Sunday, February 22, 2009

Astro Major starring in: "Curse of the 1986 Clearance Robots!"

I visited a store called Pamida back in October as I was driving through Hot Springs, South Dakota on my way to Vintage Space Toast Tour Denverado. Pamida is a regional retail chain with stores that look like small Targets. When I go into a Pamida I imagine this is what Target looked like in 1986 except without Blu-Ray players or Wiis or all the other highly definitional advances in electric couch potato-ery that we have today. As I left I picked up a copy of their weekly sales flyer because even to this day I still hope against hope that there will be fantastically illustrated and wonderfully worded toy robots ads like stores used to do 25 years ago. I'm sure when the toy robots see me coming down the aisle they wish I was someone 25 years younger, too.

Pamida 10/04/08
Instead I found an ad with Prowl the police car robot sandwiched between some sort of green outer space alien circus freak elephant-man and a doll of that psycho Christan Bale in black Bat-man underwear. I'm sure all these different kinds of toys appeal to their own specific niche of little kid but it makes me wonder what kind of child lunatics people are raising nowadays. This is why Michael Bay is a genius. He knows today's toys are missing that special something that appeals across the board to all of today's child lunatics, so he created a black clad psychopathic outer space alien circus freak police car robot that knows your ebay user name.


But what is most frightening to me about the Pamida ad is not that Hasbro made a baby version of Princess Leia in her slave costume, it's the really short shelf life of Prowl the police car robot. I remember first seeing it in Rapid City around late July and by late November they were gone. Prowl even shipped in a couple of consecutive waves and he still didn't stay on the shelves longer than six months. Compare that to Jetfire, the toy robot jet that first started hitting shelves in 1984 and was still around by Christmas of 1986! Although stores like Playworld and Best were clearancing him like crazy that holiday season, Children's Palace was still advertising Jetfire in their October '86 fliers at full retail. That's a solid two years of shelf life. When I was a kid parents could count on this longevity and they'd say things like "We'll get if if it's still there next payday" or "We'll get it if you get good grades on the next report card" or "We'll get it if you're good for Christmas", because in the 80s we took it for granted that the hot toys from the established toylines would still be available beyond a week or six weeks or six months. Now it's not that way at all. Everyone is so addicted to owning the freshest, newest hotness in the latest paint schemes that two year old toys are either vintage secondary market collectibles or yesterday's trash.

Children's Palace 10/19/86
Lionel Playworld 10/22/86


I was adding around 48 new* ads to the Transformers 1986 section of the Vintage Space Toaster Palace when I noticed I now have more 1986 Transformer ads than I do from 1984. It's an interesting milestone because whenever I go to a library I always hunt down 1984 and 85 but not necessarily other years because I'm usually short on time. 1986 eclipsing 84 in terms of ad volume is not altogether unexpected. 1985 was a phenomenal sales year for Transformers and it makes sense that Hasbro would try to follow that with an expanded product lineup. 1986 was the year there were more individually packaged Transformers than any other time, and every retailer from department stores to grocery chains would be advertising Transformers heavily in 1986 hoping for a repeat success.

Lionel Playworld 12/07/86

Unfortunately 1986 was also the year that toy robots popularity began to wane with the toy buying public. Voltron was dead, the GoBots were dying and the Transformers weren't doing all that great either with their box office bomb movie and decreasing sales. Toy industry trade publication Playthings ran an article in their December 1986 issue analyzing the top selling toylines of 1986 and Transformers isn't even on their top ten list. Exactly how badly Transformers did in '86 is hard for me to figure out. I do know that in 1984 wholesale revenue for the line was 115 million dollars1. In December of 1986, the Wall Street Journal reported that Stephen Hassenfeld (Hasbro's chairman and CEO at the time) estimated that "sales would fall to $195 million this year from $335 million last year."2 But then in February 1987, Al Carosi Jr., corporate vice president of marketing services for Hasbro told the Wall Street Journal that the line "brought in some $500 million in its three years on the market."3 If you do the math that means according to Carosi's numbers Transformers in 1986 earned wholesale revenue in the neighborhood of only 50 million. That can't be right, though. It seems low and I think it depends on what exactly he meant by "some $500 million". Oh, those wacky millionaire corporate vice presidents and their fuzzy rounding of tens of millions of dollars.


Toys R Us 11/30/86

Although in 1986 there were more Transformers than ever and lots of ads dedicated to them, not everything manufactured got featured in the weekly sales flyers. Some Transformer ads remain extremely rare and difficult to find. I've found that ads for the Autobot and Decepticon cassettes from any year are very rare and second only to those are ads for the non-Devastator combiner giftsets. In 1985 there were several stores that advertised Devastator but for some reason Toys R Us is the only place that advertised any sort of giftset after that. The absolute highlight of Vintage Space Toast Tour Houston was finding this ad for the Arielbot giftset from Toys R Us. It's the only giftset ad I've found from any store that year. I don't understand why there is this lack of giftset ads when there were more of them made in '86 than any other year. Were the post-Devastator giftsets all Toys R Us exclusives? I don't remember seeing them at Lionel Playworld but given enough time and enough libraries I'm sure I'll figure it out. What remains a mystery to me is why giftsets for Bruticus or Predaking were never released. Given the scarcity of the Menasor giftset it seems that the Decepticons got shortchanged that year. With Superion, Defensor, Metroplex and Sky Lynx it seems like the balance of the big price point Transfomrers was heavily concentrated on the Autobot side. Maybe since "bad guy" figures usually aren't as big sellers as "good guy" figures I can only conclude that Bruticus and Predaking being Decepticons might have been what made Hasbro hold back on releasing them as giftsets. It sucks how for all their menacing awesomeness, in the eyes of little boys Predaking and Bruticus were only slightly more appealing than girl robots.


Randall's Food & Drug 11/19/86

Popular opinion be damned, as a kid I thought 1986 was a fantastic year. There were all sorts of crazy and diverse Transformers from the Special Team combiners with their Takaran design origins to Hasbro's new movie character toys and stuff like Astro Major and Predaking designed by companies outside of the Hasbro/Takara partnership. It was awesome in terms of variety. I still remember the first day I saw Astro Major at Lionel Playworld. I was so impressed with how the transport part turned into a lynx and the shuttle part turned into a sky. My aunt got me that one for Chirstmas and I really regret how I cut up that box just for the character art. I recently bought a really beat up Astro Major box from an internet guy just so I could relive the magic. This time I will use sharper scissors! But what is really cool is that all these years later Astro Major got reissued and now internet stores can't give him away. Not even adjusting for inflation 44 bucks in 2009 money is within five bucks of his original 1986 retail. Jetfire is finally dethroned as long term deep discount clearance king of the roboplasticos. It is only fitting that a toy robot from 1986 did it. Or maybe given the overall unpopularity of the 1986 line it was inevitable.

*23 year old

1Hasbro Bradley Inc. Expects to Report Net Tripled in 1st Quarter. (1985, April 24). Wall Street Journal

2Hasbro Inc. Estimates 8.5% Rise in Revenue In the Fourth Quarter. (1986, December 12). Wall Street Journal

3DINOSAURS THUNDER BACK AS TOYS (1987, February 12). Pat Widder, Chicago Tribune.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how many toy lines are affected like this. I still see the same Darth Vader Transformer on the shelves and it's been around for years. How does Hasbro decide?

Evil King Macrocranios said...

That'd be a great question for the Hasbro Q&A and questions are due in today.

I suspect the answer has to do with what single figure case assortments sell well. Jetfire was his own case assortment so I'm guessing retailers kept ordering it and Hasbro kept shipping them until the two year mark. I don't know of any Hasbro robot that shipped to retail for more than two consecutive years. Bumblebee and Jetfire would be the only examples I can think of with two year longevity.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

I forgot to mention the Darth Vader Death Star has only been around for a little under a year and a half. I know it seems longer.

deadbeat Senna said...

Wasn't Frenzy around for at least two years? Like Bumblebee he was in the '84, '85 and 86 catalogs. That would be at least three years.

agentmorris said...

If anything, the constant flux of the Transformers brand by Hasbro these days is as much to blame for the short shelf life of current figures.

If Hasbro could stick with one specific TF line (preferably a non-movie one) for a few years, perhaps we'd get to see some longevity of specific figures. Instead, if you don't pick up something seemingly within six months of it's release, it can be tricky to find brick and mortar sometimes. Rather sad.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Tell me about it! I do think Hasbro is figuring out ways of identifying popular figures within case assortments so they can bring them back later if there's a market for them. But I think the days of whole waves being available for over a year are long gone. They do that with Star Wars a lot. I really wanted a deluxe Animated Bumblebee but I took too long to get one and for a while they deleted him from the assortments. Then in January he started showing up again. It was like getting a second chance. But if the figure isn't popular then that small 4-6 month window is about all some people get nowadays.

Why they do so many radically different and short lived product lines under the same brand name is beyond me. I think the age compression phenomenon that marketers talk about may play into it, too. With the toy playing kid demographic getting younger and younger it probably makes sense to try to put as much out there as possible and see what sells while the current generation of kids is still buying them. But I don't see why what appeals to one generation won't appeal to the next. I don't see why Animated can't last five years.

And yeah, dS, you're right about Frenzy in the catalogs. I am so loathe to use the catalogs as a source of info that I forgot about that one.

agentmorris said...

EKM: As an addendum, the Animated series is already getting cancelled just as it was gaining steam. This coming season is it. Strange when more people seemed to like it than dislike it.

And I see no reason why Universe is being put on hold. I'd say I'm happy to save some money this year on new toy robots, but I know I'll just end up squandering it on other useless shit.

Anonymous said...

Evil King Macrocranios, as an aside to your query over shelf life, i recall seeing thundercracker and skywarp in our local zayres in 1989. although highly uncommon we did run across this from time to time when we were out looking for some deals. we had a ton of the first gen stuff well into 1987 sitting in toystores all over south florida. some markets snatched it up and some didn't. i don't know if i ever had a better feeling than walking into lionel playworld and seeing the constructicons, insecticons and dinobots all sitting there....not knowing that they were even in existance. sweet days.


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