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Perspective: The Toys That Made Us (TTMU) Season 3 Episode 1 – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers / BANDAI America

What a way to start off a Friday! I’m a big fan of the entire TTMU series by Netflix as a toy buff myself, and the first episode of the newest season was a doosey as it was pretty close to home. To sum up my thoughts on this in one word: OUCH!

This episode went into some pretty intense detail talking about the rise/fall/rise/fall/rise(?) of the Might Morphin Power Rangers, Saban Brands, all the hands that touched the property, and my alma mater, Bandai America (BAI) which I worked for during its speedy spiral face first into the ground. A fitting sub-header for this episode could probably read BANDAI: From Broke to Billions to Busted.

Important note: I wasn’t part of the MMPR at ALL. I was part of their ‘New Business’ department trying to capitalize off of niche collector’s markets, which they really wanted to exploit at a mass retailer level. I did what I could, but in the end, niche markets belong to community curators, not mass market, and social media was not Bandai America’s greatest concern.

I knew the Power Rangers toys built Bandai America, but it was eye opening to see the business risks taken and the tenacity of Saban trying to make all this work.

In the end, it basically showed how Saban took what was ahead of its time in Japan and applied it in a streamlined fashion to America. In a time of no internet and opposite points of the planet worlds apart, it was a refreshing injection of kid interest that really surprised me to the level it had blown up to. I finally saw what carried Bandai America for the last 20 years because it wasn’t like there as anything in there catalog that had busted down doors in quite a while.

Having lived in Japan for much of my youth (Okinawa for the most part), I grew out of ‘Super Sentai’ stuff way early so I didn’t think much of it when it debuted on US TV. Of course, I was 10 years older than the intended audience, but still, even I couldn’t believe how kids could eat up this low budget crap… low key though, I still watched it for Amy Jo Johnson, but that’s an interest for another website…

To see a more unbiased explanation of the Bandai America appearance in the US market was refreshing as the intro I got from the company was understandably all about their successes, and not the failures. To be quite honest, looking at past issues of lines gone by and my experience in retrospect, it didn’t look like the company learned from their mistakes and were too afraid to do anything outside of what’s been done.

The evolution of the toys was really interesting too. To think the Japanese toys were the thing that started it all, but it was the head switching transforming figures made by the US unit that was the biggest seller of any toy. As time went on though, it looked as if the US faction took on risks that were really stretching the limits of fans. I remember the strange motor cycle that would slightly fold to make a weird tall cycle that didn’t look to really fit any other toy and just seemed… awkward. It still surprises me that something so outside the series was even conceived.

Looking back, I feel if Bandai America would have taken more risks to change a bit with exploration and experimentation on media, promotion, and directly connecting with fans, they could have went much farther. Instead, it looks as if their razor focused hopes of a brand that once was hot bled them high and dry until they simply couldn’t afford it. When you’re latest release for a high budget movie is a key line item ‘henshin’ belt that never got featured in the film and worked off the same tech as the belt made for Japan almost 40 years ago, you’re not realizing that times have changed. The tech is old. Give the audience more credit for demanding something modern. Above all else, there needed to be much more planning.

As always with these episodes, I learned more than I expected. It did a great job in digging into the history and referencing all the key players throughout its history. How the name was conceived, how the business model was designed, the risks taken, the victories won, and the dramatic fall from grace of a once formidable juggernaut.

It was exciting to see so many familiar faces that I’ve had the chance to engage with including Greg Mitchell, Shin Ueno, and Eric Phan, but strangely absent were any of the current Bandai America employees. I wonder why??? Oh, was it the shady slap in the face when Saban basically explained the company lost its way and couldn’t sell water to a desert dweller? To paraphrase, ‘In the last year that they had the license, they only sold $20M. To put that into perspective, they were selling hundreds of millions.’ Then Saban sells to Hasbro whose leadership and lead toy designer for the property coincidentally worked for Bandai America during the MMPR heyday. As it was stated ‘when BANDAI America lost the Power Rangers license, it was like they lost a part of their soul.’

Ouch…

Things learned:
1) Be it brand, client, or business as a whole, always have an exit strategy (diversify)
2) When all you got left to run on is pride, step away (stop digging)
3) Never lose the connection with the customer (MMPR movie toy fail)


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Perspective on The Toy Association Perspective: #SaveToysRUs

In an article I saw posted in LinkedIn, Bob Wann, chairman of the The Toy Association Board of Directors, explains the group’s belief on why brick and mortar stores like TRU are important, and offers their support.

Basically, physical stores have been a cornerstone in the industry for customer discovery and purchasing, which I totally agree with if the opportunity presents itself. Having had both a physical and online store for so many years, I can most certainly understand how the power of the in-person presentation is much more effective in persuasion of purchase. This is where the true artistic art form of character building salesmanship comes into play from the store display, initial greeting, product showmanship, the closeout and the follow up. These elements build a stores ‘character’ and encourages true future customer engagement.

Though I do agree with the idea and I certainly want to save TRU, the statement leaves questions about a few points mentioned that never really get addressed.

The first is in the very beginning of the statement: “seismic, disruptive change.” Its followed with concerns of confusion, uncertainty, and ‘far worse’ news of the closing of TRU making it sound like the idea of change is bad in my opinion. This is really just a set up to express a sort of relief when it goes on to mention the possible salvation of a number of TRU stores that might happen. Saving TRU sounds like a good idea, but in its current state, it would make for tough business.

If anyone took a wide lens look at business in general today, every industry is going through massive change, and its always for the better of the consumer. From everything that I’ve been taking in from tech to toys, ‘disruption’ is something we are trying to achieve (market disruptor, anyone?).Everything from taxis to takeout, from physical fitness to mental wellness, and even employment has gone through ‘disruptive change.’ Most of the business tactics before the disruption were good for the industry as they were, but admittedly, I find the new change to be better. Its forcing stagnant, complacent companies to finally take the initiative to innovate, and the toy industry is long overdue compared to others. I’m still waiting for my real deal Hover Board, not the chintzy, explosive Segway wannabe.

The second issue I have with this statement is that although it explains that in-store discovery is important and touch/feel/play is magic, it doesn’t really explain any way on how to get customers back in stores. I mean, its great if kids can do this, but how can that happen if they never go in? This latest bankruptcy is not the first rodeo for TRU, as financial issues stem as far back as 2005 when they made the loan deal that locked them into a losing game according to the Fortune article here. So, this should indicate that simply having a place to go doesn’t really bring in an audience. Let’s be real here: kids don’t play with toys the same way they used to. Kids don’t play to entertain themselves so much as they want to entertain others or to watch others entertain them. This is why the surprise style toy is so big. Its also why discovery is no longer done in store for most people, its done on social media. From what I’ve seen with most hot toys recently, people discover items not sitting on shelves in a store, but in YouTube box openings, convention reviews, and a network of friends. That’s not the same as thinking the majority of customers discover items in-store.

Speaking a little on the TRU finances, I’ve read where people mention that TRU would have been profitable earning $350M in 2017, but they had something like $400M in interest payments from there 2005 deal. In other words, TRU was not profitable. I can’t understand why people don’t see that. Its akin to saying, ‘I would have made $1M in sales if it wasn’t for that pesky $1.5M in production costs.’ Obviously, no money earned.

Should the industry band together and save some existence of TRU, I’d like to suggest a few tips on what to consider in observation of the masters of the next-gen retailer, Amazon.

1) Lead the industry by having useful information. If you ask any modern consumer, and I’m hoping the industry as a whole is targeting modern consumers, they will all tell you the first place they look for pricing/availability is Amazon. Why does Amazon get to be the first option for TOYS? They’re not even a toy website. Change that. News, special promotions, offers, and release schedules should be found at TRU’s website. I’m not talking about TRU info, but all this info from toy producers. Create a website plan where product producers can curate and merchandise their products directly on TRU’s website. Add that to the marketing arsenal of the retail shop, and you’ve solved two problems in the industry: modernize TRU to compete with Amazon, and build an effective way to market for toy manufacturers to an endemic audience without needing to branch out of the industry. Facebook and Instagram are great for outside the core toy audience, but these platforms are far from ideal for the industry.

2) Earn consumers trust. In a recent article on Inc.com, its stated that trust is just as important as price in the modern retail environment. Although traditional ways of gaining trust through donations are fine and dandy, more is needed today including visibility of the personnel. Every once in a while, Jeff Bezos would put out a scanned copy of an announcement for upcoming news for amazon right on the front page. I can’t believe 100% that it truly is Mr. Bezos who’s doing that, but the perception is endearing for most, and it makes anyone who visits Amazon’s site more comfortable. Another way would be to foster a strong network of influencers from various social media platforms. YouTube’s been under a lot of heat recently with misguiding kids to inappropriate info, and as YouTube gets more and more saturated with this type of content, its more likely kids will fall in to this trap. Build a ‘toys only/approved, authorized influencer’ platform just for toys accessible through the site and a proprietary app. This will keep kids glued to the smart phone in a self contained environment of just the appropriate subject matter. Also, feature influencers with appearances at various locations around the country. Everyone loves a local celebrity.

3) Have the products people want. At this moment, I can order something from Amazon, and have it ready to pick up at a locker location by the end of the day. Its always a good thing when the store you go to always has the one thing you’re looking for in stock when you get there. I know pick up services have been around for a while, but the difference here is Amazon has EVERYTHING available including exclusives from everywhere. Will TRU be able to do this? Maybe they can partner with Hot Topic or GameStop so whenever they get exclusives that TRU can offer them as well, or TRU can simply capitalize off the fact that they get the ‘first to market’ news and offer before the rest of the industry. This move can ruffle some feathers with clients, but this is a key component to the success of Amazon.

4) Make the process quick. When I go to an Amazon locker, I scan my smart phone and a locker pops open for me to get my product. TRU needs that same convenience. Most online pickup options have me waiting in the Customer Service line, behind all the returns, then waiting for the clerk to figure out who I am and what I’m doing there, then waiting for the clerk to find my product. Add pickup lockers, in the middle of the store so people can grab there goods and get a good view of all the impulse items along the way.

And now this journal entry is three times longer than the original statement released… Just some bubbling ideas that popped in my head when reading the statement from the Toy Association. Embrace disruption, and lead the industry as you were meant to do.

About The Toy Association

Founded in 1916, The Toy Association™, Inc. is the not-for-profit trade association representing all businesses that design, produce, license, and deliver toys and youth entertainment products for kids of all ages. Our 950+ members drive the annual $27 billion U.S. domestic toy market, and our organization has a long history of propelling the health and growth of the toy industry, which has an annual U.S. economic impact of $109.2 billion.

http://www.toyassociation.org/ta/about-us/toys/about-us/about-us.aspx


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