Visiting The Action Figure Toy Aisle

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Action figure category sales in 2012, and news coverage leading
up to this year’s New York Toy Fair, made me wonder if any manufacturers would
tackle the changing landscape of boys toys and try to bring action figures more
inline with the expectations and demands of today’s boys and their mothers.
Would the brilliant product designers and developers signal change for the user
experience of action figure play patterns? After five days of Toy Fair, I’m
sorry to say that the category remains remarkably unchanged despite the blaring
alarm sirens that emerged from so many annual reports. In 2013, action figures
will be essentially the same as they did in 2012. Some of them may be a little
more fun, others a little less so (rising labor costs equals lamer figurines),
and the impact of Skylanders flighted merely knockoffs and no usurpers. Don’t
get me wrong: there are some beautiful and creative toys coming out in the
action figure category, but nothing game changing, nothing that will stop the
quick slide of consumer interest.

A Sunday visit to Hasbro’s showroom yielded a multitude of
well-sculpted products that would have made me sick with glee at 7-years-old
but I am not the 7-year-old of today. The G.I. Joe line, under appreciated in
recent years, has some of its most artful sculpts ever. Adult comic geeks and
collectors of Spider-Man or The Avengers will have ample choice. Star Wars fans
will feel tremors in The Force when they see The Black Series. Amidst all the
collector-friendly products, it was Playskool Heroes that  caught my eye. Playskool Heroes replaced
Superhero Squad and Galactic Heroes a few years ago and has been a substantial
success for Hasbro. These collectible, slightly articulated figures are
sculpted to look childlike and fit well in a little boy’s hands. Kids can
choose from Marvel Comics heroes, Star Wars characters, and even Transformers
Rescue Bots. Similar to Mattel’s Imaginext brand, Playskool Heroes toys do not
populate the action figure aisle. These toys are found in the preschool
section.

Playskool Heroes stood out to me chiefly because I would have
thought it was super dumb when I was a preschooler. It would not have resonated
with me. And that’s a good thing. While some play patterns and product
offerings are timeless, I am highly suspect of any kids toy that makes me feel
like a kid again. A toy that makes me feel like I did when I was 3-years-old
playing with Star Wars toys? That’s nostalgia and it’s impossible for today’s
kids to feel nostalgia for the toys of my youth. “I would have loved this when
I was a kid!” is not a suitable rationale for design and development choices today.
The toy industry must make decisions based on demonstrated consumer behaviors
today.

Playskool Heroes, a wonderful action figure and playset brand,
got me thinking that perhaps many boys never even make it into the action
figure toy aisle these days. Most of the products available in the action
figure aisle are more in tune with the desires and habits of older collectors
than young boys. Adult collectors admire precise sculpting and realistic
articulation. Do young boys care about all that? Adults want to procure each
and every background character from Star Wars or Marvel Comics…but are young
boys similarly interested in the minutiae of brand lore? I’m not sure I can
answer those questions yet, without directly studying consumer behaviors, but
my guess is that these answers will be revelatory. The collector audience is a
substantial one, though much smaller than mass market kids toys. Figuring out
the right audience for this aisle is essential to its continued importance to
the toy industry. The collector community is getting older and I’m not sure
enough kids love action figures to re-populate the group.

It is my suspicion that mom bypasses the action figure aisle
completely due to the adult-oriented product lines. Mom is more comfortable
with the contents of the preschool aisle. Perhaps by better understanding boy
and mom behaviors we can play to mom’s cautions and her son’s aspirations.
Perhaps we can create an aisle that mom feels comfortable in and a second,
graduatory aisle that her son finds alluring and more mature as his themes and
concerns shift.

One thing's for sure: our industry has yet to introduce the
innovation necessary to revive this ailing toy category.     

 

One thought

  1. As a mother of a seven year old boy, I have observed that my son has very little interest in action figures. I have a couple of hypotheses as to why.
    1. Many “action” movies are really too violent for him to watch, so he gets the IP from a watered down cartoon. Many of these he doesn’t bother watching. (For example, Transformers.)
    2. If there is a movie or TV show he really loves, he can watch it on demand. I think this decreases the demand for action figures. I and my sibs adored every single piece of Star Wars stuff we could get our sticky little hands on. But then we couldn’t watch the movie whenever we wanted. (Although I saw the original movie 7 times in its first release.) If my son wants to experience Ben 10 or Star Wars he can just watch it.
    3. The action figures are both too cheap and too expensive. Each figure is much cheaper, in relative terms, then when I was a kid. My son doesn’t plot, plan and save up; with his $5 a week allowance he can basically buy any figure he wants at pretty much any time. On the other hand, there are so many IP’s, in so many flavors, each with so many figures, that there is no hope of completion. There is no drive to keep working to collect every available figure. Such a task is beyond his budget, his shelf space, and his interest level.
    In support of this theory, I bring forth exhibit D — the Disney “vinylmation” figures. My son collects these whenever we visit Disneyland (roughly twice a year, on family vacations to visit his Aunt in SoCal.) The hand painted vinylmation figures are actually rather expensive, so he only gets 2-3 a visit, or 3-5 per year. But he is slowly building a reasonable collection. The scope is wide enough to be interesting, but small enough that he can feel that his collection represents a solid selection of the models that interest him.
    4. Finally – Lego. Many of the IP’s he might once have collected as action figures are now available as Lego sets with minifigs, and also as Lego games. So he doesn’t collect Star Wars action figures — he collects Star Wars minifigs and plays the Star Wars Lego game. And even when he outgrows the Lego minifig, I believe the fondness for really small scale will continue. Recently my son discovered the world of miniature war games. He hasn’t played Warhammer or Shock Troops, yet. He is still working on Risk. But when he does get into “action figures” they are going to be miniatures about 3/4″ high. Minifig sized.

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