by Daniel Pickett, editor-in-chief, Action Figure Insider
Few words conjure up the feelings of delight and dread in the mind of a collector quite like “exclusive.” Many of us have “war stories” of tracking down all of the Hasbro 12-inch Star Wars store exclusives in the late ‘90s, and some of us still have PTSD from trying to collect a complete set of DC Direct’s Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) “Rainbow Hal Jordan figures” in 2009. Exclusive toys have been around for more than two decades — and while the companies that make them and the way they are distributed have changed over the years, what has not changed is the sense of dread a collector gets each time a new one is announced, followed by the sense of accomplishment they feel each time they acquire one.
We have all heard the stories of how difficult it can be to get exclusives, from them getting scooped up by scalpers or hoarded by dealers to the more modern problem of having them wiped out by web-bots. Obtaining exclusives can cause a collector a lot of anguish. It seems that every time a company tries to implement a new system to make it easier for true fans to get their hands on exclusive toys, the scalpers and speculators find a new way around it.
What are the benefits of having exclusives and why do companies insist on doing them? There are several reasons that we will discuss, but first you need to understand the two primary kinds of collectible exclusives: convention exclusives, which can be purchased by people attending a specific show, and retailer exclusives, which must be purchased at a certain store. They each have their pros and cons, they have both been around for more than 20 years, and — despite many collectors’ angry posts or online petitions — neither seem to be going away any time soon.
“What has not changed is the sense of dread a collector gets each time a new [exclusive] is announced, followed by the sense of accomplishment they feel each time they acquire one.”
The whole idea of exclusives can be problematic and frustrating to collectors because, more often than not, they are made in lower, limited quantities. Some are very low quantities, such as 500 or less, which means there’s a good chance that not everyone who wants said exclusive will be able to get one for their collection. For collectors, especially completionists, exclusives can bring out some strong emotions.
Toy companies put out convention exclusives to get people into their booths and to get fans hyped up and talking about their product lines, and also as a way to create figures based on more niche characters that might not be appropriate to put in mass retail or appeal to anyone outside of hardcore fandom. Companies know their fans will be at these conventions, and most of those fans come ready to shop. In the past, some companies have described their convention exclusive offerings as a “reward” for those fans who make the effort and expense to attend a convention.
Meanwhile, retailer exclusives expand the main collectibles line by adding more SKUs per year. They draw collectors who are hunting the latest exclusives into the stores more often, which the retailers hope will lead them to buy other things. While a good idea in theory, the reality is that collectors often leave the store empty-handed and frustrated.
Collectors have been helped somewhat with online retailer inventory search tools, such as BrickSeek and POPFinder, but scalpers and speculators have access to those same tools. Retailers are also aware of these tools because of the number of fans who show up in their stores asking employees to “look in the back” because some website inventory aggregator shows that the store has some quantity of what they are hunting. Retailers are starting to find ways to combat these online tools by listing their products differently or not at all. There is always a low rumble throughout the community of fans wanting toy companies to do away with retailer exclusives, but as painful as they are to get, many collectors prefer more figures/characters in a toy line, so they will keep making those early-morning and late-night hunts for toy treasure.
When convention exclusives first started back in the late ‘90s, they were mostly repaints of existing sculpts that companies sold exclusively to attendees of said convention (or they were given away at trade shows). As time went on, exclusives grew into a much bigger industry, and we started to see unique tooling, more obscure characters, and splashier packaging for collectibles that were sold exclusively at conventions.
For example, there has been a shift the past few years with Hasbro’s 6-inch Star Wars: The Black Series exclusives, which come in deluxe packaging with exclusive accessories packed inside. In addition to the convention version, Hasbro typically also releases a “regular” version of the figures into its main line, but with fewer accessories. One of the company’s first Black Series convention exclusives was a deluxe Jabba the Hutt set that came with an exclusive Han Solo in Carbonite accessory. Earlier last year, that “exclusive” accessory was released on a card as part of Hasbro’s collection of Kenner-inspired action figures celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back.
Then, for one of Hasbro’s 2020 SDCC Star Wars exclusives, the Heroes of Endor set, the company took orders for additional units in excess of the initial run. To rectify the situation, Hasbro went back to do a second production run of the figures in that multipack. Some collectors who ordered the set in August got their shipment in August, while others were told their sets would arrive later this spring.
This has led some fans to ask, “How exclusive are these exclusives?”
Of course, even as these exclusives have become more involved and more competitive, fans are still primarily only racing against the other convention attendees. Depending on the event you are attending, that can range from manageable to nightmare fuel, especially if you find yourself at SDCC, competing with 100,000 other fans for one of 500 limited-run figures. But with the onset of COVID-19, and the decision of most companies to sell their convention exclusives online, fans were instead basically racing against every other collector on the planet — and that is a terrifying prospect that keeps many of us collectors up at night, plotting our strategies for when these orders go live.
With the closing of Toys “R” Us in the U.S., toymakers lost a steady, reliable venue for exclusives. And while both Target and Walmart have publicly said they would like to be “America’s Toy Store,” neither has done much to satisfy the collector sector.
With so many industries shut down and so many people out of work due to COVID-19, we saw a resurgence of the speculator market sniffing around collectible toys as a way to make a quick buck. With concerts and sporting events shut down, ticket scalpers moved into scooping up the hot, exclusive collectibles, as well as couponing-mom Facebook groups telling members what to look for when they visit stores. Even when the retailers tried to help those sheltering at home by putting their exclusives up on their online stores, collectors watched inventory disappear in minutes (or seconds) due to bots.
Walmart gives the appearance of being “collector friendly” by offering many store exclusives to buy online as preorders. However, over the past two years, more often than not fans will find the items they preordered on store shelves before their order ships to them, or Walmart cancels their preorder outright with little to no explanation. Collectors complain to regional managers, Walmart corporate, and the toy manufacturers, but Walmart is the 800-pound gorilla in the industry, and the company does not seem to be willing to find another solution.
Target is a mixed bag with its exclusives, sometimes ordering plenty to go around, and other times just missing the mark as far as getting enough quantities or getting those exclusives into the stores. Target has had some turnover with its primary toy buyer over the last handful of years, and it appears that they are still finding their feet. The latest exclusive horror story that collectors have encountered at Target is from the Hasbro 6-inch G.I. Joe line. It looks like both Hasbro and Target underestimated the current interest in G.I. Joe figures, which means fans have been losing a lot of sleep trying to track down Firefly and Cobra Viper figures in stores and online. It does not help matters that Hasbro made a troop builder figure like the Viper a store exclusive. It is causing some awkward encounters between collectors and Target store staff, as there are countless reports of mobs of fans showing up at opening and hanging around the store for hours while employees unpack trucks when inventory sites show there might be some quantities at a certain store.
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Hasbro took the idea of retailer exclusives to the extreme twice last year, with both the Star Wars: The Black Series The Mandalorian Credits Series and the Holiday Trooper figure series. There were five figures in the lineup for each of these waves, and every figure was available at a different retail outlet. If you wanted the whole set of either wave, you had to rush online or into a store for Target, Walmart, GameStop, Best Buy, and Amazon. That is a lot to ask of a die-hard fan who just wants a set for their collection.
NECA, meanwhile, already had its year-long schedule mapped out for the distribution of its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lines, which are available at Target and Walmart. But after the first few figures sold out in seconds, fans started bombarding the NECA social media accounts with angry messages. NECA heard the fans’ frustrations and looked into what could change. The company was able to rearrange some of the allotment of several retailer exclusives for Walmart and Target to make a quantity available online from the official NECA website. This move garnered NECA a lot of goodwill from fans. I am sure it was a complicated task behind the scenes, but it was nice to see a toymaker realize the problem, talk to the fans about it, and then take steps to change things.
The idea of exclusive collectibles is now part of the fabric of collecting — and is not going anywhere for the time being. Collectors are going to have to continue working together to get the exclusives they want in their collection.
As evidenced by the steps companies like NECA, Funko, and Super7 have taken to ensure these exclusives get into the hands of fans, there are still changes that can ease some of the pain. You just need some forward thinkers at each of these companies to make it so.
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!