Monday 3rd February, just after four am. Tom Grass hauled the wheel of his 32 tonne Volvo truck over to the left as he headed into Times Square in Central Manhattan. Turning left on 42nd Street, the big truck glided to a halt outside the loading bay for the Manhattan Central branch of the world’s biggest toy retailer, Toys ‘R’ Us. Almost an hour early for his delivery slot, Tom relaxed, free to head for breakfast at Mac’s 24 hour diner before TRU’s goods-inward team opened up for business, then an hour supervising the delivery before he could set off back for the depot.
The Volvo’s bulk on this dark but clear morning is given over entirely to one product: action figures from a range made by Kingplay Toys, the world’s biggest toy company. The figures were all manufactured in Taiwan and mainland China, sourced through Kingplay’s Hong Kong buying office. With a range of retail prices from $5.99 for the smaller figures through to $59.99 for an all-singing all-dancing feature playset, the load in the Volvo represented more than a million dollar’s worth of sales for TRU Times Square. A million dollars is a lot of money, but it would be spent, in this one store, before the trade for the day of Monday 3rd February was over. Such was the heat in this toy line. Before Christmas parents had fought over the few scraps of stock that trickled their way into stores.
The usual conspiracy theories about deliberately under-supplying the market made the consumer press, junior congressmen made speeches denouncing the lack of planning at Kingplay, all of the USA’s major toy retailers and anyone else they could blame just to get the irate mothers’ to stop bombarding their constituency offices with tearful complaints.
And the cause of all this anguished commerce? A new Japanese-originated animated TV series which hit US television for the fall season 2006. Made by the classic Osaka-based outfit Gamba Animation Company, the show was a TV and merchandising hit in its home country in 2005. Contrary to the popularly held belief, however, all that glisters with gold in Japan does not translate into greenbacks/Euros/Pounds in the rest of the world, so it was with no particular fanfare that the show debuted on Cartoon Network on 27th August.
Kingplay bought the toy rights from Gamba’s international agent, Kiddyworlds, a deal that was sealed at the Brand License Europe show in London in October 2005. There were the usual trade press photos of Sally Bateman, CEO of Kingplay, shaking hands with Junichiro Kunde, the veteran president of Gamba on a rare trip out of Osaka, a smiling Graham Painter from Kiddyworlds’ London office just squeezing himself into the picture. Then it was all over bar the shouting about product development, as it were, and the industry moved on to cover other things.
Nonetheless the show quickly built a US audience, grey-market copies of the Japanese video game wormed they way inevitably into American hobby stores, as did some of the original manga comic books. By the time October arrived these same stores were buying-in Japanese language trading cards to sell to kids with money to buy anything, anything at all as long as it featured their new heroes, Kingplay realised they’d got a breakthrough property on their hands and tried to rack-up late production and fly-in stock to cope with demand. Inevitably, they couldn’t do it, with only eight weeks to Christmas and most Chinese factories committed to turning out orders on other lines.
And so we find February 2007 has come around with every bet being that the new show will be the hot property of the year. Kiddyworlds licensing team has garnered a roster of over 40 US licensees, including most of the big names familiar to all in the business. The TV show was selling around the world, and Kiddyworlds offices in London, Milan and Munich were gearing up for a bumper year making sure no-one in Europe underestimated demand when the show hit their territories, as it inevitably would in Autumn 2007.
The name of Gamba’s hit new kids show was Cobra Crew. Nothing particularly special about the animation, but it featured a good back-story (a classic trait of Japanese animation when compared to western works), four main characters on a mission, each with his/her own alien sidekick. Some tasty bad guys to fight, and, here’s the twist, the alien sidekicks, in a ‘parallel universe’ were the heroes and the human masters the alien sidekicks! Neat, eh? So every episode featured the plots and battles against evil in two worlds connected only by the hero/sidekick/hero match-ups. All of this was good for the licensing business, of course, as no child had a full set of the action figures until all the combinations of hero/alien/sidekick/alien/hero were acquired, not to mention the multifarious baddies, vehicles, role-play kits and all the rest.
And so Toys R Us Times Square has a million dollars worth of sales to look forward to that day. Sadly for their stockholders and thousands of parents just now rising to get into Manhattan that day to snap up some of this consignment, it didn’t happen.
As Tom Grass jumped down from his cab that cold February morning, anticipating eggs-over-easy and Canadian bacon, he was struck from behind with a baseball bat, bundled into a dark corner of the despatch area, tied up, gagged and left for the early shift to find. Before Tom awoke from the blow, his attackers, three men in black, bulky clothing leapt into the cab, fired up the engine and serenely pulled away from the back of the store on their way to persons and places unknown, there to profit from easy black-market sales of the hot Cobra Crew goodies.
If folks are stealing it, you know it’s hot.