Reality Check: Action Figures Should Cost More
January 30, 2011

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.

Jon "Caped Crusader" Edwards
Born in April of '77, Jon quite literally grew up with STAR WARS. His mother took him to see it barely two months later and started buying him the figures before he was even old enough for them. G.I. JOE and Super Powers came along in the '80s, and an action figure addict was created. The moment he decided he was "too old" to play with his toys, he started to collect carded figures, beginning with Super Powers. No longer in possession of the toys or comics of his childhood, he rediscovered collecting with The Phantom Menace, and has moved on from STAR WARS to JLU, DC Direct, G.I. JOE, Marvel Universe, and various characters from movies, television shows, and comics.
Read other articles by Jon "Caped Crusader" Edwards.

 

 

 

45 Comments »

  • demoncat says:

    nice well thought out article. i agree that inflation and the cost of what the companies have to spend on making the figures not to mention retailers not unless they are the flavor of the month hot movie tie. retailers not having the space to devote to so much stuff if it will not sell. does play a part. but one should also relize this day and age collectors really do not have as much spending money with the economy the way it is to wind up paying so high a price for figures any more. for sooner or later a price will be reached when collectors will stop and no buyers means the toy company winds up not being able to make the figures due to lack of support.

  • Joe Acevedo says:

    NO NO NO NO NO, toy prices have climbed higher than what they should be. You can’t justify the sale price of action figures based on an average cost of inflation. You have to look at the costs of materials, production, distribution and resale, and consider that the advances in technology have helped make alot of products better, faster, and cheaper to produce. The retailers are the ones that have to figure out how much someone is willing to pay for an action figure. Price them too high and they sell slow and sit on the pegs, so they try a temporary price cut to see if they move any better. Some retailers will eventually just CLEARANCE out the old inventory just to get the new items in.

  • Jin Saotome says:

    Oil prices shouldn’t reflect the cost of action figure unless you’re just factoring in fuel transportation costs. PVC plastic requires hardly any oil to produce, mainly chlorine and natural gas if I remember right.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Mallamas, Ronald Michael Byrne. Ronald Michael Byrne said: Any higher and many stop buying.RT @JinSaotome: According to AFI, action figures should cost MORE than what they do now: http://is.gd/Ngb56D [...]

  • Chill Billy says:

    Nice industry advocacy. Some good points have been raised in these replies such as the fact that manufacturing costs have been reduced to peanuts since the 80′s, technology is cheap, the workflow with China has become seamless, and the cost of petroleum making it’s way into plastic is negligible( ok I’ll pay the extra penny). The real issue here is profit margin. How much is reasonable? Who set this standard that Mr.Edwards is so keen to compare? Yeah, GI joes were $2.50 in ’82 , but how much did they cost to make?
    10 cents? 25 cents? Antiquated business practices that legitimized 1000% returns aren’t applicable today nor do I think they were legitimate to begin with. Everything was different then and you can’t really compare to today’s market. Besides, back then toy companies were ripping off children…. now they have to deal with us.

  • DanMan says:

    Chilly Billy made the point that I was thinking of myself. The one thing this article misses is whether or not the $2.50 was a fair price in ’82. If there was a crazy profit margin on those back then, it does little to give us any perspective on how things are now… or how we think they “should” be.

  • Wrong article says:

    This article is wrong, very wrong, the writter does not think that today there are many more collectors than before, the population now is a lot bigger than in the 80´s so today is possible to go cheaper in lines like JLU, today this line was sold wordwide and is bought by children and adults, something that did not happen with Hasbro superpowers that was only bought by American children.

  • Sandor says:

    Mattel and Hasbro did pay a lot of money to Jon Edwards

  • Meredith says:

    Kenner’s Super Powers Collection is very superior than Mattel´s JLU, each figure of Super Powers was done with a unique mold and sculpt and each figure had a special feature like Superman´s power punch.

    The quality of JLU is terrible!!!, only 3 molds to all the characters and all of them are done with cheap plastic that causes weak ankles and all the Super power figures had more points of articulation than JLU figures, JLU is a good example of a overpriced line

  • xrmc20 says:

    (1) I think Chill Billy’s right that the expected profit margin is a key factor in all of this, but I’m pretty sure the article takes that as a given. I don’t read him as making a statement on that as positive or negative–that’s a different topic in a sense. (2) I also think it’s funny how so many people commenting seem to think that this article is saying that he wishes toys cost more, or thinks they *should* cost more in the sense that he *wants* them to. If you read the article I think it’s clear that he’s not saying that. (3) I’d love to see a link to an industry article that says that the cost to produce toys overall is way cheaper than it was in the 80′s. I’ve never seen an industry insider discuss that in a historical frame. I have seen lots of people talk about how much the costs have gone up over the last 2 to 3 years at the factory level.

  • Matt Hamilton says:

    Everything has a perceived value and you can’t look at 80′s prices and say that with inflation we should be happy to pay more for these items. With this idea everything that we buy should have had those increases including our pay and no one would complain about paying these prices. If you look at inflation which is almost flat the past three years (once you take out fuel costs which is how they do it) cost of action figures DCU as an example went from $7.99 to $15.99 and up. That is 100% plus inflation! Add in that all other items that are based on disposable income have gone down in price or are discounted by retailers no wonder people are complaining. Also, from what I have heard on the specialty side of things, Mattel has not had this drastic of price increases on these items so some of it must be mass retailers seeing if they can make a little more on figures. Just a thought.

  • Hagop says:

    This is a great article.
    One thing you didn’t take into account though is whether modern tech advances have reduced the cost of production at all. I don’t know if it has or not, but I’m assuming that over the last 30 years, with computer software, communications advances, etc. that actual design and production must have benefitted from a lot of efficiencies. So that would mitigate the cost back downward. How much? No idea.
    It would be really interesting if someone had the time, resources, and inclination to really dig into the subject on an in-depth level.
    Anyway, great post Jon.

  • Lightso says:

    The replies to this blog are the best part about it. Many brought up some really good points, but a couple things were horribly missing. One, China as of 2005 artificially valued its currency knowing that the US, its biggest customer and debtor could do nothing about it. The FED saw printing as much currency as we “needed” in return as having no repercussions, and still do. The problem, of course, is that the rest of the world knows the dollar is as worthless as our word.
    China started to see and understand how their infrastructure has made America appear wealthy with cheap product. Action figures, like all imports are going to continue to go up in price until the breaking point — when consumers abandon non-essential items to spread their income farther. It’s funny to hear collectors proclaim relief when paying KMart’s $12.99 for DCUC rather than Walmart’s $15.47, when just a mere two years ago they were $8.99. Suddenly $12.99 is okay. Mattel has slowly conditioned us, like all retailers, to be okay with paying almost double what we were just a short time ago. Inflation with a vengeance!
    The fallacy of this blog is that while appearing to advocate free-market capitalism, its erroneous to think that anyone should and will pay whatever the market can bear. The point is… the market can’t bear it!
    …oh and comparing Mattel’s higher priced Secret Wars figures ($4.99 then I think) to JLU would have been a better comparison. Mattel has always priced anything not Barbie or Hot Wheels higher than everyone else.

  • [...] Originally Posted by Kobayashi It feels expensive to me…. I don't know if someone else can better explain why I should or should not expect a less expensive price. Should I be expecting a lower price if these are not specialty market products? $20 would be much easier to swallow with the inclusion of a display base or a Build a Figure piece. Action Figure Insider – Men of Action Reality Check: Action Figures Should Cost More [...]

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