Brick-and-mortar vs. online retail (UPDATED)

One of the questions I brought up in my interview with Richard Gottlieb was whether it’s better for toy collectors to buy action figures at brick-and-mortar retail stores rather than, say, ordering them from online retailers. The idea is that this will encourage those stores (such as Target and Wal-Mart) to order more product, and since these retailers deal in huge numbers, that will help ensure the success of the line. This was Richard’s response:

My feeling is that anyone who is hunting at brick-and-mortar stores is doing so because they love the thrill of the hunt. For example, I used to collect first and rare edition Oz books and I experienced great fun, excitement and anticipation in walking into a used book store and not knowing what piece of treasure I might find. Therefore, I don’t think collectors should concern themselves with their impact on buying decisions so much as engaging in their passion.

In the comment thread for the interview, my fellow OAFE “Rustin Parr” wrote this:

I know the brick and mortar question was a result of a discussion (argument?) Poe and I had a few weeks back and honestly [Richard’s] response was pretty anticlimatic and not very insightful. I still remain a staunch believer that to not support brick and mortar stores will augment the industry’s implosion.

Volume is the most crucial element in sales and until any mass retailer goes on record commenting that internet orders are very comparable to B&M orders I still believe that B&M out orders/sells greatly.

[Richard’s] response just reads a bit placating and in general seems to be consciously riding the middle of the fence as to not offend any potential customer.

From here the discussion went private, but both parties have graciously allowed me to publish their comments.

Richard:

On another note, Rustin Parr felt I was being placating but perhaps I just did not do a good enough job of explaining my point. I do not believe that consumers, who organize themselves to take a specific action, have historically been successful. A notable example is product boycotts which all seem to fizzle. That is why I think any attempt to consciously make a shopping decision in order to shape the marketplace is a waste of energy. I do think, however, that the real power any group has lies in the enthusiasm they bring to that marketplace. Therefore, by exercising their enthusiasm, in whatever way is natural to them (shopping in an on line or brick and mortar store), will impact the market but many times in unexpected ways. (You can probably tell that I am kind of into emergence theory). This is the power of the marketplace and why it constantly surprises us. I hope this better explains my position.

Rustin:

His clarification does make more sense. While on its own the comments are […] not really all that substantive, taken in light of the recent talks of TRU moving towards more collector-oriented product I see a very clear and valuable point. The market will adjust itself to maintain sales. If people start moving towards just online purchases, then B&M stores will adjust to maintain sales on their own – hence Target and Wal-Mart’s aggressive exclusive programs and now TRU possibly shifting back towards the collector market (I saw the AVP2 hybrid there last week).

While I’ll still feel that buying at B&M is better overall than purchasing online I can see the point that semi-unpredictability will help to even things out. Hopefully with product more widely available we’ll see a return to the ease of B&M shopping. For me personally the cost/benefit ratio is a constant balance between locatability and cost. And cost is a huge factor to me since my figure tastes run so varied, soon enough (in fact it already has begun) I’ll have to not pick which lines I want to follow but be selective within those lines. Granted I’m not the end-all/be-all of collecting but I think I’m a fair example of symptomatic problems with the rise of prices, etc. – having to pick and choose much more than previously. Especially with all the different formats of collecting.

I understand Richard’s point that ‘stands rarely work’ (to paraphrase) but find it defeatist thinking that often leads to very bad situations. We need to support the things we believe in, whether it be a lifestyle, political candidate or just a pattern of consumerism.

If either Richard or Rustin would like to add another response, I will happily add it here. I think this debate is pretty fascinating, and very significant for action figure collectors. As for me, while I’ve traditionally supported online sales, my support is largely due to the difficulty and inconvenience of driving around to multiple stores trying to track down figures that scalpers have already bought.

UPDATE!

Richard adds:

Thank you for including a link to a definition for emergence theory. I do think, however, that the definition given by Wikipedia is overly complex.

Simply put, emergence theory states hat complex organisms are self organizing. They are therefore leaderless. Examples of this are anything from ant colonies to cities to the web. Any time a government tries to organize a complex organism (example Soviet Russia’s attempt to organize supply and demand from the top down) is disastrous.

How the tussle between bricks and mortar vs. the Internet plays out will be based upon literally millions and millions of small decisions made by thousands and thousands of people. In all cases, they will be seeking self-interest (i.e. the best price, ease of ordering etc.) Who will win and who will lose is difficult to predict but it will come as a result of the sum of all those parts.

Your readers might enjoy reading an outstanding book by Steven Johnson called Emergence. It gives some great examples.

On another note, Rustin wrote:

“I understand Richard’s point that ‘stands rarely work’ (to paraphrase) but find it defeatist thinking that often leads to very bad situations. We need to support the things we believe in, whether it is a lifestyle, political candidate or just a pattern of consumerism.”

I am in no way encouraging defeatist thinking. I am, indeed, encouraging passion but passion put to work in such a way that it has an impact. What are examples of this?

  • Work to establish best practices in bricks and mortar retailing
  • Recognize those who do it well so that others can learn from them
  • Explore a third way like that offered by Shopatron, a company that connects ecommerce providers with local bricks and mortar retailers. That way you can order on line and pick it up locally.

So be passionate, do care and do make a difference.

Comments now closed (15)

  • Great comments on both sides.

    Myself, I tend to mix the two–I'll watch for reports on a given series' distribution, and if I'm reasonably confident I'll be able to find it in B&M stores, then I'll head out to take a look. But for things that have distribution issues (DCUC2, for instance, has still never appeared on shelves out here), I'll order online.

  • I have never pre-ordered a wave of any toy series.

    I can see why people do, but I still prefer to stalk the toy aisles and/or barter with like-minded geeks online.

    Even so, I too look forward to more of this debate. It is indeed fascinating.

  • I prefer to buy it in the store if I can, since I don't like the online mark up or shipping fees, but I've given up on "hunting" for figures because it's a huge waste of gas and time.

    I can't find a figure that I absolutely want and it's pricey online (I can't afford to buy cases), then I'll wait and buy it later when the price drops, which happens a lot with plenty of figures. Otherwise if the price goes up even more or holds, I'll just miss out.

    I think this mixed method of purchasing figures is the best way for me.

  • I love the hunt myself.

    However with gas prices on the rise and everything else having a price hike, you have to wonder: Why waste time and money going to Walmart, Target and Toys r us when you can sit back and wait for it to get to your door from online shops like Cornerstore Comics or BBTS? MAYBE it would be worth it, IF you got your figures right onto your first march into the toy aisle but since it's too great of a hunt…it really isn't worth it during inflation.

    Having that peace of mind is great for me in my opinion!

  • Buyingonline vs. buying in real stores may or may not make much a direct impact on companies' sales numbers, but putting toys in real stores absolutely does.

    At Wizard World Philly, Randy Falk of NECA pointed out that if a company tries pure online sales, they lose business. NO matter how collector-aimed the line, putting real toys in real stores equals more money. The example he gave was the 300 figures: everybody went to see that movie, and when they saw a Leonidas action figure, they wanted to own it. However, that depended entirely on the casual customer seeing those toys in the store. You can advertise the hell out of a line. You could have put a flier in every dvd of 300 that Leonidas was available online, and the sales still wouldn't have been there. Unless you put the toys directly in front of a customer at a place where they can buy them, they won't go seek them out.

    And he's not wrong. I'm a huge toy geek, and I'd love to get NECA's Castlevania figures, but since I haven't seen anyin sores, I don't own them. Yeah, I could go online and find them, but I'm not going to. And if someone who actively wants the toys is doing that, what's the chance of a more casual buyer, who's maybe never even heard of the line, going online to buy them?

    So no, it may not matter whether we, as collectors, buy online or in a store. But it definitely matters if companies get shelf space in stores as well as online.

  • And he’s not wrong. I’m a huge toy geek, and I’d love to get NECA’s Castlevania figures, but since I haven’t seen anyin sores, I don’t own them. Yeah, I could go online and find them, but I’m not going to. And if someone who actively wants the toys is doing that, what’s the chance of a more casual buyer, who’s maybe never even heard of the line, going online to buy them?

    I think Richard's argument is that by not tracking down the figures just because they're not at your local stores, you're not doing NECA any favors.

    If you were to order them online or buy them at a comic shop, and a decent number of other collectors did too, NECA could go to Target or Wal-Mart and say, "Check out these sales numbers! And these were just at online retailers and specialty stores–imagine what that can translate to for you!"

  • im gonna side with the online retail on account of laziness.

    however, looking at my track record, most of the figures i love posing on my shelf i got online, either from a store or through trades:

    HALO 2 Master Chief, Elite and ODST (have to repair the first two, though)

    ML green Goblin

    HML silver surfer (not the good one, but the wal*mart exclusive, still worth it)

    DCSH Mongul and Batman (both 1 and 3)

    Fearsome Foes Spider-Man (currently MIA, however)

    and the soon to be's:

    DCSH8 Batman and Clayface

    ML Spider-Woman

    SMO Dock Ock.

    I will say this though, of all of those, most have some form of defect or have taken shelf dives, and its a tad hard to undo a trade.

  • Great discussion, but you're right Poe, neither of them took into consideration your reason for going online with purchases.

    I adore walking into TRU or Wallys and not being sure what I'm going to find. I remember the first time I found a DCUC figure, someone had hidden it behind all kinds of other stuff and it was like I had struck gold.

    However, with gas prices being what they are and products either being underdistributed or snatched up rather quickly, it can be frustrating to someone who likes walking into a traditional store. In Canada, we've had DCUC1 in Wal-Marts for many months. There's been nothing since then and all I see on boards are people in the States crying about how long it's taking to get Wave 3.

    So I and other Canadians have waited a long time for retailers to put things on the shelves and it's not happening. So our choices are specialty comic and toy stores (which are dramatically marked up) or going online.

    It's not as fun ordering something online and it does feel like I'm not supporting the industry in a way that's easily traceable, but in the end, each collector has to look out for themselves (and perhaps a few friends) and do what they have to get what they want.

    I'm not going to be a martyr and wait forever for something that a few clicks will get me now.

  • I prefer B&M myself. I've often changed my mind on a figure after seeing it in person, something that can't be replicated online no matter how many photos you see.

    Also Online retailers tend to mark things up too much. Especially if they are savvy to collectors. You'll see say, the most desirable Joe figure from a wave going for twice as much as one that is less so. I realize that this can often be defeated by shopping around.

    Also I hate paying for shipping. I try to make sure I'm going to stores when I have another reason to go or I'll hit several at once to help drop the gas factor. I always factor in shipping as "part of the price" as a result I buy little online, especially ebay. I won't pay $15 for a $7 figure. (say $10 online mark up + $5 shipping).

  • i hate the hunt. i used to love hunting, but it becomes time consuming if you have a family you are obligated to. most of all, i dislike driving around and parking and walking to find either nothing new or a lot fo the same junk choating the isles. and with clogged isles, means no new items until those pegwarmers sell. if they didn't sell the weekend they got there, they will not sell, period.

    its usually stockers who cherry pick the litter and hide the lines behind kiddie stuff. how many movie masters batmans are hiding behind the 5" line toys with their similar colored packaging? lots.

    i love super articulated toys. that won't stop. but the method of buying them has changed because i am tired of buying everything. something new comes out like halo 3, and i over buy- even if it doesn't mix with my other lines. hellboy, DC, turtles, etc. where does it stop? when there is nothing of interest on the isles or the item online says 'out of stock.' then comes trading online with fellow collectors.

    so for this addict, the hunt has turned into compulsion and slowly losses the big picture of toy enjoyment.

    either way, online or b&m, its a dent in the wallet.

  • I really think online save you money DEPENDING on what you're collecting. For example, if you are aware of the distribution of Mattel and the level of difficulty Mattel's DCUC wave 2 is at..which is pretty high…then it's a NO BRAINER that online purchases are cheaper.

    EVEN if there was a price hike. WHERE are you going to buy dcuc wave 2 figures? There was a freeze of them for months. After 2 months, I saw DCUC wave 2 at Walmart.

  • Chris: it might be a no-brainer to order DCUC online, if the figures reliably looked like the prototypes. I was lucky enough to find a few DCUC2 figures before they disappeared, but left most of them on the peg because of paint issues. If I'd ordered them online, I'd be stuck with those instead of waiting for some that look presentable.

    —–

    I think Richard’s argument is that by not tracking down the figures just because they’re not at your local stores, you’re not doing NECA any favors.

    If you were to order them online or buy them at a comic shop, and a decent number of other collectors did too, NECA could go to Target or Wal-Mart and say, “Check out these sales numbers! And these were just at online retailers and specialty stores–imagine what that can translate to for you!”

    I'm not trying to do NECA a favor – I'm trying to buy toys, and unless they're present for me to buy, I can't do that. I don't think that refusing to buy online will force more real stores to carry product: I'm approaching it from the other angle, that unless real stores are carrying it, I have other things to spend my money on. And yes, comicshops count as real stores: that's where I got my four NECA TMNT, after all.

    But I think ultimately, I'm in the same camp as Josh Miller: I refuse to pay double the price for a figure just for the "convenience" of buying it online any more than I'd pay a scalper on eBay for the "convenience" of not having to go to the store myself. When online retailers stop marking up their figures more than KB Toys and actually offer some discounts or sales that will offset the shipping, then I'll buy online. In fact, now that I think of it, I just did, recently.

    The online Spawn Store was having a warehouse sale, and the animated-style Phlebiac Brothers were one of the sale items. I got them, shipped, for about $15 – which is still more than the similar figures cost in stores, but not tremendously so. Of course, I was expecting the cost to be less, but the McStore price-gouges on the shipping. Still, the fact remains: if there hadn't been a counterbalance to the shipping charges, I never would have spent my money there.