No, I am not talking about the gloomy economic figures that are the provence of MSNBC, CNN Money, and their ilk. However, I am talking about the recent increases in the upfront retail pricing on figures. With the increases in oil prices last summer, it was only expected that action figure prices would similarly rise due to the petroleum costs. However, while oil prices have retreated, figure prices have not, and in most cases, have continued a steady rise. (and George Lucas is greedy does not count as a reason....at least not for this post).
Hasbro has been the worst offender with the basic 3 3/4" Star Wars, Marvel Hero, and GI Joe figures now fetching nearly $8 at retail and $12 for online stores apiece and the larger Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Hulk lines at $11 each retail. Don't even get me started on the $150 Millenium Falcon (what were they thinking? Notice how fast the price of that one dropped). The idea of the $15 midsize figure is no longer so far fetched. These high initial prices squelch collectibility for most of the figure lines since the average secondary market dealer is going to have to price the figures at $15 to $20 each in order to realize any profits. And for new figures - with very rare exceptions such as the recent Darth Revan and Wal-Mart exclusives DC Superheroes and Marvel Legends figures - that is just more than the market can bear.
Additionally, the quality of most of the Hasbro lines of the last year has been absolute drek. While there have been some bright spots in some of the recent Star Wars and Iron Man lines and GI Joe has been steady, the Marvel Legends, Wolverine, Hulk, Spider-man, and vast majority of Star Wars have been disappointing at best. The bendie Princess Leia figure in the Shadows of the Empire two pack, the not so intimidating Juggernaut in the recent Spider-Man classics, the entire undersized Wolverine and Marvel heroes line (what do people see in that?) - none of these figures cry out to be bought at retail much less secondary market levels. The situation appears that Hasbro is banking on the collectors and impulse buyers to bring in higher margin on initial purchases in order to offset smaller margins or losses when having to clear out the remaining inventory of peg warmers (see Hasbro's recent troop builder deals on its website).
However, this is not a bash on Hasbro post (Mighty Muggs are pretty cool). Jakks Pacific, Playmates (oh, those Terminator figures were muy malo), and McFarlane Toys figures are flirting with the $10 each level. Only Mattel seems to have been reigning in their price increases with the quality DC Superheroes and JLU lines. Less competition from a decreasing number of retail outlets also plays a part in rising prices. Kay-Bee Toy Stores - gone. Toys R Us - significant store closings. K-Mart - significant store closings and visibly lower stock levels. Suncoast - significant store closings. With less places to sell an equal or smaller amount of supply, the per unit costs increase. Even eBay, which used to be a large source of new figures at close to retail pricing, has dried up as a steady source of new product (but that is more due to eBay's own idiotic policies than anything else).
So...what is the average collector or parent to do? Unfortunately, the final solution is to be more selective in purchases, purchase in advance if possible from your local collectible store, or wait out for clearances or discounters like TJ Maxx, Ross, Big Lots, and Marshalls. Double unfortunately, the last two are really becoming tougher due to the declining amounts of clearance at the first line retailers (Wal-mart and Target) from leaner stocking levels.
Another possibility is via the free shipping available to Amazon Prime members or free super-saver shipping on some purchases at Amazon. New figures there tend to run near retail levels, and if you are an Amazon Prime member, shipping is free. If eBay can get their free shipping initiatives to take better hold, it will become another viable option. If in your area, toys shows are also a great place for picking up deals, especially when there are brick and mortar retailers present dumping off excess stock.
Ultimately, it is going to come down to voting with your dollars. The days of the $7.83 Marvel Legends Juggernaut (what an incredible figure!) and the high quality and low posabilty McFarlanes are gone. Secondary market valuation is going to be increasingly fixated on demand, scarity, and reissues. With the "eBay effect" that depressed collectible prices over the past three to five years becoming less and less, secondary market pricing on truly in demand, low production niche figures, and/or out of production items will start rising (a trend already noticable on a number of figure sites). So if you are looking for a common figure to fill a hole in your collection, you can probably wait it out and pick it up cheaper later on. As long as they are not later reproduced, the rarer items are going to level out and then continue a slow increase. Price tracking on eBay and Amazon, figure trading, and show shopping are the way to go with those. Once the toy makers get the message that lower quality, constant repaints, repacks, and reissues are NOT selling and are NOT bringing in new customers, then we may see a reduction in prices and better variety. Until then, make mine Marvel Legends (the Toy Biz ones)!