Q&A: Star Wars Exclusives, Lead Times, and Retro Style

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, August 8, 2021

1. I have a question about production timelines. I thought I remembered reading once that it takes 12-18 months for a product to be developed, designed, produced and delivered to market? Is this accurate or are these timelines based on the product itself being produced, i.e. figures take 12-18 months but lightsabers are 6 months? I ask because of the newest round of vintage figures announced as Walmart Exclusives. They have a delivery date of March/April 2022, a full 8-9 months from July 2021, when they are being announced. Does this mean that they were designed 4-10 months prior to them being announced for preorder? It seems like a long time for a product to make it to market (says the guy with no production experience). Is Hasbro doing this to gauge interest? Or is this how all products are developed?

The answer is... it's complicated.

Now what you're asking is probably "why can't I get my figures sooner?" and the answer is probably more "COVID outbreaks and the international freight delays combined with container shortages and carriers charging over ten times the rate to move a cargo container from China to the USA" than it is "they're just making us wait." Factories are also having shortages on staffs and shutdowns all over the globe at tons of companies, which is also affecting things.

I don't know the development window on these Walmart exclusive items - looking at the 2021 line, it's important to remember at one point the Star Wars license could have expired at Hasbro in 2020 and it's possible the exclusive program was not anticipated to be as robust in a world with no new movies hitting for a couple of years. This could be a stopgap thing and for all I know (well, I do know) the factories are slammed because COVID is a thing, capacity is down, and demand is up. Working with many toy companies, I can tell you that a lot of new things being worked on now are Spring arrivals unless the item was in the pipeline earlier. It's also very possible Walmart just said to Hasbro "we want this in March" which means Hasbro says "You got it, March it is." I don't know Walmart's planograms. I don't know if Hasbro just said to Walmart last week "here's your exclusives, give us your numbers and we'll get these in production after Chinese New Year." (That's actually a real concern, the factories in Asia shut down for a few weeks for the February holidays and that would indeed put a delivery around March or April.)

But let's look at some development anecdotes too.

Back in 2005, I worked on a couple of packs of what would become The Saga Collection Astromech Droids when I came on board at Entertainment Earth. I started the process in May 2005 and those were in hand January or February 2006. This is downright uncommon, but repaint items (like a couple of repaint waves in 2008, 2007, and I think 2008) were churned out pretty quickly too. We're told things take at least a year, even for a repaint... but there's proof that isn't a hard-and-fast rule - you can force things into the market if needed and if the factories have the capacity to crank these things out. Repaints, especially in the early '00s, could be made on the quick when Hasbro had a market need. Remember the Transformers Armada Beasts?

As far as all-new molds go, the record may be The Black Series The Child from 2019. The Mandalorian premiered in November 2019, and if you believe most licensors, The Child was kept secret until airing - so nobody making product knew about it. This resulted in the Funkos and Mattels and Hasbros kicking into overdrive and The Black Series figure landed in my hands in April of 2020 - so about six months. Which is also pretty amazing, but it's also a very simple action figure. (Actually it's an accessory we all bought into, but that's life.)

I don't know of any lightsabers that only took six months. I mean I guess it's possible if it's just a reissue or deco change, but all the fancy new lightsabers have been gestating for more than a year usually. (You'll have to trust me on that one.)

More complicated products take longer. Funko can crank out a Pop! Vinyl figure in similarly short windows if they pull out all the stops (and everybody doing approvals cuts the brakes), but the timelines for most Hasbro products is as they say - 12-18 months. I'm just pointing to some exceptions (rare exceptions) that show it can be done more quickly if absolutely everybody involved says "yes" and gets the job done quickly. I can't speak to all of the examples, but if you're in this business you sometimes do see things about a year (or more) before they arrive on the shelf.

One other concern, it's possible that some or more of the tooling is being used for other products. The Walmart Battle Droid shares tooling with the still-in-production Battlefront Battle Droid, so they may need to switch over for that later too. I'm not a Hasbro employee, so I'm just guessing based on various anecdotes/facts/other stories toy people there tell me at awkward parties. (I am the awkward party.)



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2. What is the process for stores getting Star Wars exclusives from Hasbro?

Example: Does Hasbro say, "Hey, retailers, we have this one figure we'd like to make available, but you need to buy 10,000 units."

Or is it more like the retailer asks Hasbro, "We want a figure exclusive, but can only order 10,000."

Given the terrible ways some retailers have handled the ordering process of the exclusives, couldn't Hasbro step in and say something like, "You folks really need to get your act together, as your customers can't even buy them, and they have money to spend!"

No, a toy company doesn't tend to dictate how a store actually sells an item to the end consumer beyond on-sale or on-shelf dates, and sometimes the store dictates that. If a store is spending tens of millions on Barbie and DC figures or Baby Alive and Peppa Pig, sometimes exclusives in collector areas are a good way to keep everybody happy in the business relationship as they drive foot traffic and PR. The specifics of how an item gets sold is probably difficult if not impossible for a toy company to coordinate with a big box chain with hundreds or thousands of outlets. A restaurant is not going to stop you from putting ketchup on your salad, it's their job to deliver what you ordered. We put our hobbies on a pedestal because to us, these are important things that drive way more of our thoughts than toilet paper or batteries. But to many stores, it's just another widget with poor margins and surly customers.

Here's a much longer answer! Not every person has the same definition of success.

Let's say you run a big store chain and you ordered a Bratz doll exclusive. You're not sure how it's going to do, and you ordered enough of this Bratz for two or three months. And somehow, against your expectations, that exclusive sells out in a week. How upset are you - the store - going to be that you sold every unit at full price almost immediately? Empty shelves are undesirable, but that's a positive outcome. The toy company will be happy to initiate another exclusive or maybe make you some more. You don't want angry consumers - nobody wants unhappy consumers! - but it is hard to be upset when your business exceeds all expectations. If you make a thing and it completely sells through, that's the very definition success even if (and at times, especially if) a few people got left out.

Hasbro rarely officially divulges quantities, so I'm going to skip that part. The last official confirmation may have been in 2005.  Every manufacturer has different requirements - some are dictated by the license, or the factory, or other metrics I am not at liberty to discuss.

I've talked to a few people in the biz, so this isn't specific to anything I've worked with - this has nothing to do with anyone I specifically or necessarily work with. My understanding is Big Box exclusive talk can go like this. A store goes to its supplier and says "we want an exclusive." The store may say "we like these brands, these price points, and we want this on-shelf date for our reset/holiday set/movie launch." The toy company says "let me get back to you" and later comes up with an item - or an entire program, sometimes coordinating with the licensor and even other manufacturers. The store can say "yes, we'll take it" or "no, we won't." Sometimes the buyer will make specific requests. Sometimes the licensor will make specific requests. It is rare for the retailer to make any sort of requests, generally because most big toy buyers buy all the toys - not just dolls, not just action figures. They're not Star Wars collectors, their responsibility is to plan for Ryan's World and My Little Pony and LEGO and Funko and things you also don't buy.

It is unusual for a manufacturer to decline larger order quantities or subsequent runs of an exclusive product if the customer (the store) asks for it, but the stores don't always ask for it - it sold, it's a win, time to move on to the next thing. Sometimes the store doesn't even come in for the full amount, which is why you saw stickered Walmart or Target exclusives debut at Marshall's or Ross... and why you don't see "Store Exclusive" stickers on as much product these days. Very few retailers want to stock products with a competitor's name on them.

The end consumer (you) ordering process is generally beyond a toy manufacturer's capabilities to dictate. Manufacturers generally don't dictate sales terms to Walmart.com, Target.com, or Amazon.com's store software and it is much easier for those stores to decline doing business than it is to change how their ordering systems work. A manufacturer telling a store what to do with the product they just bought can be bad form and not really how I've seen or heard business partners treat one another in the world of retail. There may be street dates and marketing dates, but quantity limits, or what kind of packing material used for mail-order items, and that sort of thing is up to the store.

If you're a big chain with an online store, you have a unique system to list and launch products. You have to have some for the web site and a chunk for the aforementioned brick and mortar planogram - you need something on-shelf in March, and if the manufacturer misses March, there could be a problem. If a store wants to sell a percentage online and save the rest for their 1,000 stores, that's their call. If they want to burn it all in a tire fire, that's also their call. If you make toys, generally speaking, you want to make your biggest customer (the store) happy. I sincerely doubt the big stores are complaining right now, everything is selling well to the point where I wonder if we're in a 1990s-style MIB hoarding bubble. I think a lot of this stuff could show up on the cheap in 3-5 years when people are (hopefully) beyond the point of COVID being a concern and decide to dump the collection before getting on with their next phase of life. It seemed impossible that the 1990s Star Trek Playmates figures would ever dip in price, but for a few years you could buy most of them for $5 or significantly less. Hello, $3 Grand Nagus Zek. But I digress.




3. Those gimmicky TVC Vader and Boba Fett Retro Prototype figures in multiple-colored arms, legs, head, torso. These aren't going to be a "thing," are they?

Rather than give us the TVC figures we're asking for (ahem, Bad Batch, Mandalorian), Hasbro trots out an old mold, makes multiple colors of it, and makes it an exclusive.

Completists then have to have every possible color combo, which makes more money for Hasbro, which compels them to make more.

Do you have any knowledge that this gimmick will end?

It won't. To quote Weezer out of context, the world has turned and left you here. The market has changed, and Hasbro is currently following the leads of other toymakers like Funko, who has been cashing on on chrome, wood, glow, black light, metallic, clear, and other deco variants of the same molds for years. They tend to sell well and it's good business. In Hasbro's case, many of those - like Carbonized Collection or Credit Collection figures - command a premium. (Actually I'm being unfair to Hasbro as they pioneered these back during the Power of the Jedi days with metallic silver figures. Just nobody remembers and nobody but me cares there's a second UK-only silver R2-D2 figure that the USA never got and is never discussed.)

It's also worth noting that 3 3/4-inch figures, and The Vintage Collection, are no longer the star around which Star Wars toys revolve. LEGO does huge business. The Black Series does good quantities. But I doubt there's any segment with a more vocal and loyal fanbase than whatever 3 3/4-inch format Hasbro does for Star Wars. Newer collectors do not share the older collector's loyalty to that scale when really good - arguably better - 6-inch figures exist. They don't have 40+ years of vehicles and figures at home already, either. We're a vanishing breed, but the one-of-everything-club collector who has been here for decades is even rarer.

I genuinely don't know how much of the character selection and tooling development is dictated by Disney, Lucasfilm, or Hasbro at this point. It's entirely possible Disney wants Bad Batch to be done in the big collector format and the kid format... and that's the primary goal. For all I know someone is planning a big vehicle with the Batch included. (If it is happening, I want to point out, I do not know this so nobody yell at me, I'm just speculating here.) New molds are more expensive and take a lot more work to do - and a lot more advance planning - than a repaint in multiple colors. You're not always going to get the exact thing you want. Sometimes the budget or development time only allows you to do a holographic figure, a droid repaint, or a metallic deco change. (Also don't forget, the license was almost set to expire last year, so we may be dealing with some compressed development timelines here for a substandard year which lacked a big movie marketing push.)

These deco gimmicks are not ending. They work well for Funko, Mattel does the same thing with Hot Wheels, and tooling is expensive. If Hasbro can sell the same figure mold 3 or 4 times, they're going to want to do it as long as it proves successful. I'd love to get a Retro Prototype Boba Fett but was unable to secure one - and I assume I'm not alone, as fans will buy several dozen and I can't say I blame them.

As I get older, you've probably noticed more of the "business hat" than the "fan hat" here, because it explains a lot of things. If people buy something, and it makes the Hasbro shareholders happy, and that tends to be your answer. Variations of this happen at nearly every company - Barbie uses the same molds a lot, but changes the clothing. Playmobil uses the same molds for decades, changing the colors and sprinkling in new pieces here and there to keep it fresh. LEGO does too. With Hasbro doing premium collector figures for $23, either they're going to do things like make figures share tooling (Mace Windu and Plo Koon Black Series come to mind), or they're going to have to get more money by doing repaints. Is this desired by all collectors? No. The Star Wars collector world is very different than it was 25 years ago, when a small audience of Generation Xers and young Millennials all wanted 3 3/4-inch Kenner figure and vehicles based on three specific movies. Now we've got tons of formats, hundreds of TV episodes, over a dozen films if you count generously, and getting everybody to agree on One True Format is a pipe dream you'll all need to give up.  Some of us may be outgrowing this relationship.

Until the day I am declared dictator for life of the toy world, and I will force Playmobil Star Wars upon you all, starting with Droids cartoon toys and if you don't buy Vlix and the crew of the White Witch there will be severe consequences.



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Be sure you send in your questions for next time. The mailbag is out of on-topic questions, so if you got some, send some in.

Do you know what I miss? Vehicles. I don't mean like Hasbro's sail barge - that's a doll house - but small things you can put figures in and drive them around. I think that's why I'm kind of losing enthusiasm with The Vintage Collection and The Black Series, as vehicles are scarce and the figures aren't designed for sitting. I've also been playing around with more Playmobil stuff lately, as it has a lot in common with the old Kenner figures, vehicles, and playsets of the 1980s. (And the Enterprise comes out next month.)

As apparently Hasbro's unofficial, unpaid complaint department I often say to a lot of collectors "Vote with your dollars." With HasLab, you did, and you got some cool stuff as a result. (I also think we started a rotten trend of pre-paying in full for things, but given inflation and freight costs, Hasbro unwittingly stepped in to some real significant risk that they probably didn't see coming.) Now that Playmobil is doing licensed stuff, I'm inclined to once again vote with my dollars and be super annoying about it, digging up things like a Volkswagen camper or a yeti or whatever I found on the clearance racks, too. I don't mean to diss the Barge at all - in many respects, Team Hasbro saw some of the biggest and best playsets and dollhouses in the business and managed to do something with sub-prop replica model shop quality at surprisingly reasonable prices. (You'd never get a fully-weathered Sail Barge prop model for under $1000, especially at that size.) Looking over at it right now, it's a great reminder of what this line can be now that we're all old and have money to spend on toys, or second wives, or whatever.

A recurring theme in my inbox are questions like "why aren't things like they used to be?" or "when will it be like 1983/1995/2002/2004/2007/2010-2012/whenever again?" And the short answer is, it won't be. Times change, the good old days are different for everybody, and everything probably went to crap when the figures overtook vehicles as a better source for revenue - people prefer to buy action figures, hence $23 6-inch action figures. I dug out a Playmobil Mars Space Station set and I am dying for the German toy company to crank out a Millennium Falcon, but it'll probably never happen. But it just goes to show that time change, interest vary, and while I think toy vehicles with strong play value remains incredibly important, you may not. I love things with lots of little compartments, or lights and sound, or chairs that work with my figures - and you might be fine with something where a figure just stands up in a diorama. With over 40 years of fans, and we don't share a common origin story, that's going to be normal. For a lot of young adults, it's all about LEGO. If you're over 40, it's probably all about Kenner. It's hard to picture a world where LEGO wasn't always doing Star Wars sets for some of us, but for anybody under 25 it's probably how it's always been.

--Adam Pawlus

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