Points of Articulation
NECA's Ambassador Program Doesn't Work
When Toys "Я" Us was gutted by the unrestricted Ayn-Randian-wet-dream that is modern Capitalism, NECA was one of the many companies left in the lurch. TRU had been one of their major outlets, so now their sales were facing some big trouble.
At SDCC 2018, however, NECA announced they'd found at least some relief from this problem: starting that August, they'd begin having a presence in Target! How exciting! Yes, you could get NECA toys at stores like FYE (with a price hike) or through your local comicshop (if they bothered to order them, also with a price hike), but Target was a real store with real standards.
Unfortunately, the lofty ideas have not quite played out as intended.
It's an important distinction to recognize that NECA has not convinced Target to carry their products. Target's buyers (the people responsible for choosing what products to put in the stores) "carry" things from Mattel, from Hasbro, from Jazwares, etc. - Target purchases the toys from those vendors in whatever quantities Target feels is correct, then turns around and sells them to us, keeping whatever profit they make. Target spends money up front, and makes money at the end.
In NECA's case, however, the product is vendor-stocked, which means that NECA is responsible for monitoring stock levels itself and delivering product when it's needed. To put it in vastly simplified terms, NECA is renting space inside the stores, and using that space to sell us their stuff directly; Target gets money up front, and NECA makes money at the end.
So in traditional stock management, the toy company gets money first, the store gets money second; this way, the store gets money first, the toy company gets money second. Got it? Cool.
(This is not unique in the toy industry, by the way: Lego does the same thing. If you ever get a coupon from Target, you may notice that Lego [and now NECA] products are specifically excluded in the fine print. This is because Target doesn't actually have the authority to offer discounts on Lego sets, any more than a landlord could choose to sell their tenant's stereo.)
That's all well and good. And the fact that Lego has been doing this for years (and usually has a double-sided aisle all to itself) shows that it's absolutely a viable strategy. But it kind of requires the company to care about what's happening, and it doesn't seem like NECA does.
In October, NECA announced the Ambassador Program - you sign up to "claim" your local store, then go there once a week, straighten up the NECA area, and take a picture to show them what the stock levels are like. In exchange for free labor, you can win a Target gift card a few times a year. Honestly, go read that link for all the details. It's not a bad deal, especially if you have a Target you visit regularly anyway, so don't think we're down on the Ambassador Program. In fact, it does have its advantages.
For example: if you happen to go to your local store at the same general time every week, and you repeatedly see someone there taking pictures of the NECA area, it's a pretty safe bet they're your store's ambassador. And if you strike up a conversation with them, they might be willing to share some observations with you.
Let me backtrack a little bit first. Do you remember how, in quite a few reviews, I complained about how bad the NECA stock at my Toys "Я" Us was? That Tweet was the only image I ever took as proof, but it was perpetually empty like that. NECA, like Lego before them, employs their own people to go into the stores and put the product on the shelves. "Merchandisers," they're called. It's a part-time job for actual money. NECA used merchandisers at TRU then, and they're using them at Target now. And whoever is supposed to do the job in my area... doesn't. The pegs lie fallow. That's how it seems, anyway.
But hey, now NECA's asking people to take a photo every week. So let's take a look at what my local store looked like a couple weeks ago:
Wow, that's empty AF, isn't it? Let's look at the week before that:
And the week before that:
That's pretty much the same all the time, isn't it? Let's jump backward a full month:
You can spot the things slowly disappearing as we go back in time. Rather than burden you (and your data connection) with every single photo, here's a montage to carry us back, back, back:
You can see how a bunch of stuff disappeared right around Christmas, yeah?
Here's where it gets interesting:
Wow, look at that stock! Multiple Jason Voorheeses, Gremlins, Chucky, Coraline... lots and lots of stuff. That was the first week it was officially stocked - the week before that, on October 23, there was nothing other than a few Godzillas. Really exciting to see all that in a Target, let me tell you. But if you look at the later pictures, you can literally watch it all slowly drain away and never, ever get replenished.
I'm going to repeat this very plainly, in its own paragraph and in bold text, so that it's very easy to see: the merchandiser responsible for my area has not put a single new item on the shelves since the last week of October. That is, as of this writing, five months and 29 days.
Talking to the store's ambassador, they've dutifully emailed in the photos every week. Whoever receives those photos has watched the stock get lower and lower and never get replaced. And they've never bothered to do anything about it. The ambassador has asked why. Asked when new things would arrive. Asked why the merchandiser is allowed to keep their job. Asked if a new merchandiser was needed, and how to apply. And yet, nothing. Every week, more and more empty. From October to today, 25 weeks of nothing.
NECA often retweets pictures of well-stocked stores. But there are way too many replies from people who don't see that same bounty. Too many merchandisers aren't doing their job, and if the Ambassador Program's weekly monitoring isn't enough to fix the problem, then what's the point?
I didn't want to write this PoA. You know we love NECA's products. We respect them as a company and we try to give them the benefit of the doubt. But going half a year without a single restock is ridiculous, and it's embarrassing. And if private emails from the ambassador haven't done anything, maybe a public call-out from us will. I've got two Targets in my town, and honestly, I just want them to carry toys I can buy! I want to give NECA money. But their bad employee is preventing that.
NECA product being available in Target is a great thing. It's thrilling to be able to spend money on these products in person, rather than ordering them sight-unseen, and without having to pay a specialty store a few dollars above the SRP. It's good for NECA, and it's good for the industry. But vendor-managed inventory requires the vendor to actually, y'know, manage the inventory, and even with an army of professional snitches prowling stores around the country, there's not a lot of evidence that NECA is doing a very good job of it.