For Play or For Pay?
A Peek Into the Toy Collecting Hobby
Toys. When we find ourselves looking at one in any toy store or retailer outlet, do we still think of them as the innocent playthings that gave us hours of wonder and enjoyment? Plastic dolls or action figures, transforming cars or building blocks, did our endearment of these things ever fade away as we grew more matured? For some this isn't the case, they haven't grown up,and they still buy toys to bring them enjoyment. But this enjoyment isn't brought about by light-up gimmicks or sounds, there are adult collectors out there who look differently at their toys, so much so that an entire market has grown from this mindset. What I'm talking about is the Toys as Action Figures and their Collector's Market, where people buy and sell their toys for varying costs (this is often dependent on the condition or rarity of the item, which I shall discuss later on in this paper). In this paper I will seek to orient you, the reader with a general overview of toy collecting and the personae that constitute this dynamic hobby. You will be introduced to terms such as M.I.B. (Mint in Box), shortpacked, scalpers, and many others, but it is my hope that by the time you reach the end of this paper, I will have answered my fundamental inquiry of whether Toys are still collected for their play value rather than their monetary value.
Who Does What?
What makes up a collector? John Hays defines the collector as “a person who gathers or purchases action figures that reflect their interests” mostly as display objects “for their own enjoyment”(“Thou Shalt Not Scalp”). Why they collect may vary from collector to collector. Some might have been interested at the design of the product and began out of pure curiosity with one figure, and being impressed with one figure decided to get the other figures in the same line. Another may have watched any related media of the product and desired to have their favorite character/s in a somewhat tangible form. Another could have just as likely got one as a gift on some occasion and it had interested them enough to buy more. The reasons may be endless, but what fueled their passion for them was primarily the toy companies.
Toy Companies today use a gamut of methods (movies, comics, TV shows, etc) to sell their wares, and just like when they started out they always had young children as their primary market even up to today. But as the years went by they found a following in the older generations that enjoyed their products. To cite an example, the Transformers toyline before (1984 to be exact) was composed mainly of one central line that sold to all the young boys of the day, helped along by the cartoon and subsequent animated movie, this line became strong up until the early 1990's. Fast forwarding through several franchise reboots later, most recently to 2008-2009, the franchise is divided into three categories that catered to three different, though often intersecting demographics: the Transformers Movie franchise which depended on the viewers of the 2007 film,Transformers which was a live-action take on the original formula and was a means to lure in new and old fans, the Transformers Animated franchise that mainly targeted a younger audience (7-10 year olds) and had maintained a three season animated series, and the Universe 2.0 line that had for a time mainly served to produce action figures of characters and properties of older franchises from the beginning of the line to the most recent incarnation (properties from 1984-2009, respectively). Characters that only fans who grew up during that period would relate to via comics, cartoons or others, this rounds up their demographic to fans in their late 20s or early30s. The latter was primarily a line that celebrated the franchise's 25th Anniversary.
What does all this have to do with collecting you might ask? Well Generally speaking one of the lines mentioned was brought about because of the collectors demographic. This was the Universe 2.0 line, and thinking about it, only collectors would buy a character who was not used at all in subsequent (i.e. New) franchise reboots since 1984, who only surfaced within the confines of the old 80's cartoon and the comics that were based on the show. Toy collectors had numbered enough that they warranted their own toyline, even if it was within the same price ranges as all the rest. Another instance is when one toy in the new series is released in colors or decorations that homage an older toy from an older series.
Design also plays apart in this, since tastes of older fans differ from the younger fans, one toy may incorporate features that appeal to one while it may turn away the other. Some toys may intentionally have an increased level of playability in terms of articulation and complex transformation, but may not resemble the character it is meant to represent. For the regular toy consumer this is not a huge oversight by the company, but other fans constantly call for show/movie/character accuracy with their purchases. Recent lines though have the best of both worlds to better appeal to both demographics and attempt to take them under one broad market like it was before.
Friends and Enemies
Now that the different consumer demographics of this industry has been introduced, let us now talk about the Collector demographic. As mentioned before, toy collectors in this category have generally been present during the franchise's earliest incarnation and have stuck with the company through the reboots. This immediately makes them the oldest audience for the product. Aside from getting their collectibles straight from the retailers (and sometimes the manufacturers directly) they also get their items from fellow collectors. Normally at a lower—and often friendlier—price range,or through trading of items. I used the term friendlier in a sense that in terms of a buyer-seller relationship, there is more face to face interaction between the two parties, and a well founded selling/trading relationship can lead them to acquire for themselves or help acquire for another an item that is harder to find or is no longer/ was never available in retail.
Establishing good connections and a general good attitude towards fellow collectors are key to furthering your own inventory, whether you are focusing or one or more lines, as alluded to in the “Ten Rules of Toy Collecting”(Hays). Why is there a need to interact with other like-minded collectors you may wonder, well aside from the fact that talking about toys to other people who can relate little to your hobby may get you reactions that range from boredom to weird stares, it is also the difficulty in which one may experience in maintaining his collection or disposing of it. Who else can provide an adequate value for your collection than a fellow collector? Temptations in abusing this network of collectors is rather great and has sprouted a sub-group of collectors that are generally despised by the rest of the hobby. They are known as Scalpers or Hoarders, who “deliberately seek out new or limited action figures for the sole purpose of gaining an immediate monetary return of at least two or three times the current retail value of their items” (”The Beginner's Guide to Action Figure Collecting”).
To put this into perspective, imagine a retailer releases a new product into the shelves of a store. This new product is one of a popular character, but it has been produced in only minimum quantities (priced at say 200 Php). A normal collector would only take one of the product for personal fulfillment or perhaps two to display and to store in mint condition (meaning un-opened and the packaging is in top condition) and be done with it. A scalper would take all of the products available in the shelves and leave none for any subsequent passers-by. The next step would be to immediately post these items in some online auctioning service, usually setting the starting bid a bit higher than the retail value (for argument's sake let us establish it as 250 Php even higher if the item is still in the packaging and/or the packaging is not damaged in any way ). Other interested parties, who either failed to find the product in stores or would rather not leave their household to buy their items look for them on the internet and will come across the scalper's auction. Seeing no other alternative to getting their desired item, they bid for it, often against other collectors and will no doubt get their item at a price that has skyrocketed greatly from the original price (from 200 to 800 Php for example). If the scalper is nice enough to meet the buyer for the transaction it isn't as bad, but they usually deal with collectors from other countries as well, so factoring in international shipping cost along with the winning bid, the auction winner is no doubt at a loss.
This is by no means illegal, but it generally leaves a bad taste in ones mouth when you are a victim of something like this. Individuals like the scalper view toys not as a plaything or as some object that satisfies one's nostalgic tendencies, but as a common commodity that must benefit him/her financially as much as it can. Often they use this as a primary source of income and seeing it that way justifies in their mind the need to hoard in-demand items, since logically these are the items that give back more than what they invested in them to begin with. Defending their point of view, an interview on Articulated Discussion.com one scalper notes, “... if you have ever bought or sold ANYTHING, you are a scalper. If you buy one or more of ANY item, you are cheating another collector from having it” (“Scalped! An Interview With the Enemy”).Remarks like this aimed at the general toy collecting audience tries to do two things. Firstly, it absolves the scalper from any guilt or general distaste towards him by claiming he is no different from the rest of the collectors who buy, trade, or sell their items, and secondly it tries to sow guilt on collectors who prefer to buy two of one kind of item, one to display and one to keep in the packaging—a usual collector's habit so as to preserve the “store-fresh” feel of an item for years to come.
Collect Them All!
But exactly why is there an existence of hard to find toys? Why is there a need for them at all? Well, there is an old saying in the toy industry (usually found on the packaging) that says “Collect Them All!” and collectors will often strive to do that, and limited-run toys are deviously clever strategies for toy manufacturers to capitalize on their franchise with minimum risk of their product not doing well on the market. Thinking of it in a different light, you could say owning something that was manufactured in small quantities can give one a psychological high, a sense of pride if you will, by outdoing the other guy through having something he doesn't. Therefore giving the sense of having a more “complete” collection at your hands, and often thinking of having a more “valuable” collection to dispose of if the need for it occurs.
Variations could be the more common “shortpacked” toys, meaning toys that only come in 1-2 pieces per case of toys shipped to a retailer, an exclusive item made for some event or a particular retailer, to even the prototype of a mass-produced product—how the prototype got on the market at all is grounds for a legal investigation by the company (“The Ultimate Crash Course in Action Figure Collecting Part 2”). these things are fuel for the fire, one may suppose. It does encourage one to think of their items as more valuable, and as a consequence, finding these items in the secondary market will often cost the buyer more than they might be willing to dish out. On the other hand, it reaffirms the collector in a way that there is value in what they do, rather than what they buy. That aforementioned sense of “uniqueness” in his/her menagerie of plastic play things, and gaining the respect of their peers in the hobby. If everyone had the same things in their collections, readily getting their items off the shelves in equal quantities, the buy-sell-trade market for toys would be stagnant,or eventually would fade in the distance or die out. So in some way, for one who loves the hobby, competition may be essential for this hobby to carry on.
In The Same Boat
Whatever the case may be for the collectors, there is no doubt in my mind that this hobby has outgrown itself these past decades, branching out from a simple form of entertaining a child to a lucrative means of profit and social interaction, acquiring certain tastes for a specific line or skills of transaction. Sprouting from this foundation, and interaction with others there are newer outlets for expressing one's affection for the hobby, such as Toy Photography which brings out the allure of product even more through eye-catching pictures or fan-made reviews of products in the market, which help to inform fellow collectors in making their purchases, and may even help increase or decrease the value of a certain product in the eyes of the consumers. Of course there will be times when one has to sell their beloved items for some reason, but this is only natural. Whether one is a collector or one is a scalper, at the end of the day, both still buy the toys, and both still ensure that there will be a healthy market for these things for years to come. Companies could easily have shifted focus when they felt that their product was not doing well, but when people really love a product for whatever reason, it will be enough for that product to endure or adapt to the changing times. Toy Companies need Toy fans, and vice versa. The relationship may get strained at certain times (fans like to complain about the tiniest details, and companies often aim for newer, broader demographics), but through it all—yes, that includes age—they never seem to quit on each other. People never lose interest in toys, but they only find new ways to play with them. Call it passion, or addiction, but toys will never go out of fashion.
Hays, John.”Collector's Crash Course Part 1”.The Beginner's Guide To Actionfigure Collecting. Toymania.com. Toymania, n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2010.
Hays, John “Collector's Crash Course Part 2”. The Beginner's Guide To Actionfigure Collecting. Toymania.com. Toymania, n.d. Web. 8 Jan.2010.
Hays, John. “Thou Shalt Not Scalp”.The Beginner's Guide To Actionfigure Collecting. Toymania.com. Toymania, n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2010.
“Dr. Nightmare”. “Scalped! An Interview With The Enemy”. Articulateddiscussion.com. Articulated Discussion, 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Jan. 2010.
Transformers. Dir. Michael Bay. Dreamworks SKG, Hasbro, 2007.