The Convenience of Home

by Darren Pierce : Densha Blues : 06.10.04 8:43pm EST

Japanese Toys at Home

I usually don't like to stoop to this level. This isn't the kind of thing I anticipated I'd put in this column. Don't call it a precedent. They say the truth shall set you free, and the truth is, lately what's been on my mind is Walmart and mass-produced, domestically marketed toys -- a source of never ending frustration and hate.

Let me clarify the hate, lest you, gentle reader, assume I hate mass-produced, domestically marketed toys. Far from the truth. There was a time, quite a while ago, when we used to wish out loud for Gundam toys at the corner store. We have them now. We have great, heaping piles of Gundam toys in every shape and variety, and representing even the most unlikely characters that you could dream up in the most horrid chat room toy fantasies. We used to laugh and deride from the darkest corners of sarcasm the idea of a toy Zakurello or Haro or Nobel Gundam. These were our ludicrous and impossible in-jokes. Today, we don't think twice about seeing them heaped up in Toys R Us, twenty percent off, common as Hot Wheels.

I buy these, not because they're especially great toys, but because they are. Once upon a time, the notion of a focused campaign of modern Gundam toys seemed unlikely, the thought of Gundam toys in America seemed nil, and mass produced stacks of Nobel Gundam in Walmart was a joke befitting only finest comedy.

Perhaps most interesting is the reversal of classes found between North America and Japan. Only a few years ago, it was taken as gospel by all but the most die-hard defenders of the empty wallet that the Japanese version of a product was intrinsically superior the American offering. Be it fit and finish, accessories, packaging, details, or materials, if you wanted the best, you bought Japanese.

In some cases, you could attribute the quality differential to the target market: the Japanese product was sold to adult collectors, while the American product was aimed at kids. Sometimes, you could attribute it to higher Japanese buyer's expectations, and sometimes to the American market's expectation to pay low dollar for toys. Regardless of reason, through all the collective market watching, we came to think of the domestic front as a second class marketplace for Japanese toys. The American market would sell a subset of the Japanese selection, and at a lower quality threshold.

Times have changed. Today, Japanese collectors fill BBSes with rants about products only available overseas, and bemoan having to import goods that should be available at home. In the most ironic twist of fate, more and more American products are sold in Japan (proudly and with great market success) as "American Editions".

There has not been a total reversal, or even parity in many product ranges. Takara's BinalTech toys are sold in the US devoid of diecast. Remarkably, the most vocal American Transformers fans consider this a benefit, for reasons too amusing to dwell on. The color schemes chosen for some Power Rangers and Transformers goods seem like the work of an unmonitored focus group amped on Columbia's finest. Toys that pass safety muster in Japan are handicapped for transport to the lawsuit crazed colonies.

Even so, there are growing examples of domestic products that are objectively superior to the Japanese offerings, or at least minor flourishes one could highlight. US GaoRanger goods had silkscreened details that were originally mere decals in the Japanese incarnation. The Japanese Abaranger toy line, which was in no way exceptional, has seen an injection of pronounced and substantial creative work for domestic release. Indeed, with a design straight from the old Popy "ST" playbook, you will not find a diecast, combining Abarenoh in Japan short of an "American Edition".

I'll not re-engage the quasi-religious latter day Transformers debate -- the honest toy historian will note some are interesting, some are worthy, and some are garbage -- but for the sake of the worthy, we must enter the elitist's hell that is Walmart because, in timely analysis and in greater regularity, there really is no big difference between American and Japanese. I shall also avoid, for the sake of this argument, picking over the domestic packaging, miserable in form and function.

The Toy Buying Ordeal

Alas, the topic of the day is buying a toy in the consumer's paradise, the United States. In the year 2004, both corporations and consumers take it as rote that companies will exhaust all resources to ensure that they can provide the best product to the people at the cheapest price, and in the most direct and convenient chain to the buyer possible.

To this end, if I want to buy "The Matrix" on DVD, all I need do is type "" into my web browser, type "the matrix" into the search box, and in four clicks the point of sale transaction is complete. In a few days, the product will appear in my mail. This is the zen of mass produced product and the modern consumer marketplace. This is what we've come to expect from Corporate America.

Thanks to the power of computers and networks and supply chain to retail software that now even the corner florist has access to, this is the bog standard minimum bar that any reasonably managed business will meet. Whether you're a company of three men or 30,000, the basics of order - ship - deliver, and making this experience intuitive and painless to the buyer, is one of the most elementary processes a business must get right to maximize profitability. These are the basics of making money and getting paid, whether you're on the manufacturing side, the distribution side, or the retail side.

In the year 2004, end-item manufacturers can no longer afford to blindly cover their eyes and plug their ears and leave fulfillment to the retailer. This was the formula in the 70's, and manufacturers that learned to compete have long since advanced the model. Turning a blind eye to the consumer side of the business is inconsistent in the least -- manufacturers have always concerned themselves with marketing and product development, both directly involved with consumer outreach. Failure to embrace the buying experience is costly.

I'm not talking about absorbing the retail function, I'm talking about getting involved. I'm talking about working with the retailer in making sure the right products are on the shelf, and that people can get the products they want. And I'm not inventing the wheel, I'm talking about simple tactics thousands of companies leverage every day to make customers happy and improve the bottom line.

So what's wrong with the retail experience when I venture out to buy Transformers or Gundam? What is different between this experience, and the experience of buying the Matrix DVD above? Where can you start?

Do you know when the product will be available? Put in more useful words, when it will be available in your area? Or even better, available in your store? How many wasted trips to stores could be saved if you know whether or not the product was on the shelf?

When it arrives, does it arrive in sufficient quantity to meet even initial demand? Or do you find out on some random BBS that only two Robot-o-trons arrived at your store, and they were sold instantly? Did the product in demand arrive, or do you find absurdly proportioned case packs that add another 15 boat anchors to the already tired looking display?

And most importantly: Why do you have to drive to the store at all? Why can't you find the product you're looking for online like everything else?

In defense, toys aren't targeted to eager, Internet aware, early adopting consumers like DVD's are. We are the minority buyer. The retailers really don't mind if you have to make ten failed trips to their stores -- it generates foot traffic. Forcing cases of boat anchors on the retailer is an ancient tactic used to increase product volume and drive down total cost. Businesses aren't naive.

That said, there is no excuse in the year 2004 for almost a total lack of the concept of availability and no real structured way to couple supply to demand. Some businesses, although not naive, are in the stone age. Even the corner florist is better equipped. I'm citing processes and procedures that tire manufacturers have employed to great benefit since the early 80's.

Am I too hard on Hasbro and Bandai America? Am I asking things of them that are unreasonable? Is the simple ability to order product online, without having to track it down from a store that has stock, and have it delivered on a promise date beyond what toy manufacturers can reasonably accomplish?

We need only look to Japan. Japanese consumers have always had the luxury of buying toys in the same manner they buy DVD's and CD's and software and every other consumer product. By using companies like HobbyLink Japan, we have the same freedom.

Without a doubt, it is easier for me to buy Transformers toys from Japan than it is from my own country. The week a toy is announced in Japan, I can place an order with HLJ, and not think of it again.

In the US, I'm treated to a horrendous experience of consulting BBSes, making regular trips to various Targets, Walmarts, and Toys R Us stores, digging thru toy aisles that, in the case of Walmart, look like they've been through three wars, and, if I'm very lucky and the stars are in proper alignment, the honor of carrying a trophy to hellish cash register, where an incompetent, incapable, and indifferent drone might manage to conduct the transaction necessary to get me out the door without help of a supervisor, or telephone consultation.

Again in defense of the accused, Japan is physically compact, and features a well-oiled distribution chain that's the subject of study of many an MBA. Hasbro and Bandai America are sometimes an extra tier down the chain from their overseas manufacturing base.

Despite the excuses, should it really be that hard for a consumer, willing and able, to buy toys from the largest consumer country in the world? The technology is available and mature. The opportunity is clear. Is it really too much to ask -- buying a Gundam or Transformer online, as easily as I can buy CD's?