Sunday, 14 October 2012

On Distribution

Sorry, another opinion piece! That said, I have picked up a fair few TF:Prime figures lately and have a write-up of Voyager Starscream in progress. With any luck, there will be more interesting stuff up here soon.

And, as it happens, it's TF:Prime toys that I wish to write about... broadly speaking. All of six months ago, I picked up the whole of Wave 1 of Hasbro UK's TF:Prime toys. They were pretty cool, so I was looking forward to more. I was a little disappointed that the UK wasn't getting First Edition (largely because of Deluxe Starscream and Voyager Bulkhead), but the main line toys were not half as bad as I'd expected, based on reports from the American fan sites.

The problem has been the distribution.

Six months is a ridiculously long wait for later waves. Not only does it suggest a profound lack of confidence in the product, but they started with possibly the least imaginative first wave in history. Actually, that's a lie - I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wave 1 included Wheeljack (who only appeared in a couple of episodes in Season 1 of the TV show) and Soundwave (who, I feared, was far too cool a character to be one of the first to be released). The rest of the cases seemed to be made up of Bumblebee and Cliffjumper in vast quantities... at least, in the time between the release of Waves 1 and Waves 2 to 4, they're pretty much all I've seen on the shelves.

Don't get me wrong - they're cool toys. In many ways, the mass-release version of Bumblebee is possibly better than the First Edition version. It's smaller, sure, but at least it has the requisite number of blasters. Transformation is interesting, if a little overly ambitious for the size, and even the protruding 'collar' is easy to overlook considering how dynamic the figure is. The yellow plastic is, naturally, completely anaemic, and several shades different from the paintwork, but that's pretty much what you've got to expect from Hasbro these days.

Cliffjumper was a bigger problem - he's a cool character, and all, but he was killed in the very first episode and, from then on, seen only in Dark Energon Zombie form, or in flashbacks. Both the First Edition and the mass release are decent toys. The former's legs aren't accurate to the show model and its shoulders are pretty huge, but it has guns stowed in the wrists. The latter's arms are pretty diabolical, it's a hugely simplified model, and the wrist-guns are replaced by a rifle/club thing which really doesn't suit the character.

And, six months later, Bumblebee and Cliffjumper are still hogging the shelves and racks in supermarkets and toy shops for miles around me. The Weaponisers started appearing about a month ago, then the Wave 2 Voyagers, Starscream and Bulkhead, turned up a couple of weeks ago. In between, I managed to find a single Arcee and a single Ratchet (Wave 2 Deluxes) on two separate shopping trips. This weekend, I took myself out on another toy run (Friern Barnet Smyths and Tesco, Brent Cross Toys'R'Us, Neasden Tesco) because I'd received a bunch of TRU vouchers that expire next week. Bumblebee and Cliffjumper are still very much in evidence but, finally, later waves seem to be properly available...

...Or are they?

I'm have to assume that the continued dearth of later wave toys - because, proportionally, they're still very much under-represented on the shelves - is because they're new, and the quantities will balance out over the next few weeks (or, going by past experience, the next six months). Smyths had one each of Vehicon and Knock Out (Wave 3, and the last of the ones I'm interested in for the moment), while one of the two Tescos had a couple of the non-show characters Hot Shot and Dead End (Wave 4 - but no Airachnid). On balance, and because there were only two new toys that I was interested in anyway, I did better at Smyths (£9.75 each for Deluxes) than I would have at TRU with the vouchers.

But, still, what gives with this distribution?

I know Bumblebee is meant to be the 'kid appeal' character, but there's a balance to be made between ensuring he's plentiful enough that everyone gets a Bumblebee, ensuring that everyone actually wants a Bumblebee in the first place, and ensuring that there aren't too many 'cool' variations of Bumblebee to confuse the issue. There are already two mass-release versions of Deluxe Bumblebee: the original, and the 'Shadow Strike' repaint, with no variation in the character in the TV show.

And with Cliffjumper's limited appeal due to his limited appearance in the show - which, in and of itself, has its audience limited by the licensing agreement between Hasbro and The Discovery Channel/The Hub - it seems ludicrous to build Wave 1 with two Bumblebees and two Cliffjumpers to every one other character.

And, now that Waves 3 and 4 have finally hit, it's insane that the obvious 'troop-builder', Vehicon, appears to be packaged singly. I had fully intended to buy at least two car Vehicons, but the one I found on the shelves at Smyths was the only Vehicon I found yesterday. Hell, it's insane that the newer stuff is outnumbered and obscured by row upon row of Bumblebee and Cliffjumper, and for Waves 2 to 4 to be released so sparsely that they barely register on the shelves.

Maybe it's more the fault of the retailers, because they're just not buying the new waves when they become available, but Hasbro certainly aren't helping by focusing so heavily on Bumblebee over all other characters. In an ideal world, Wave 1 would be as diverse as possible, even if that means not including a Bumblebee for a change. Optimus Prime and Megatron are no-brainers, obviously, but Arcee was a more logical choice for Wave 1 than Wheeljack, and Vehicon should have been available in just about every wave. Let's face it, the Decepticons are basically outnumbered in terms of actual individual characters, and the show is littered with the expendable Vehicon clones, so it makes sense to allow buyers to troop-build with multiple Vehicons.

Much as I was glad to see Bumblebee return to the TF toyline in Classics, having been absent since the latter days of Generation 1 (barring the gold repaint in Generation 2), Hasbro's fixation on the character can only be detrimental to the brand. If kids and their parents go to a toyshop, and all they see is Bumblebee, they're going to lose interest in TransFormers pretty quickly.

Granted, the increased production cost of toys - both due to the expense of materials and the increased complexity of the designs - means that Hasbro keeps its character roster short these days... but even that seems counter-productive  By continually rehashing the same characters, repainting them, changing their weapons, creating 'Nemesis' versions, Hasbro further diminishes the brand. One of the big problems with businesses today - generally, not just those that make toys - is that they're reluctant to invest in their products - or at least to invest in the ways that are more likely to make money for them in the long run.

The weirdest thing with TF: Prime is that it has been said that adding new characters to the TV show is almost prohibitively expensive... and yet new characters get unique character models, whereas 'new characters' in the toylines are invariably repaints - a means of wringing more money out of existing molds. But where there are obvious and logical re-uses of both character models and toy molds, there are invariably disappointments - when was the last time a toyline had Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp (from the same mold) as mass releases?

Whoever is making the decisions on the TransFormers toylines really needs to pay attention to their past sales figures and, considering the final part of the Dark of the Moon toyline got cancelled due to poor sales (read: too many Bumblebees, not enough new characters), it seems ludicrous that what should be their flagship toyline has (a) a very small cast of characters in the accompanying TV series and (b) terrible distribution, possibly due to poor sales, due to the unimaginative lineup. In some ways, it's a vicious circle... but it's one that can be broken with investment on Hasbro's part.

As far as the TV series goes, Hasbro may be celebrating their deal with The Hub, and it's certainly created a great series... but the UK is a very odd market, and I suspect the only way to ensure that the TV series functions as intended - as an advertisement for the toys - would be to air it on one of the five main 'terrestrial' channels. Satellite and Cable are all very well, and they've certainly taken off in terms of popularity, but airing an advertisement on just one channel only guarantees limited access to the target audience.

As a side-note, lots of people have complained about the reduced size of TransFormers these days... Granted, we're a long way from the chunky Deluxes of the Unicron Trilogy, but the current size is actually comparable to the Diaclone toys that were repurposed into TransFormers Generation 1. I can't remember how much those cost back in 1984 but, factoring in both the loss of the die-cast metal parts and the huge increase in the complexity and detail in the toys, the current price-point is about right. Sure, it's galling to be paying more for smaller figures, but consider this: perhaps the figures have been artificially underpriced until recently.


  1. That's a very good point on the size of the Transformers. I've never looked at it like that.

    Over here in Australia it's much the same in distribution. I saw my first Arcee and Ratchet on the shelves yesterday. Yet Bumblebee is all over the place.

    I remember one kid asking for a Prime Bumblebee with his mum when they were first here and she refused saying he already had one.
    It was probably a movie 'Bee. I suspect the muscle car and black stripes deco is too familiar now. Bring on the small espionage 'Bee again!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tets. It's interesting to see how distribution varies - while the States got all waves in a timely fashion, anywhere else seems to have been left waiting. You too may find that subsequent waves are arriving stealthily, and in the more unexpected locations.

      I'd definitely go for a return to Bumblebee's role as the spy and underdog of the group, rather than this recent trend of him being the pumped-up bodyguard. The whole point of the G1 character was that he was the little guy who (a) always came through, (b) could sneak in where others couldn't, and (c) wasn't all about the firepower.

      Are you listening, Hasbro?