Has the Time Come?

Chaos in Print

I’ve lamented in the past how it seems that the mom and pop toy stores of my youth are no more. Every small town mall across the country used to have at least one small toy store, but now, the malls sit empty. What happened to all the toy stores? Were they victims of the ultra-low toy departments of departments stores? Did the big box retailers come in and swallow them up? No matter. Perhaps they are something whose time has passed. And, instead of mourning their loss, we should be thinking about their reinvention.

For reinvention, we must look to the world of comic books. Now, once upon a time, a long time ago, people bought their comics at newsstands, drugstores, convenience stores…basically, any place you buy a magazine. But, something happened in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Comic book stores began sprouting up and doing great businesses. No longer having to dig past American Fisherman and Playboy to get the latest Spider-Man, comic enthusiasts could now head on down to the local comic book store and grab the newest issue. The comic industry began referring to this as “the direct market.” Because see, now the comic could get directly into your hands.

The advent of the direct market began changing the way that comic books were marketed. The rise of the direct market also saw the rise of the graphic novel; those massive, massive comics that tell much more detailed stories and, usually, with more grown-up themes. Now that the artists knew that the people had a place to pick up the next issue, artists became more comfortable to do serialized storytelling, thus leading to the epic, 12-issue story arcs. And, because they didn’t have to deal with a snickering 16-year old behind the counter at 7-11, comic readers started becoming more grown-up, thus leading to more mature stories. The direct market was a boon to the comic industry, and helped comics grow into what they are today.

Now, it comes as no surprise that comic collectors and toy collectors come from the same demographic. So, when action figure collecting starting gaining steam in the mid-1990s, comic book stores were the first to jump on the bandwagon. Suddenly, comic book stores across the country were starting to set aside the back wall to display the latest superhero and sci-fi hero action figures. It really became a big business in 1994 when Spawn creator and Image Comics co-founder Todd McFarlane started his toy company, McFarlane Toys. As you may recall, Image Comics was founded on the mantra of “creator control,” so McFarlane Toys was designed to pump out toys based on Image Comics, thus insuring the creators had 100% control over the action figures. McFarlane Toys set new standards for detailed figures, and action figure collectors and comic collectors snapped them up like…something that sells really well. (Sorry, having trouble thinking of an original simile.)

The late-1990s showed many comic book companies following the Image Comics trend. Suddenly, every independent comic book company was forming a small toy company to pump out action figures of their comics. It all came to a climax in 1998 when DC Comics formed DC Direct and started making figures for every obscure character in the DC Universe. And again, these action figures sold exclusively in comic book stores. Eventually, these toy companies started thinking, “Why stop at comic books?” Toy companies started springing up all over, snapping up the toy licenses to obscure cult films, sci-fi TV shows with rabid followings, and even rock groups! Now, comic book stores were being flooded with action figures from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and KISS.

In the early part of this decade, comic book distributor Diamond Distributors started seeing the trend, so even they formed their own toy distribution arm: Diamond Select. Diamond Select has worked hard to make sure these obscure figures make their way into comic book stores. They helped bring us Buffy. Right now, their flagship line is called “Marvel Select,” which are amazingly detailed figures of Marvel characters that wouldn’t sell so well in the mass market; characters like the Black Cat and the White Queen; characters whose bust lines would have uptight mothers picketing the local Toys R Us. And now, what sparked this whole article was the announcement that Diamond Select has teamed up with Art Asylum, the company which currently holds the Star Trek toy license. And yup, the next batch of Star Trek action figures will be sold in comic book stores.

So, really, what we’ve seen over the past decade is the creation of a direct market for action figures. That being said, I think it’s time someone created a direct market toy store.

Ever wonder why you can pay $6.99 for a Luke Skywalker at Toys R Us, but they’ll charge you $29.99 at the comic book store? That’s because comic book stores price their action figures based on the secondary market; older figures that have been out for a while and are now becoming “collectables.” But, by creating a direct market toy store, we wouldn’t be dealing in the secondary market. Finally, you, the collector, can complete your collection at retail prices – not secondary market.

See, this is where my idea differs from most others. You already some stores like this sprouting up, but they all charge secondary market prices. And see, they don’t sell themselves as “toy stores.” They sell themselves as “collectables stores.” What I’m essentially talking about here is taking a collectables store, and running it like a toy store. I mean, seriously, why do I have to pay $20 for a Kill Bill figure from the Collector’s Edge in West Edmonton Mall, when I can literally go down the hall to HMV and grab it for half price; the retail price?

Yes. I bought my Kill Bill action figures at HMV. This creation of the toy direct market has led to a variety of alternate outlets to get these toys. Every major record store chain seems to have a toy section sprouting up. Another reason why a direct market toy store is a good idea is it would bring all these exclusives under one roof.

I want to bring retail to the collector’s market, and that means charging retail prices for these “collectables.” And if that means treating them like the toys they are and running my business like a toy store, then so be it. The mom and pop toy store can make a comeback, if it switches its focus onto the direct market.

Ehh, who am I kidding? I’m only saying I want to do this because most comic book stores have a crappy toy selection and I want to start snapping up more of the cool stuff ToyFare always previews, and at a much nicer price.

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