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.





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  • antonio says:

    an interesting column, very well thought out and researched. just one question – i’m not 100% sure about the reduction in volume that you mentioned. yes, stores today may carry fewer toys, but with comic shops, specialty stores and more chains in general, surely that accounts for some of the reduction in the space without necessarily meaning a reduction in volume. then you also have the online stores and surely there is a much bigger market for joes in europe (previously action force) and in particular, in asia.

    if you are suggesting that we are actually paying less than we should for toys taking into account factors like inflation, increased oil prices and manufacturing costs as well as shipping costs, the question is WHY aren’t we paying more? somewhere in this equation, something must also be good for the toy companies or they wouldn’t bother to keep making toys or they would charge more for them.

  • Erik superfriend says:

    Jon, I agree. Unfortunately, my reaction to price increases on things I buy for fun is to reduce my own demand. I almost never go to the movies. I’ve stopped being a completist at everything. 3.99 comics have caused me to drop a half dozen comic titles just as DC is going back to 2.99. I’ll be dropping more when the current story arcs end.
    I remember GIJoes for $2.99. I also know how much it used to cost Hasbro to make them back then (sorry, company secret). Transformers I bought by the bagful at a local flea market. Toy Biz’s XMen line taught me to not be a completist when I realized I did not need 5 versions of Wolverine. Action figures prices for me always are in relation to those early DC Direct figures which I wanted but could not justify at 17$ each. So I picked up what I could when they were on sale. I’ve rarely paid more than 10$ for a DC Direct figure. JLU has forced me to not be a completist. I do not mind the $8.99, but I will not pay for someone else to find it and ship it across the country on top of that.

  • Fallen Eldor says:

    All good points…(Can you tell a “but” is coming?)


    What we perceive as the value of something is the only reason it even has a cost at all. The bottom line is that a product can only sell for what the market will bare. Wally World is smart for controlling the prices as you say they have. This is especially true in times likes these when “soccer moms” are deciding to buy a toy for Johnny or food for him to eat.

    And JLU should not cost $10 per figure! You can’t compare them to Super Powers. Super Powers cost more to produce per figure because each had a unique sculpt and action feature. JLU often require one or two pieces of tooling on average and has LESS articulation. They are glorified McDonalds toys. The most they should sell for is $7. I still think the $5 price point is great for impulse purchases.

  • tom says:

    It’s very simple, lower profit margins. Lower prices. You can’t have it both ways. It seems as if companies still want to keep making the same amount they were when oil was low, when there were more being ordered, etc. They have to learn how to make money through volume. My spending has dropped nearly 70% compared to a few years ago.

    When Mattel sells their crap (and they are crap because the QC is horrible, thank for al all those figures with stuck joints and two right arms!) for $16. I’m only buying 1-2 figures in a wave, period. If they realize that by lowing them to a more reasonable $13 then I’d probably buy 2-4 figures per wave or the entire set.

    Bottom line, it’s still corporate greed and it’s not worth defending.

    • tom says:

      $20 for Marvel Select Juggernaut with good plastic, good sculpt, unique sculpt, good paint apps, so-so articulation. That’s all anyone really has to say to discredit this corporate shilling. Good and values points were made, but really?

  • Yakub Shabazz says:

    While I agree with you that we are most likely underpaying for these figures, there’s simply way too much data that we don’t have (and will never really have) that we would need to accurately figure out what figures would cost today based on 1982′s costs. Supply costs and inflation have gone up, yes, but that’s hardly the whole picture. What has happened to manufacturing costs? When you analyze the cost of labor today to what it was in the ’80s, it has, in many cases, actually gone down. What are these Chinese companies paying their workers compared to their Hong Kong equivalents of 30 years ago? How much does the design and tooling cost through today’s more streamlined processes (even when they yield more impressive results)? And through it all, what is the toy company’s final stock price, profit margin, and ultimate net worth compared to decades past?

    Until we know all of these factors, many of which would never be released to the public, we can’t truly accurately predict what a figure “should” cost. But yes, I do agree that we’re ultimately spoiled with our sense of entitlement for buying non-essential goods.

    • Lee in MI says:

      …to say nothing about volume as mentioned in a previous post. The companies NEVER release these numbers and without them you really can’t have an apples to apples comparison between prices of yesteryear and today.

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  • Steve says:

    I paid 1.87 for a Joe in 1984 at my local Toy City. I think 6.99 is a fair price now. If they want to drive me out of the hobby like baseball cards did, well, my wife would be thrilled. Yo Joe!

  • Andrew B. says:

    So wait, what you’re saying is that 1980s toys were horribly overpriced compared to today. I knew it! There was no way a Rock Lord was ever worth a buck fifty.

  • Thomas says:

    I’d say that there’s a world of difference between “should” and “thank God they don’t!” You say we should loosen our wallets? Mine’s pretty thin as it is, thank you very much. I work on a freelance basis with rather variable income. This economy has done no favors to me in that respect. And now you’re saying I should get over what action figures cost and AGREE with the notion that they should cost MORE!?

    I think the bottom line is this — what does an action figure really cost to make? What do the raw materials cost? I’ve heard it said that a G.I. Joe figure from the 1980′s cost about 10-25 cents in raw materials. Let’s say that’s fifty cents now — generously. I realize that workers have to be paid and that the figures need to be transported, but let’s also remember that none of the toy companies are selling TO US — they’re selling their product first and foremost TO RETAILERS — to Target, to Walmart, to Toys “R” Us — and there’s so way the toy companies are charging the retailers anywhere near what we’re paying for them at the end.

    Granted, we are at the end of a long chain of production, shipping, distribution, whatever. I still say we’re paying plenty, and there’s no way I would find paying more the least bit agreeable, even if by somebody’s twisted math it’s what “should” be the case.

  • Russ says:

    Very well put!

    And here’s something else everyone’s forgetting: the sculpting going into these new toys.

    Face it, these days we get spoiled with sculpts for action figures that we’d be LUCKY to get 20-30 years ago. Hiring sculptors who do that kind of work COSTS MONEY.

    As the Joker said it best in the Dark Knight “when you’re good at something, you DON’T do it for free”.

    Another thing to consider is that back in the day, a lot of the toys released were unlicensed brands made BY the toy company. Today, unless it’s licensed, it doesn’t sell; and guess what? Licenses COST MONEY ‘:B-)

  • Chris says:

    Just further proof that has completely SOLD OUT. We’re not paying enough?! You guys are ridiculous.

  • The Penguin says:

    You forgot to factor in Corporate Greed. Inane blog.

  • Steve says:

    I can tell you this though, as far as single figures go, we are grossly overcharged for them. We see nothing but retools and repaints in almost every line we collect. I’d gladly pay more for an action figure if I believe quality and care went into it’s production. Now a days it looks like with the waves and waves of figures we get, the companies sometimes just phone it in. For example Mattel, MOTUC, are stellar, worlds better than the 5 dollar figures we got in the 80′s. Don’t mind paying 20 bucks each. It’s the 8+ in shipping I have a huge problem with. But you look at DCUC the paint apps, loose joints, plus the increase in price, no no thank you, they can kiss my arse @ 16.99 each. And then to add insult to injury that awful wave 17 we’re getting WTF? A wave of variants @16.99. Then there are the MOTUC/vs/DC TRU 2 packs @ 34.99 or 39.99 a pack, for rereleases and repaints???? No sorry Mattel, I will hold you to a higher standard if you want my money.

  • ---- says:

    One of the best toy-centric articles I’ve ever read. This is why AFI is the place to be.

  • Dake says:

    Interesting article but it fails to take into account a couple of major cost reducing factors. First off the manufacturing process is not the same now as it was nearly thirty years ago. You can bet that despite the more complicated tooling involved in a modern action figure, the process of actually making that figure is simpler, more automated and likely cheaper.

    The other side of the volume argument is the second factor. As Antonio mentioned there are far more retailers now than in the 80′s, so while each Walmart may only have 5 pegs of Joes, there are nearly 3700 Walmarts (discount stores, supercenters and neighborhood markets) in the US alone and 8500 world-wide: that’s a lot of peg hooks. Also, volume is not just on individual units, but the brand as a whole. We saw more Joe figures in the first full year of the 25th Anniversary than in almost the entire ARAH run.

    Lastly, retailers are not in the business of losing money and they do not run these clearance sales just for the fun of it. The fact that TRU/Target/Walmart can regularly run sales at six bucks a figure means they are still making money at that price. Maybe not a lot, but they are. In the end, these price-hikes are not Hasbro’s fault. They’ve been paid by their retailers and that’s where their responsibility ends. The unfortunate reality comes when the big three all opt to double their prices on items and then base a line’s success on whether or not people will still pay the inflated prices.

  • trazzz says:

    I’m sorry, but i must completely disagree. No way in the world will i keep this going, from 7 bucks to 9, then to 14, now 15. (DCUC’s) It’s coming to the end of the line for me. The same goes w/ Marvel Legends. I’m tired of paying for the mistakes of the toy companies. They messed up w/ the lead based paints and boom, we have to eat the costs. Sorry, I’ve hit the wall!

  • brian says:

    You do realize inflation is caused by a de-valued currency right? When the fed prints money out of thin air,backed by will cause prices to go up, as the dollar is being de-valued by over printing.

  • Shellhead says:

    As much as I hate to admit it, this blog makes a lot of sense.
    However, I don’t think the market will bear much more of an increase. $10 for a 3.75 inch figure? Count me out.

  • gl666 says:

    being a cynic, I really hope this blog is not prepping us for a new round of price increases. As I see it, there are 3 groups of collectors: ones that will no longer be able to keep buying; ones that can afford to, but don’t see the value; and the most dangerous – ones that will buy anything at any price and end up eating cat food. I’ll agree with antonio above: if toy companies are not making good profits now, why are they still making these toys? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Don’t make me laugh.

  • Xamot says:

    You are leaving out one very important factor: as technology advances, manufacturing becomes cheaper and cheaper. Can you imagine how much the computers they were using back in the 80s cost them? Or how about something as simple as staying in telephone contact with the Chinese factory? Back then it was probably $5 a minute. Today it is like 2 cents.

    So, yes, there are factors that add to increased costs, but from a purely technological point of view, the whole manufacturing process probably costs Habro, et al. about one tenth today that it did in the 80s. So if the increased costs are reflected in price, so should the decreased costs.

  • CantinaDan says:

    Thanks for the blog, Jon. This is always an interesting discussion. At the very least I enjoyed being reminded that my first job paid $3.35 an hour. After a year I went out and bought a brand new moped, lol!

  • John says:

    Did someone just get hired at Hasbro! Dont make excuses for the big corporations. They save enough money having overseas workers make there product for pennies on the hour. A figure that roughly costs Hasbro 30 cents to make is sold for $9.00 at retail. The toy industry will be just like Baseball cards and comics before to long. Forgotten by its fans because someone has to line there pockets!

  • Chris L says:

    The golden rule: Make something people (collectors) really want and you (the manufacturer/retailer) can charge what you want.

    I’ll buy MOTUC, 12 inch Hot Toys, POC GI Joes, and MS like the new Juggernaut all day long. Not inluding POC, these are all higher priced toy items in our little corner of the world. I’ll pay more because these items are great…make more great items and I’ll pay even more.

  • tom says:

    While I don’t work in the toy biz, I did work in the fashion jeweler biz last year and I can tell you right now that whenever someone drops $300 for one of our watches or $120 for one of our rings, that watch cost us $32-40 to make while that ring cost around $7-10.

    We can charge that much because people don’t know any better. If our product had a bigger label slapped on it (made by the same factory mind you) we could sell it for hundreds more.

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