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Points of Articulation

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The Word on the Street (Dates)

With the release of the new Transformers movie getting closer every day, a lot of people are starting to find the movie toys on shelves. Of course, they're also finding some major headaches when they get to the checkout and are told that they can't buy the toys because they were put out "early."


Like we said on our blog, the TF toys originally had a street date of June 2, but that was lifted - sort of. For a full explaination, follow the link. I'm here today to talk about the concept of street dates.

   Do Whatnow?

A street date (also known as an on-sale date or a laydown date) is a date, set by the company, before which any sales or display of a specific product is embargoed. It's something you probably deal with all the time, even if you don't realize it. Every CD, DVD and videogame sold has a street date - that's why you can find the newest blockbuster on sale at every store from coast to coast on the same day. Stories in your local newspaper are often written weeks in advance, though they can't be published until a certain date. People lined up for days or weeks to get their Playstation 3, which had probably been sitting in the stockroom just as long as the players had been sitting in the parking lot.

The movie industry is to blame for this, really. These days, a movie lives or dies based on its first weekend box office. If it performs, it's a hit; if it doesn't, it's quickly shuffled out of theatres. Didn't used to be that way - not before Jaws, really. The first blockbuster. Until then, movies stayed in theatres as long as they were profitable. 1967's Bonnie and Clyde debuted only at drive-ins and small theatres, but stayed long enough to earn huge money and critical acclaim. But now, with the focus on the first weekend, every movie has to be a big premiere or a fast failure - there's no such thing as a slow success any more.

And now that mentality is spilling over to other industries. Record stores that normally close at midnight stay open an extra half hour on Monday night to sell Tuesday's CDs. EB Games locations opened in the middle of the night to sell the World of Warcraft expansion. The Harry Potter books have a huge and widely hyped street date every time a new one comes out. Everyone wants to be part of the event.

   Why Do They Do It?

There are definite advantages to having a firm street date. You can time all your advertising to give the product the most support. You can tell consumers that they can go to the store on a certain date and be reasonably assured that they'll find the product then. Giving a firm deadline can increase excitement, and thus increase sales. With tons of sales all on one day, a new product is more likely to jump to the top of the charts, which means more publicity and notoriety.

It also levels the playing field - when every store has the product on the same day, no one has an advantage just because they can afford to get a delivery first. Remember how new McFarlane and ToyBiz stuff would go first to whatever retailer paid for the best shipping? Street dates prevent that. Think of how toys come through Diamond: pretty much every store gets them the same day. If you have two comicshops in your town, and one gets the newest DC Direct line and the other doesn't, who's going to suffer for it?

On the downside, rollouts like books, games and dvds get require a lot of behind-the-scenes planning. The company has to be on top of production, shipping, warehouse space and even retailers. They have to be ready to police stores that are breaking the street date and actually penalize them - like the stores that are prevented from carrying the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because they sold the previous books early. That's a big blow, and will keep the others in line.

However, what works for those industries doesn't necessarily work for toys.

   Toys, You Say?

The first Star Wars prequel was preceeded by the inagural Midnight Madness on May 3, 1999. At 12:01 am EST, stores around the world were permitted to sell the first Phantom Menace merchandise ever. It was huge - it was an event. It was the first Star Wars movie in 16 years, and people were excited. Absolutely zero information had been released, and Midnight Madness was to open the floodgates and welcome this new story into the world.

And Midnight Madness worked. Millions of dollars of SW merchandise was sold that night. People knew it was coming, and lined up in the cold and the dark to be there. And maybe if they hadn't, we wouldn't be having problems today.

   Hasbro Goes Overboard

The problem is that Hasbro is really getting into the concept, now. They're trying to turn every toy line into an event, not paying any attention to the huge differences between that line and all the ones that have followed.

The subsequent Star Wars prequels had their own Midnight Madness events, but neither was as successful as the first. The law of diminishing returns, I guess. But Hasbro just keeps doing it, getting less successful every time. No Spider-Man 3 toys could be sold until March 24, in what Hasbro called the "Webslinger Weekend." There were ads on tv and everything, something the Midnight Madness events never got. Some toys leaked out, but nothing substantial - those were just isolated incedents.

   The Transformers Problem

Transformers had a street date, too - it's printed right on the boxes. I know, I've seen them. But Target was either unaware or just chose to ignore it. They've had movie toys available for weeks, now - way more than just the "protoform" sneak preview figures that all the stores have been showing. In anticipation of the coming movie figures, Target clearanced out all its existing TF product, leaving them with a huge empty hole on the shelf to fill. Other stores, you notice, are still packed with Classics and even Cybertron stuff.

So word came down to the fan sites from "a reliable anonymous source" that Hasbro was lifting the street date, and anyone could sell the toys. Ah, not so! Turns out the anonymous source wasn't so reliable, after all: Hasbro told the stores that had already put the movie stuff out (ie, Target) that they didn't have to pull it off the shelves, but they told the stores who were waiting (everyone else) that they still had to wait until June 2.

What? Does that seem fair? Target breaks the agreement, gets a free pass and weeks of sales ahead of everyone else. And thus we see the problem of having a street date at all: there's always someone willing to break the date and get those extra sales. Having worked in two music stores, I can tell you that every Monday there was at least one person in talking about how they could already get tomorrow's new releases if they were just willing to go to some other store, so why wouldn't we go ahead and sell them, too? So now TRU, Kmart and Wal*Mart are all sitting on stockrooms full of movie toys that they'll be able to sell on Saturday, while Target is drawing in the Transfans right now.

   What Went Wrong?

There are several reasons why the Transformers street date was broken. The biggest and most blatant? Hasbro can't do anything about it. Bloomsbury and Scholastic can punish bookstores because Harry Potter is a huge part of their business - if a store gets shut out of that, they're in trouble. But what is Hasbro going to do to Target? Oh, they can't carry one manufacturer's toys? Boo hoo. I guess they'll just have to shrink the toy section by one aisle and sell more space heaters and plastic storage containers. Toys aren't a big part of their profit, and they're under no obligation to carry them anyway - Hasbro needs Target more than Target needs Hasbro.

Secondly, there's no advertising for this street date, which is what an embargo really needs to succeed. Consumers need to know that the product will debut on Day X, and that there's no point to looking for it before then. They need an advertised countdown, and Hasbro didn't do it this time. We're two days away from the laydown, and the only reason anyone at all knows about it is that they went to the checkout and were turned away.

   And So...

Hasbro either needs to give these street dates a rest, or get serious about them. Right now, they're halfassing their way through it. If you're going to have a street date, have a street date. Stick by it. If you're going to lift it, lift it. Tell everyone they're good to go. The fans know what happened, here - you think the retail chains don't know, too? The next time Hasbro tries this, you think Wal*Mart won't try to muscle their way into some "early" sales, as well?

Midnight Madness was a lot of fun the first time it happened. Of course, back then there was a reason for it. Now Hasbro's just getting greedy. Maybe the toy industry should adopt a strictly dated release system, like cds and dvds have. It would certainly alleviate a lot of the hassle of the hunt, and save a lot of gas. But right now, that system doesn't exist, and Hasbro isn't good enough to make it happen by themselves.

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