Points of Articulation
Moving at the Big Five
Usually when we mention the Big Five, we're talking about articulation - the points of movement at the neck, shoulders and hips that are the requirement for an action figure to truly be an "action" figure. But there's another Big Five in the toy industry, one that has a lot more impact on what toys we actually see.
To industry insiders, the Big Five are the five main toy retail stores in America: KB Toys, Kmart, Target, Toys R Us and Wal*Mart. The general rule of thumb is that to have a successful toy line, a company needs to have the support of at least three of these retailers; exclusive figures, obviously, are another story, but for normal lines, you need as many backers as possible.
Mattel, for instance, has recently seen its Masters of the Universe line shut out of Toys R Us stores across the nation - because of the incredibly terrible decisions Mattel made regarding the line, TRU couldn't move the unpopular product they suddenly found themselves stuck with. Rather than continue to clog their shelves with toys that no one wants, many TRUs will no longer sell He-Man. This isn't a major blow to Mattel, though, since they still have the other four to fall back on.
Big companies, like Hasbro and ToyBiz, get their product into all the stores - there's always a Spider-Man or Star Wars section, wherever you go - while smaller companies have to fight for whatever foothold they can get. Palisades' Muppet line, for instance, is only at Target. Palisades gets a lot of support from smaller stores, and even a few of the Big Five's online sites, but having their lines in more brick and mortar locations would only help.
The Big Five, in effort to placate the hyperactive soccer moms of the world, will often impose restrictions on the toy makers: Plan B had a hard time finding someone to carry their great "Special Forces" line because buyers for the stores felt that the toys were "too violent." Now, granted, a line of realistic 6" military figures will have some violent connotations, and will be sold with guns. But to tell a small company that you won't carry their toys for those reasons is asinine at best, and a verifiable lie at worst.
GIJoe, a staple of toy sections since the '60s, is sold by all five retailers, in both 4- and 12-inch varieties. Both sizes, particularly the larger, more eye-catching scale, come with realistic weapons displayed prominently in the packaging. ToyBiz can sell guns - clearly visible in the package - with its Marvel Legends Punisher, but McFarlane Toys has to hide the guns that come with the Matrix figures. Small companies get bullied into making changes, simply because they don't have the history, clout or backing to say "screw you, we'll just sell over here."
Retailers, fortunately, are quick to react to comments from their customers, and even quicker to react when they realize that those customers might take their business somewhere else. If you'd like to see Muppets, or Special Forces, or Star Trek, or anything in some bigger retail locations, use the addresses below to get in touch with the stores and let them know.
- KB Toys Corporate Headquarters
- 100 West St
Pittsfield, MA 01201
- Kmart Corp.
- 3100 West Big Beaver Road
Troy, MI 48084
Toll free: 1-800-635-6278
- Target Stores
- P.O. Box 9350
Minneapolis, MN 55440-9350
- Toys "R" Us Guest Relations
- 461 From Road
Paramus, NJ 07652
Toll free: 1-888-243-6337
- Wal*Mart Stores, Inc.
- 702 SW Eighth St.
Bentonville, AR 72716-0117
Toll free: 1-800-WAL-MART
Tell them that you want to see these toys on their shelves, and until you do, you'll be spending your money somewhere else. Fear of complaints is what keeps a lot of smaller companies' products off the shelves, so show these retailers that they're going to get complaints for not carrying them.
Be prepared to articulately explain why the toys should be there.
- "Mez-Itz are wicked cool and I would totally buy them!" is not an explanation that will sway anyone.
- "Mezco Toys' 'Mez-Itz' recreate a nice variety of pop culture icons that fans already know, at a low price-point and without taking up large amounts of shelf space" is.
Of course, don't just target the main offices: speak to folks at your local stores, too. "Think globally, act locally" and all that. Call and ask to speak to the manager. Ask them who makes decisions about what items get stocked. Yes, for the most part, things are just sent to the stores from the nearest distribution center. But managers can request specific items, as well: if your Wal*Mart doesn't carry a "mainstream" line that you want to buy, ask them to.
And know your target: if you're going to campaign for Special Forces, point out that the store already sells soldier toys; if you want McFarlane's Soul Calibur toys, point out that the store sells the game the toys are based on, so it's already endorsing the characters. You have to think ahead - in order to impress corporate entities, you, as a consumer, need to sound articulate and well-reasoned.
Of course, collectors will have to assume some responsibility in this effort, as well - you need to actually buy the toys once they get to stores. That means no buying off eBay, and no waiting for clearance: when a toy line reaches clearance prices, that's because the manufacturer has refunded part of the retailers' money; buying toys at clearance might stretch your toy budget further, but it also costs the companies money and sends stores the message that the line doesn't sell well enough to warrant buying another case.
As toy fans, we're really lucky to be getting all the cool stuff we do, whether it's something great from an old company or something innovative from a new upstart. However, a lot of the time we have to go out of our way to find the really good stuuf, because overprotective advocacy groups want to dumb things down for everyone. But we are a big community, spending millions of dollars a year on our platic habit, and as part of that community, you should be able to affect some change. You're a customer, you've got the money, you've got the power.