Toys, Collecting, and a Review of Hasbro Pulse

 

Toys, Collecting, and a Review of Hasbro Pulse

 

I don’t talk a lot about my toy collecting hobby except when I’m hanging out with Michael French and the RetroBlasting crew. I had quite a few toys as a kid, mostly consisting of small LEGO sets, die-cast and plastic military aircraft, and a plethora of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. I had a couple of playsets – specifically the 1979 Hot Wheels foldaway service center and the Racing Champions SkyBirds USS Enterprise aircraft carrier – but playsets were bulky and expensive, so most of my play time was emulating car jumps from ’80s television shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, and The Fall Guy on the living room furniture.

 

I still have the Enterprise, though it is well-loved and the box is hanging together by a thread. I wish I still had the service center playset.

My sister and I got part of the first wave from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure line circa 1988, but we were limited to the four turtles, April, and Splinter. I remember the weapons being easy to lose and our enemies being invisible forces hiding around the couch. The Foot Clan are sort of ninjas after all, right?

My grandmother found two G.I. Joe figures in her neighborhood – a 1983 Blowtorch and a 1984 First Sergeant Duke, both stripped of accessories – and she kept them for me to play with at her house. I literally had no idea what they were until last year when I recognized them in Michael French’s collection. I also had a few vinyl toys like Gizmo from Gremlins, one of the small the LJN E.T. figurines, a Playmates Darkwing Duck figure that I won from a local TV station, and a whole bunch of things over the years that I know I’m forgetting about… but the point of this introduction is that I didn’t have access to a lot of action figures when I was growing up.

When Hasbro acquired the Star Wars license in the 1990s and released the new Power of the Force (POTF2) line, I spent a good portion of my salary as a part-time elementary school custodian on picking up everything with a 3.75″ figure in it. Part of it was the ignorant belief that these toys would be just like the vintage Star Wars line and be worth gazillions of dollars within the next twenty years. The other part was a self-taught course in budgeting, bargain hunting, and personal responsibility.

Long story short, I stopped collecting one of everything mint-on-card around the same time that Attack of the Clones came out. I finally picked up my collection from my parents a couple of years ago and started paring it down. The philosophy was simple: Those toys were doing no one any good inside giant Tupperware totes, so I needed to enjoy them or get rid of them.

I decided on both. I chose certain characters to keep for future display and the rest have been trickling onto eBay ever since. (Check the Tip Jar page for the link.)

To that end, I was pretty excited about the action figure news from Star Wars Celebration 2019. When they came available on Hasbro Pulse, the toy company’s online shopping portal, I jumped on the chance to order them.

 

Let’s take a minute here to talk about my experience with toy collecting and shopping.

Since 1995, I have enjoyed the toy hunt. It’s a sport that involves bouncing from store to store, walking the aisles, and hoping that the figures you want are dangling from the pegs. Before the internet was so widespread, it was a test of patience and luck amplified by magazines like ToyFare, which was Robot Chicken before Robot Chicken was Robot Chicken.

The biggest problem I have in the internet age is distribution. I watch the news about new Star Wars and Marvel releases, but I often have problems finding the figures after the published release dates for each wave. Some of them – usually the ones that I don’t want – have flooded the toy shelves, but others never materialize. To wit:

  • I bought the Black Series Captain Rex at Toylanta 2018 because it never arrived at the mass of Walmarts and Targets in my area. It was found en masse at Ross stores in the first quarter of 2019.
  • I found one of the Ahsoka Tano releases at my local Target. The rest were eBay and Amazon purchases.
  • The Black Series Qui-Gon Jinn only appeared at the ThinkGeek store that is nearly an hour away.
  • I finally found the Black Series Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus at Five Below, a local discount store, well after Rogue One hit Blu-ray.
  • The Walgreens exclusives are hit and miss.
  • The GameStop exclusives are consistent and readily available. They also have new waves earlier than most, but they’re also more expensive.
  • In the week or two before the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home, I found zero Legends hero figures on store shelves.
  • Walmart’s Captain Marvel exclusive, the Binary Mode figure, never arrived at the five stores in my area. Instead, a friend and I both paid nearly double the shelf price to order them internationally.
  • Target’s Captain Marvel exclusive, the Starforce figure, materialized months after the movie premiered. A friend who works at Target later elaborated on the problem: The box of four figures all comes in under the same number. They don’t know until they open the box which figures are in the batch, or which box has the exclusive figure. This is determined at the manufacturer level, not the store level.

I think a lot of this has to do with supply and demand. Hasbro puts a lot of figures on shelves at once, and not all of them sell at the same rate. But, since a store cannot just order more of the high demand ones and less of the low demand ones, they’re hesitant to put more undesirable products on the shelf just to move an extra item or two.

For some reason, the DC Comics figures are usually on time and in the right proportions to minimize stock on clearance shelves. Figures for Shazam!, Aquaman, and the new Multiverse line are on shelves and moving at a decent pace. Very few of them even get to the clearance aisle.

The exceptions, of course, are the Multiverse figures from the time of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s theatrical release. Those things breed like roaches on the pegs, and not even a rock-bottom clearance sale could move them out of one South Carolina Walmart that I visited.

The McFarlane Toys Game of Thrones line is another shining example of success: There are very few left on the pegs, and I have seen none of them on clearance. The majority of the peg-warmers are Jon Snow figures. Arya Stark has (fittingly) vanished into the night and the Night King is a lonely spirit if you can find him.

It’s obvious that the problem is with Hasbro.

I’ll come back to that later, but it’s a problematic statement to make in some collecting circles. Michael French regularly and objectively makes points like these and many others, and with similar regularity, he gets attacked by collectors who think he’s just out to take down a major toy manufacturer. Except that critics have nothing to gain from making these arguments, and we’re certainly not competing for any kind of market share.

We’re not even in the same market space. Michael reviews toys and pop culture on YouTube, and I review pop culture in writing and podcasts.

But, I digress.

 

I was excited about four of the figures announced at Star Wars Celebration 2019 that were available on Pulse. My wife is ecstatic over astromech heroes, so the Black Series Chopper (from Star Wars Rebels) and the new dingy Vintage Collection R2-D2 were easy to say yes to. Ezra Bridger (Rebels) represents a large hole in my character collection from that fantastic series, and I am one of “those fans” who actually liked The Last Jedi, so the astral projection form of Luke Skywalker was nice to see. When they came available, I decided that it was a win-win: First, since the figure waves are unpredictable in stores, it guaranteed that they would come to my collection; Second, it offered me a chance to try Hasbro Pulse.

(Aside: The Star Wars Rebels Black Series line still has a huge hero hole with the absence of Zeb Orrelios. I’m also holding out for Ezra and Kanan from the later seasons. I think Kanan became a far better character after he lost his eyesight.)

I got notified that the figures were shipping, as promised, in the first week of July. The Black Series figures arrived first, followed by the Vintage Collection figures soon after.

There were quite a few advantages to using Hasbro Pulse. The pre-order system was easy to use, and they limit purchase quantities to prevent people from gaming the system and scalping fellow collectors.

(Of course, Hasbro is responsible for creating a scalper’s market with super limited releases like the Retro Collection, but again, I digress.)

Pulse’s prices on the six-inch figures are comparable to Target’s price points – that’s typically between Walmart and Walgreens/GameStop – but the 3.75″ figures are closer to the Walgreens/GameStop level. At some point, I was able to get free shipping based on my purchase total, but nothing on the site indicates what that threshold is. I’m assuming that it is around $50, but it should be more clearly marked on the site.

The shipping boxes were fairly well packed and protected, but that also opens the door for the downsides to the Pulse experience. The first is that each figure was shipped its own box, which seems quite wasteful in terms of cardboard, packing materials, and FedEx manpower. There are pictures in various collecting groups from people that bought entire waves of new figures and ended up with plenty of spare beds for a clowder of cats.

There’s also a question of quality control. I’m not a mint-on-card/mint-in-box collector, but I’d be upset if I was since the Crait Luke came with a bent and creased card. Unless it rolled off the line damaged, which is a serious QC problem from square one, then it was bent in shipping.

(One more aside: It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a quality control problem given how many figures my friend and co-host Gary Mitchel has found that are in the wrong boxes. Unless Director Krennic has been moonlighting as a Scarif Stormtrooper, there’s no excuse for finding that many mispackaged figures.)

 

Overall, using Hasbro Pulse was a good experience. If there is another must-have figure or two, then I’ll probably use them again. But I have to address the elephant in the room here: The service does nothing to incentivize Hasbro to fix their distribution models. The company still makes money by giving collectors a faster, guaranteed avenue for buying toys, and they make even more by offering a $50 per year “premium” plan that provides free continental shipping, access to promotions and contests, and select extras at conventions and more.

Hasbro Pulse doesn’t fix the problem of not having new figures on shelves, nor does it fix the problem of supply and demand for store shoppers.

Hasbro could easily have it both ways. When I talk to toy collectors about their childhoods, most of their original toys were bought by their parents. I believe that Hasbro could bring back that feeling for today’s kids by selling the mainstream 3.75″ lines on store shelves and putting their more collector-driven lines on Pulse.

Look at the quality, the lines, and the price points. With their limited articulation and lower prices, the smaller scale figures are meant to be played with. The smaller figures are more timely – the shelves are filled with 3.75″ scale toys for recent movies (Avengers: Endgame) and television shows (Star Wars: Resistance) – and more accessible for smaller hands. This scale is built for impulse purchases.

The Black Series and Marvel Legends lines are designed for collectors. They have more articulation and posing potential, they have better paint jobs (in general), and they command the higher $20 price point. Hasbro Pulse is the perfect venue for more collector-focused offerings.

This is basic marketing. Build a supply, serve the demand. I don’t know many kids or adults who are excited about a comic-accurate Malekith, Black Bolt, or Namor. If Hasbro still wants to sell a piece of the premium market on shelves, they could limit them to the characters that kids see on screens. People will want a Spider-Man toy after they leave Far From Home: Make it easy to get one.

Or, even better, figure out how other companies are doing it right. Build a supply, serve the demand. Basic marketing.

Look, I’m far from a “Hasbro Hater.” Being critical about the company doesn’t mean that I’m trying to destroy them or that I don’t appreciate what they currently do. It just means that I’m a frustrated pop culture fan and collector, and if my discussions with other toy fans are any indication, I’m not alone.

I want to find the figures I want without resorting to discount stores or online scalpers. I want an influential and nearly century-old toy company to be better.

I want the collecting hobby to be fun, not frustrating.

 

Advertisements

FLASHBACK: Celebration of an Idiotic Lifestyle

Previously posted on February 24, 2009

On February 4, 2009, famed movie critic Roger Ebert launched his rather scathing review of the movie Fanboys. For those who don’t know, Fanboys is a film about Star Wars fans by a Star Wars fan. If you’re thinking Trekkies, then do yourself a quick favor and watch the trailer.

Trekkies was a focus on Star Trek fandom, highlighting the really wacky things they do. When I saw that film, I didn’t feel happy that someone was examining Trek fans. In fact, I wanted to melt into my chair and disappear. Trekkies implied that every fan of Gene Roddenberry’s franchise was a Starfleet uniform wearing social introvert who still lived in their parents’ basements with about fifty cats. Need I remind you of Barbara Adams, the alternate juror for the 1996 Whitewater controversy who wore her Starfleet uniform to the trial?

Apparently, this prejudicial mindset carries over to all science-fiction fandoms.

To quote Ebert’s review:

A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It’s all about them. They have mastered the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies.

Extreme fandom may serve as a security blanket for the socially inept, who use its extreme structure as a substitute for social skills. If you are Luke Skywalker and she is Princess Leia, you already know what to say to each other, which is so much safer than having to ad-lib it. Your fannish obsession is your beard. If you know absolutely all the trivia about your cubbyhole of pop culture, it saves you from having to know anything about anything else. That’s why it’s excruciatingly boring to talk to such people: They’re always asking you questions they know the answer to.

While I defend Ebert’s right to his opinion, I have to take issue with the content. My interpretation of his words is that being involved in fandom means that you are enabled to be a social introvert. Furthermore, it enables you to have shallow relationships built on nothing more than your love of a facet of popular culture. Forget trying to build anything meaningful in a relationship because you’re incapable of doing it.

Roger Ebert, you’re doing it wrong.

In fact, Ebert went on to state:

[Fanboys] is a celebration of an idiotic lifestyle, and I don’t think it knows it.

While it is true that some science-fiction fans have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, I argue that the majority of Star Wars fans do not share that problem.

First, let’s take a look at the 501st Legion, an international fan-based organization dedicated to constructing and building screen-accurate villain costumes from the Star Wars universe. At first glance, with over 4200 active members in 40 countries, one might think that this is just a worldwide Trek-esque Starfleet uniform party. That’s why they need a second glance.

From their charter:

“…The Legion is a volunteer club formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts and giving them a collective identity within which to operate. The Legion’s aims are to celebrate the Star Wars movies through the wearing of costumes, to promote the quality and improvement of costumes and props, and most importantly to contribute to the local community through charity and volunteer work…”

The 501st proudly contributes to charity organizations, and maintains a list on their website of groups they’ve worked with. In fact, they are famous for working with the Make-A-Wish foundation and terminally ill children.

I wonder what part of putting a smile on a young cancer patient’s face as they get to “meet” Darth Vader is idiotic. Anyone want to answer that for me?

The 501st works other events, such as conventions, for free. All they ask is that any money offered for their work is donated to a charity in their name.

Next, I focus on an astromech droid. In 2005, Jerry Greene worked with the R2 Builder’s Group to fulfill a little girl’s wish. Her name was Katie Johnson, and she had brain cancer. Her wish was to have an R2-D2 with one caveat: she wanted it pink. Soon enough, R2-KT was born.

R2-KT exists to entertain children and raise awareness for pediatric cancer. Money raised in events with R2-KT goes to Make-A-Wish and the Children’s Cancer Fund. Building on the penchant for Star Wars fans to collect, R2-KT has been made into a Hasbro action figure and a coin, the proceeds again going to charity. As of the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, R2-KT also entered the official canon, which is Lucasfilm acknowledging the efforts of their fans by making an icon part of history.

Again, Roger Ebert:

“Fanboys” is an amiable but disjointed movie that identifies too closely with its heroes. Poking a little more fun at them would have been a great idea. They are tragically hurtling into a cultural dead end, mastering knowledge which has no purpose other than being mastered, and too smart to be wasting their time.
When a movie’s opening day finally comes, and fanboys leave their sidewalk tents for a mad dash into the theater, I wonder who retrieves their tents, sleeping bags, portable heaters and iPod speakers. Warning: Mom isn’t always going to be there to clean up after you.

I have news for you, Roger. It may be fun for you to poke fun at Star Wars fans as we tragically hurtle toward a cultural dead end, but rest assured that we are above that. Being a Star Wars fan is not about knowing how many midichlorians Anakin Skywalker has or how many parsecs — an astronomical unit of length — it takes to make the Kessel Run. Being a Star Wars fan is about embracing the spirit of George Lucas’s vision and running with it.

I am a naval submarine officer, a faithful husband, a physicist, an engineer, a struggling author, a writer for a podcast, an Eagle Scout, and a college graduate nearly twice over. I’m also a Star Wars fan and a proud science-fiction geek. Believe me when I tell you Star Wars isn’t a lifestyle, but merely a facet of one. It’s a common ground and a solid foundation to start building relationships that mean something beyond the fantasy of pop culture.

If you spent any time at all with Star Wars fans, you would understand that we’re not about running around in costume for the hell of it or endlessly spouting lines from the films. We have social relationships that run deeper than movie scripts, most of which are developed and maintained for life. We believe in friendships that are maintained not only for the purpose of having them, and we don’t knife each other in the back when it’s convenient, unlike other fandoms.

I only wish that people could understand it instead of cowering behind their fear of diversity.