Rustin’s Rants > The Good Business of Bad Distribution

Note: the opinions of Rustin Parr do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Poe Ghostal.

mattel logoWith NYCC a few days behind us and Toy Fair a few days ahead, I find myself caught up in the tumultuous whirlwind of being a collector and fan of Mattel’s DC Universe Classics toy line. Wave 9 was revealed at NYCC, which is actually quite darn remarkable considering the series only launched little more than a year ago. However, despite its clear success, DCUC has been plagued by two issues almost from the get-go. In riffing on Toybiz/Hasbro’s Marvel Legends line, not only did Mattel come up with some inventively clever nomenclature (Classics vs. Legends, Collect-n-Connect vs. Build-a-Figure – “what marketing whiz came up with that one,” asks Mr. Seinfeld) they took up the mantle of poor Quality Control. And while I often must buy and return multiple figures before I get a decent enough paint job to open/keep, the real thing that’s got me going tonight is their so-called distribution.

Like most collectors out there, I’m not in a position where I can stalk toy aisles at every hour of the day. Therefore I am incredibly fortunate if I see every figure from a single wave, and the problem seems to increase with each new release. The only reason I have a complete Wave 4 (anyone want to trade an Artemis for Batman Beyond?) is because I bought a case from The only reason I have a semi-complete Wave 6 is because I ordered a set from (though 3 of the 6 figures had QC issues ranging from annoying to atrocious). I have four of the five figures from Wave 5 because I made special hunting trips while in Texas on business, scoring what appeared to be the last Atom in the greater San Antonio area and never coming close to seeing Eradicator.

Frankly, this pisses me off. I don’t enjoy ordering figures online because there is (a) no way to actually see what you are getting leading to potential/probable QC problems and (b) it costs more what with S & H, and when you collect in the volume that I do that extra $8 to $20 can really hurt. Additionally, the nearest TRU and Wal-mart are twenty-five minutes away, making frequenting them quite a pain in the ass. From what I gather, I’m not the only one in this boat. There are countless numbers of us with holes in our collection that go far beyond what Toybiz used to do to us with Marvel Legends variants. When a company uses a “Collect-n-Connect” (God that phrase bugs me) program in its waves, it creates an obligation to its clientele to make each figure in that wave readily available; yet Mattel appears happily content to leave our BAFs limbless [and create casepacks allowing for only one full set in it (six figures in a case with only five figures in a wave is laughable, or would be if it wasn’t so enraging).

Poe recently posted a screengrab of a number of eBay auctions for figures from Wave 5, the infamous Wal-mart exclusive wave. Each figure was going for at least $40. Each figure. They retailed for $12 a piece and were just released a few short months ago. What kind of sense does that make!? One or two figures I could accept, but when every single figure is going for that price? Especially when three of the Wal-marts I visited in Texas seemingly couldn’t give away Riddler if they wanted to? Granted, different regions have different demands but what these secondary market prices prove is that the figures simply aren’t making it into the hands of the people who want them. And why is that? Because Mattel does not want you to complete your set.

I realize that’s a bold (pun intended) statement, but look at the situation from a purely business perspective. How did Jesse Falcon justify Marvel Legends’ horrendously difficult-to-find variants? – he said they increased retailer orders. By creating certain products in low supply, they will create higher demand, therefore increasing the search. By giving retailers a carrot to hang in front our faces, we’d be more likely to return to their store in search of said delicious vegetable.

Toybiz took this concept to new end, a new low I’d argue, by offering the first retailer exclusive wave of Marvel Legends. Wal-Mart now had a far more intoxicating draw than a single figure from a wave available at all retailers – it had a set of figures from a popular toy line with its own short-packed figures and Build-a-Figure all in place to ensure high demand, and therefore, the all-valuable foot traffic. When a toy line is only available at one location, the production run is scaled back to accommodate fewer orders. However, when it’s an entire wave of new characters, demand does not equally decrease among fans.

Imagine that three people want hamburgers, but Wendy’s and Jack-in-the-Box have closed, so McDonalds is the only option – but McDonalds only has one, maybe two hamburgers at any given time. At least one of these people will starve to death on the street, alone and frigid in the evening sleet.

The idea in retail is to get the customer to buy more than they had intended to when they walked in. You go in looking for toys but come out with clothes and DVDS (though few of us rarely do such a thing). Hence toy aisles are always so far removed from the front of the store. None of this is new to our beloved industry, but what it did do was set the stage for Mattel to apply the same theory to an entire toy line.

You see, if Mattel under-produces the number of figures in a wave, they can ensure a sell-out (the much desired “sell through”). That means no pegwarmers on shelves for months on end and no excess cases sitting in warehouses. (If three people want hamburgers, then meat producers will provide only two, therefore they don’t “supply” themselves out of a job. Why take the risk of coming close to a balance of supply and demand when you can guarantee the scale always remains in your favor?)

If the figures Mattel ships out to stores sell through, then retailers are shown that the line is popular and they should continue to buy the subsequent waves. “Well, we sold out of Wave 4, could we get more of it?” they may ask, to which Mattel would no doubt respond, “So sorry, we’ve run out of our production run of 4, could I interest you in the hot new Wave 6?” “Well, sure.” “Well, great.”

“Well, crap,” all of us collectors say. And if we complain, we take it to Mattel, not to Walmart, Toys R Us, Target or so on. Then they stand back in the glimmering Southern California Tower and they know how our minds work – we want new things. That’s all that matters. We’ll pay just about any price to get it and therein, friends, lies the rub.

It’s our fault that Mattel products have such poor distribution.

With all the agony and frustration that you have gone through collecting DCUC will you give it up? Neither will I. I sit here pissed off and miserable and I preach to the choir about the issues, and yet I look at what was shown at NYCC and I get excited and I want more. I desire. I want. And that is all that matters when it comes to commerce.

A rational person would say “well forget this, it’s not worth the frustration and extra expense – I have enough else going on,” but oh no, not us collectors. All that matters is they make and release it. Who gives a damn if I never get an Eradicator and thereby never complete Metallo when Flash and Big Barda are starting to show up, and then there’s a Dr. Fate and Parademons, then Green Arrow and so on. I, like the bulk of our community, only see the horizon, I ignore the treacherous terrain between me and it though. And what’s worse I, we, do nothing about it. We clog up message boards and harass Mattel and they tell us “talk to the retailers,” giggling in their knowledge we’ll just slouch back to our computers and soapbox to our heart’s content.

Mattel, as a company, is in a win/win scenario here – if we bitch to them, they continue to underproduce and they sell through guaranteed, if we bitch to retailers and they actually increase orders, Mattel meets demand and sells through again. But why bother going to the retailers? If we did that, we’d have to talk to a manager in person, which is no where as easy as complaining on a message board. We’d have to track down the correct people to email or call, but why bother when Mattel provides an established and immediate forum to deflect all the frustration and maintain their ideal status quo (again, underproduction)? And all it takes is one person to do that leg work and then our lazy, bandwagoning horde to leap on to that email chain, that online petition, that anything. But who will be that person? It won’t be me, I’m too busy writing reactionary essays.


Toy news roundup, 2/13/09


Pic of the Day

1 Comment

  1. Motorthing

    I guess it makes Mattel about as ethical as your local Crack Dealer when put in this light – but if they really are that Super-villain calculating on this kind of crap then I have to say that really this strategy ultimately is as self-defeating as Dr Collossus' elevator shoes and a very low ceiling.

    It's nuts. It actually minimises the return on a wave of expensive to produce toys and ultimately will kill a line off.

    Mattel are amoungst those Companies that maintain that Fanboy support at retail isn't enough to keep a mass-market line afloat – so gearing your marketting strategy around pissing them off and ensuring that your product isn't in front of Normal Shoppers either just cannot work.

    Regular Mum and Dad don't give a fork about Killer Moth, and probably wont buy one – so Fanboys have to – otherwise your line (made in whatever quantity) just tanks.

    And over the long-haul just enough of your fan community will say to Hell with it if they can't get a complete set and move on to other things. Not really what Mattel want at all – unless completely insane of course……..

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