If you’ve been looking at action figure prices lately and thinking, "These things shouldn’t cost that much," guess again. Far from paying too much, we’re really not paying enough. It’s time to get over being so tight, break out those wallets, and prepare to pony up for your preferred plastic playthings.
G.I. JOE makes the case pretty easily. Prices for Hasbro’s A Real American Hero line of 3¾" figures generally ranged from $2.00 to $3.00 in 1982, but stores like Macy’s sold them for as much as $4.00 (yep, just 88 cents less than Wal-Mart’s original price for 25th Anniversary figures in 2007). We’ll go with the average of those lower amounts and say a JOE cost $2.50 in ’82. Using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, we discover that $2.50 in ’82 dollars spends like $5.65 in 2010 dollars (2011 isn’t available yet). But inflation doesn’t tell the whole story. While a dollar goes a little less than half as far as it did back in 1982, that year began with oil prices at $30.80 and ended at $28.02. Inflation would account for a price of $66.46 per barrel in 2010 dollars, but the current price of $89 per barrel is around 35% higher than our adjusted-for-inflation price. As we all know, the plastic used in production of action figures is a petroleum product, never mind the rising fuel cost for moving freight from China.
We must also consider that action figures simply aren’t the big sellers they were in the ’80s. A store might have dedicated half of an entire aisle to G.I. JOE at the peak of its popularity, but it’s lucky to have a few pegs today. This reduction in volume results in a higher cost per unit for the manufacturer. The more you make of something, the less you need to charge for each one. That decrease in volume has also led to higher markups at the retail level. If you’re a retailer selling hundreds of a specific item out of each of your locations, it’s possible to charge less per unit than you would if you’re only selling a couple dozen of that item and still be profitable. In fact, these points are essentially the CliffsNotes version of Wal-Mart’s business strategy (and they’ve had a big hand in keeping toy prices suppressed for many years).
The global recession that began in 2008 led to a slowdown in exports from China and the closing of thousands of factories. Fewer factories means less competition, and less competition means higher prices. Yes, even Communist China deals with the realities of market forces. Minimum wage increases in 2010 have driven up the cost of doing business in China, as well, and more wage hikes are expected for 2011. These developments all came about after the 25th Anniversary line debuted with a $5.99 MSRP, a price that was right in line with inflation. And again, these are all conditions to consider in addition to our inflation adjustments. With the rising costs of raw materials, labor, and transport and the sales volume of yesteryear a distant memory, how sustainable is the brand at Target’s current $7.99 retail price? We haven’t even gone into the fact that the improved designs of today’s figures require more tooling for more parts, which adds even more to the cost.
Looking at all of these factors, something close to double the price (adjusted for inflation) could hardly be deemed unreasonable. That means we should probably be paying a retail price of $10.99 for a new G.I. JOE figure. For lines based on licensed properties like STAR WARS or Marvel Universe, the rights to which are anything but cheap, $11.99 is more realistic. Army builder multi-packs of Clone Troopers, Hydra Agents, or Cobra soldiers could come at a discount, since they’d share all the same parts. This is to say nothing of vehicles or playsets for toys in this scale, but these items should obviously carry a higher price tag, too.
A figure from Kenner’s Super Powers Collection would have run you about $4.00 back in 1984, which amounts to $8.39 in 2010 dollars. What does that mean for fans of Mattel’s Justice League Unlimited, a line of figures also based on DC Comics characters and comparable in size? It means that when Target was selling single figures for $4.99 back in 2008, they were paying 40% less than our parents (or you older collectors) were back in the ’80s. It means that current prices are just high enough to reflect inflation, never mind all the other legitimate reasons to raise prices covered here. It means the price you see in Target stores today is not only reasonable, but actually long overdue. If we can be honest with ourselves for a moment and analyze the facts objectively, the retail price should really be even higher.
Many collectors feel compelled to complain about "kitbashes" (the reuse of parts from one figure to create another) and "repaints" (the same character released in different colors) in action figure lines. If the lines were more profitable, it would be easier to justify higher tooling budgets for the teams who manage them. Personally, I appreciate the creative ways in which manufacturers get the most out of their tooling investments, especially if it means getting new characters we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It is a sticking point for a lot of people, though, and the increased prices could help pave the way for more new sculpts in various lines. That wouldn’t eliminate the kitbashes and repaints, because manufacturers are going to get as much bang for their tooling buck as possible. It could help get some collectors more of what they want, though.
One’s perceptions of what things "should" cost can easily be clouded by memories of the prices everyone used to pay. The cost of everything has increased over the last thirty years, so why should action figures be any different? The cost of living list on this BBC America page reminds us that the minimum wage in ’82 was $3.10, the average price of a new car was $7,983, and the average monthly rent was $320. So the next time you feel like raging against the machine over current retail prices of action figures, this is something to keep in mind. You really should be paying more.