Not exactly news: action figure sales are declining


Toy industry trade magazine Toy Directory has an article discussing how action figure sales are declining even as the blockbuster films they’re based on are more popular than ever:

Action figures in the doldrums

Aside from the usual “kids don’t want plastic replicas, they want interactive experiences” discussion (which is true, and when combined with rising production costs is why I think action figure collecting will be solely a niche market for adults in 10-15 years, like baseball cards and comics before them), the article does have an interesting theory about how all the bunched-together blockbusters and their attendant toy lines crowd one another out. When I was a kid, you got one Batman, maybe Dick Tracy the following year, and then maybe another Batman. Now there can be as many as six to seven heavily-merchandised movies per year.

The writer’s summation is sobering:

In summary, the buyers believe that the Action Figure category – buffeted by technological change, degradation of supporting media and eroding consumer interest – is not going to go back to the good old days. Yes, they think that movie-supported action figures will still sell but that the Skylanders and the Inifinitys of this world will be the decisive future drivers.

Again, this isn’t a surprise. We’ve all seen this coming for years now. And who knows – if the electronic options that are available now had been around when I was a kid, perhaps I would have never developed this odd affinity for action figures.

And yet, evidently Skylanders may offer some hope:

A technological change introduced early last year promises to affect the way kids use toys – the Skylanders and now also Infinity. Both marry physical toys to a video game console and allow a completely new way of playing. In the opinion of the Buyers at the large retailers, the Skylanders clearly encroach upon the Action Figure space whereas Infinity affects both Action Figures and Preschool. Whilst NPD classifies the Skylanders as well as Infinity as video games rather than toys, the Buyers disagree and they demonstrate this by putting the two ranges both into their video game space as well as their toy aisles. In fact, if the Skylanders had been included in NPD’s Toy Category, they would have given a major bump to the Action Figure retail sales performance for 2012 and would also have reversed the continuous decline of the overall NPD Toy Market estimates over the past ten years.

Kids still like having toys. They just need more interaction with them – either a video game, or perhaps some construction element, like LEGO. Find a way to do both and you just might have a huge hit on your hands.

(Thanks to GeneralsJoes for the heads-up.)


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  1. Clutch

    Given the focus on interaction, I gotta wonder how lines like Mattel's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future would fare in 2013 as opposed to how they flopped back in 1987.

  2. As a parent of two boys, I can strongly affirm that Skylanders and Lego is where it's at today. My kids have zero interest in action figures (sigh). The few times we've bought them, they were overpriced and fell apart within minutes. Articulation might be great for some, but I'd much rather have figures that didn't lose their arms and heads after every other pose. The Imaginext line is about the only kind of figure that has withstood actual play in our house.

    • Poe

      I’m curious, what figures did you buy that fell apart? My friends’ six-year-old loves Skylanders, but he also has a few of the new TMNT figures and even their 2-year-old plays with those and they’re rock-solid.

      And I would think Hasbro’s Saga Legends would be pretty solid…

    • dayraven

      i will second cool and collected observations, my boys are grown now, and it's not to much an issue, but when they were younger, the stuff marketed at them, ben 10, transformers, stuff like that, would fall apart almost instantly. and my boys were NEVER rough with their toys, playing but not destroying. the only stuff that held up well was the jakks wrestling figures. that definitely made an impression on my kids, and on me… if you buy a kid a toy, and watch them, within minutes of opening this thing and having that emotional high, suddenly break, and now the kid is in tears… neither the child, nor the parent wants to throw good money after bad. the boys are now getting to go back into my collection and find all kinds of cool toys, some well more than 20 years old and still in good shape… there's nothing on the pegs today that doesn't say tonka on the side that will last that long. that's a huge factor in kids and parents looking elsewhere for entertainment than the figure aisle.

    • Nobody is breaking Playmates TMNT figures. If a kid is, he's playing too roughly with them. They're a perfect balance of playability and articulation. But I think Playmates is more the exception than the rule.

    • dayraven

      could be… but that's not one of the big lines i called out. 🙂 we're seeing some swings in the right direction again, but hitting a balance between "desirable" and "durable" is apparently still a chore.

      i would point out, look at the dc 3 3/4 figs, the MU figs, and even the modern joes, with the joes i grew up with. you have to intentionally disassemble a joe to get it to fall apart, now, my kid can loosen the elbows and knees of a movie snake eyes in a single bath.

    • Actually my response was to Poe, but it came up under you DayRaven. I agree most the toys out there today can't last real play. I think TMNT is an exception to that.

    • Mark

      Playmates TMNT figures are actual toys that can be played with unlike a lot of other 'collector'' focused lines…..I just wish they would be more generous with the paint apps.

    • Enigma_2099

      How's your TMNT Krang holdin' up?

      This isn't surprising… look at what they're peddling on the pegs today. Are we gonna sit here and pretend that the crappy new 3.75 inch standard has nothing to do with this?

    • I'll continue to say that the Kenner five points of articulation is all a kid needs to have a ton of fun. The more articulation a toy has the higher the chance of breakage. Poe, I know you and I don't agree on this (your comment to my post about articulation last year —… — is one everyone should read) but I think between costs and durability five points really covers it.

      And let me just say that Imaginext toys are incredible value and built tough. The fact the designs are so cool is just icing.

    • dayraven

      phil… i will say on the imaginext stuff… i like the look of some of it. and you clearly do too… my kids have NEVER responded in the affirmative to imaginext stuff, sans the dinos, which they wanted to see, but were ready to leave in the toy aisle as nothing more than eye candy. i don't get it, i'll never get it, but there it is. i see lots of kids stroll through the imaginext aisle and almost without variation, the parents are far more intrigued than the kids are.

      as for your 5 poa theory, 5 might be the optimal count, but we all know, no 2 examples of those 5 are created equal, and when more came along, more slaughtered 5 like a lamb in a lion's den. evolution phil… 5 doesn't cut it anymore.

      you're an interesting cat to make the comparison though, since transformers completely ruins your theory. TF has always had more articulation, and the trend for TFs, and now into the 3rd party pieces is finding new and more interesting ways to add articulation that is still stable. now, my kids are 11 and 9 now, but when they were younger, the bay movie formers were all over the place, and the movie formers and their contemporaries were clearly built with a "fall apart, rather than break" ethos, cuz that's what they did, the least stress on a joint and it disassembled, rather than break. fine for an adult, who can just pop it back on but to a 6 year old, the popped off piece gets left behind, and the remaining chunk is the focus. we lots bit on a ton of formers, never to be found again. and there was the case of the infamous nightwatch optimus, which broke on my son after little more than a few hours of play, in the exact spot, mid-chasis, between the heavy chest and heavy feet, that one might suspect the construction would be vulnerable. my kid loved that toy, he'd been begging for that version for like 7 months when we pulled the trigger. he got less than 2 weeks of ownership out of it. that was the last TF he was allowed to buy until just recently, the FOC grimlock. grimlock is less than half the weight of that optimus, but he's built much more solidly. the joints don't want to pop off for safety, nor do they seem overly fragile and likely to break. that's a move back in the right direction… but look at him compared to g1 grimlock… a ton more articulation, and much better range in comparable articulation, along with a much more detailed sculpt and paint job. and he still wins… he captures the popular imagination of his target demographic. kids want something cooler than the stuff we had, in general. i don't necessarily argue that 5 POA might be the butter zone, but it better be better than the 5 POA we grew up with, or it just can't win.

    • I've been thinking about this lately and I think stuff like Imaginext is probably much more comparable to what we had as action features when most of us were kids- simpler articulation, playsets, vehicles, durability, and a reasonable price point.

    • Enigma_2099

      As long as they price them cheap, they can make them cheap. When you start stretching past the $10 mark, don't wave 5 points of articulation in my face and expect me to be cool about it.

      Yeah, yeah… they're meant for kids. Just wish the little buggers would spend their own money on them and stop begging us grown ups to foot the bill.

  3. The REAL top reasons for declining action figure sales…

    1. Price: Price relative to provided value is skewing more towards too expensive for what you now get.

    2. Quality: There's less compelling product being manufactured with each passing year, and also production quality and QC issues seem to decline.

    3. Distribution: Even with a handful of good product out each year, the chances of it actually being stocked by a store near you is increasingly low.

    • dayraven

      i don't know what the action figure industry is doing wrong, but i refuse to believe it's more efficient and cost effective to make an electronic chip doohicky, that takes R&D and specialized facilities to manufacture, than it is a static piece of plastic. oil prices my ass, firstly, cuz i can go research oil prices all friggin day and no industry dependent on plastics has seen the price increases we've seen in the toy aisle, none. you have to go to the dairy aisle to find comparable markups in the last decade. you're not paying 5.75 for a bottle of windex are you, "well, the bottle is really expensive!"

      quality is a big issue. i don't get why toys even a decade old now seem so much firmer but even those are nothing compared to the toys of 20 years ago. my thundercats make the modern thundercats look like cheap knockoffs, QC wise. how am i or anyone else supposed to take seriously a lion-o with a limp, saggly sword of omens?

      distro is a huge deal. you're dead on, even when a decent line comes out, good luck finding it. then again, i used to say the same thing about comics… when's the last time you saw a comic book in the mag rack at a grocery store? and we wonder why the comic industry is dying. distro man… distro.

    • Mark

      I agree with you 100% on this.

  4. I'd argue price point, but we know from inflation that the price of action figures is comparable to what it would have been in the 1980s, and the sculpts, articulation, paint ops, etc., are much better.

    My constant argument is that whenever I look in the toy aisle, I see too many toys geared toward collectors. And I get it. Why try to appeal to a kid who has to rely on his allowance money or his/her parents to buy him/her a couple of figures when a collector will buy every single one as long as we make ones he/she wants? Movie-based toy lines may keep action figure lines alive, but they tend to be relatively uninspired. When Hasbro didn't monopolize everything, toy companies thrived because of competition.

    If the right ORIGINAL idea came along, I think it would go gangbusters. And for the record, I've seen kids play with Skylanders like action figures, so they really should be lumped in as such, in my opinion.

  5. Not shocking news. I have my own theory too – very few lines get the hero/villain balance right. What kid wants 300 variants of Spider-Man or Batman if there’s no villain toys to fight them against?

    • Mark

      Exactly. A lot of good toy lines have suffered due to the poor decision the companies make.

  6. This kinda goes along with a post I made last November about Google Trends and the action figure market. I suspect the decline in sales is cost, competition from non-action figure stuff, and a lack of any one big thing all action figure fans and kids feel they must own.

  7. I noticed that some of the McFarlane Assassin's Creed figures are available at Wal-Mart and have codes that unlock in-game content. Imagine if Hasbro released a G.I. Joe line or Star Wars line where the different accessories from the figure could somehow be implemented into a video game along the lines of the StarWars battlefield games. That could be a huge hit for both gaming kids and collectors wanting decent figures.

  8. Mysterious Stranger

    Today's videogame interaction is what we had in the 80's and 90's in the form of cartoons. Like you said, if the videogame interaction had been there 30 years ago we might have all developed into different collectors (or not at all). But because we had that interaction with cartoons it made playing with the toys better. Just look at He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers – all were HUGE in our childhoods and a big part of that was the weekday and Saturday morning cartoons we all rushed home to watch. A big part of our nostalgia comes from those TV shows and the fact that they were only on once a day for 30 minutes is why we took our toys and played with He-Man etc. If the shows had been available 24/7 like videogames are today then we might not have that strong of an attachment to the toys because we could have just popped in a VHS copy of G.I.Joe and watched the adventures over and over until the tape wore out. But because home entertainment had yet to become ever present like it is today and we only had a couple hours a week of our favorite cartoon we had to create that experience with the toys. If you take away the videogame for a few hours will a kid play with the Skylander figures, recreating the game? Probably. But because the game is always available the figure isn't as important as it was to us.

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