buy it. That may be hard to do for a compulsive collector who absolutely must have a complete set of everything, but look at it this way: the less money you spend on bad toys, the more money you have for good ones.
Another obvious point that seems to miss buyers: don't buy toys as an investment. For most people buying toys as they come out, their collection will never net them a greater profit than a yard sale or a low-bid Ebay auction. Yes, there is money to be made reselling toys in key moments of demand (such as right after they sell out), but these markets are mostly taken advantage of by the shady world of prospectors, a parasitic bunch that definitely has no interest in the toys themselves. The only way for a legitimate toy lover to make a significant profit on their collection is over decades, and that's if anyone still cares. If you're looking for an investment, buy land. If you're looking for a cool toy collection, just buy what you love.
From the retailer point of view, all these things are obvious, though some retailers don't talk about the toys this way with customers for fear of reducing their sales. The short-term gain of profit over the longer-term reward of better toys is not much of a choice for anyone who has bills to pay. Advertising saturation overrules a quality product nine times out of ten, so the cycle will continue. While you may not change that solely by improving your own consumer habits, you will at least be sparing yourself from being taken advantage of for what little surplus cash you may have. Retailers are in the same boat as their customers, it's just a larger boat. Those who want to sell cooler toys rely on you to buy them. The next time you go to your local toy store, don't head straight for the same aisle of action figures you always go down. Take a moment and stroll through a different section. If you find something you like completely separate from its license, you might enjoy it more. Better yet, if you find the toy no one else did, maybe twenty years from now someone will want it enough to pay you more. The best part is, whether that happens or not, at least you spent your money the way you wanted to, not the way you were programmed to.