Magazine:
Collectors of items ranging from toys to trading cards to comic books and everything in-between have watched in horror all too often in recent times as the deadly sin of greed consumed and destroyed their once enjoyable hobbies. The mistakes that manufacturers of collectible items have made by marketing to investors, speculators, and anyone who craves valuable, limited production items have been observed too many times. Playmates Toys had perhaps the biggest marketing blunder ever in collectible action figures a few years ago with their Star Trek "1701" figures, limited to just a fraction of the quantity of their standard releases. Action figure companies like Mattel and Toy Biz have shown just this year that they still believe randomly inserting limited "chase" figures into cases is an effective marketing tool. Now Playmates has once again put themselves at risk, this time with their Simpsons action figure line, by stalling on a rerelease of some of the line's scarcest items and continuing to release low-production exclusive items as part of the line. When manufacturers fall into this sort of trap, they begin a cycle that leads some of the potentially greatest, bestselling product lines ever to an early grave.

The people that bring life to any collecting hobby are the true fans and collectors. No item can ever become valuable unless people like it enough to pay a premium price for it. No matter how limited an item is, if no one likes the product, no one will buy it. The only reason scarce figures like The Simpsons' Lisa, Grampa, or Smithers can rise to a price of $50 each to begin with is because collectors loved the figures and/or wanted to keep their collections complete. When one piece in a collection is lesser produced for whatever reason, collectors have to enter into basic monetary competition with each other if they don't want to miss out. At the same time, the higher the prices get, the more collectors have to face the fact that they will no longer be able to afford to own these items. This is the point when both high prices and incomplete collections begin to create collector frustration, better described as consumer dissatisfaction. This is the beginning of the end. To paraphrase Bill Cosby, collectors brought a successful product line into the world and they can take it out.

What happens next exacerbates this existing problem many times over. These soaring prices become a spectacle to outsiders much like blood in the water is to a shark. The sharks of the collecting world smell a disaster off of which they can feed and they swarm to the area. These include nickel-and-dime scalpers who will go so far as to get into fist fights with collectors at retail stores in order to be the first to get new figures and sell them at a mark-up. There are also the calculated, resourceful scalpers who will bribe store employees and try to obtain hundreds of exclusive or limited items the minute they go on sale in order to skim off as much of a profit by selling them to collectors as they possibly can. Also included in this mix are investors and hoarders who will buy stacks of multiple copies and put them into deep storage hoping to put their kids through college with them in the future. And finally, there are the bandwagon buyers who just have to have the toys because they're hot, coveted, skyrocketing in price, and being talked about by everybody.

All of a sudden, the true collectors are competing with all of these other types of buyers. They now have to work harder to find new products at retail. What hopes they had of completing their collections gradually dim as secondary market prices soar into the stratosphere. Pretty soon no collectors except for the truly dedicated, obsessive, or wealthy can afford the time, effort, and/or money necessary to keep up. Most collectors finally get too disgusted, give up, perhaps find a less frustrating hobby, and move on. The situation has so soured them that they are no more likely to ever come back than someone is likely to come back to a restaurant after being served an hour late, only receiving half of their order, and being overcharged for it. Some will box up their collection and put it into storage and others will sell off or trade their items. Their demand is now removed from the equation and by selling off some items they've even increased supply.

At this point there are no longer enough true collectors left to maintain the kind of buyer competition that sustains high prices for even the scarcest figures. Not only are the prices of older items dropping, but there is no longer enough demand from panicky collectors to make it worthwhile for scalpers to keep staking out stores for new releases. Potential profits if any are too minimal for the experienced scalper to bother with. A lot of those collectors who got frustrated and gave up were the same ones whose situation was already so desperate that they had been paying scalpers. Scalpers, then, are the first of the sharks to realize there is no more profit to be made and they are the first of that group to stop buying.

The hoarders and speculators are the next to go. Many of them periodically watch prices and pay attention to retail sales so they can feel good about their investment. Now they see that prices have dropped considerably. Every time prices fall, more hoarders realize their investment is in trouble and decide to sell off their stashes before the prices hit rock bottom. The more of them that liquidate, the more supply goes up, and the more prices drop, which causes still more hoarders to reach their personal panic level and liquidate, continuing the cycle until the rock bottom is finally reached.

When the hoarders back out, retail sales drop further yet, and the flood of copies on the secondary market brings the going rate of older items to an all-time low. Complete collections are selling for less than original retail price, and those few hot pieces are being picked up for barely above retail price if that. If they haven't already, this is the point when bandwagon buyers begin to think of these toys as boring, unwanted, and common. Now even they sell off their stuff, if only just to help fund their purchase of the new hot collectible of the day that catches their eye.

Retail sales are now almost completely eroded. No buyer but the most dedicated collector remains. The manufacturer has no choice but to cancel the line. It has happened only because the manufacturer alienated the collectors who made the line successful in the first place by underproducing some items and never correcting the supply. What they failed to realize is that without that core consumer base of true collectors and fans, no market for the figures can exist in any form at all. Every other type of buyer along with the manufacturer depends and feeds off of their continued interest and demand.

The reason collectibles manufacturers perennially fall into this trap is because it is very difficult to not be tempted by any big boost in sales, no matter what long-term trouble it may cause. Who doesn't want to see thousands of copies fly out the door in one day? The problem is that this particular type of sales increase happens only when demand from true collectors outstrips supply, leaving that all-important segment of the market fundamentally unsatisfied. The only reason the sharks come in at all is to take advantage of that situation.

The reality is that manufacturers absolutely must resist that temptation if they want their product line to remain a solid, steady, and gradually increasing sales success for a long time. Everything that can be done to increase demand from true fans and collectors must be done, nevermind allowing anything to happen that decreases their interest. Otherwise, manufacturers will see sales that burn bright only for a short time before they quickly crash and burn away into nothing. How sad it is in the end when a product line with the strength, quality, and appeal to become so popular so quickly has wasted away prematurely because of the greed and shortsightedness of everyone else involved. Simpsons collectors can only hope that Playmates sees the warning signs and realizes that the World of Springfield line must be marketed to the true fans and collectors and no one else if it is going to survive.

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