Usually I write Vinylmation articles for the site VinylmationWorld.com, but this is a topic that falls a bit outside its usual content and tone. As such, I thought it more appropriate on my blog.
Vinylmation fans, like any fans really, have an ever changing variety of complaints and issues with the hobby. Many of these issues can never be resolved, as they often contradict each other. For example, the casual collector would like easier to find items at cheaper prices, while those looking for rarity or profit want small edition sizes that make vinyls exclusive and expensive. It's a balancing act to please all the different varieties of fans, and there is no way to make everyone completely happy.
However, there is one problem area that most collectors can agree is an issue. Trade boxes, both mystery and clear, were meant to give Vinylmation buyers a way to exchange blind boxed figures they didn't want for something better. As the hobby has grown older, numerous factors have combined to make these trading boxes virtually useless to all but the most casual collectors. Trading in any figure purchased at retail price seems a foolhardy edeavour, as what will be received in return is usually an undesirable vinyl, one that was most likely on clearance or found in the outlet stores.
Many Vinylmation fans believe that this is a problem easily fixed, and that Disney's lack of action is laziness or disregard for the hobby. In truth, there are a lot of factors that prevent an easy solution. While there may be ways to fix the problem, understanding the contributing factors makes the problem's complexity clearer.
1. The Reason for Trade Boxes
|This is an older clear box, and actually an almost decent one. Still at least one vinyl that was on clearance.|
Blind boxing is one of the standard distribution methods for urban and designer vinyl figures. It's also the most controversial, as every purchase is a minor gamble. Vinyls are packaged in opaque packaging, often with an additional covering to discourage peeking. The outside of the package advertises most of the potential designs, and may also give odds for finding each figure. Once the package is purchased and opened, no refunds are given.
Blind packaging has been utilized by collectibles in the past, but designer toys adds the additional problem of subjective taste. Since the appeal of these collectibles is their unique designs and the artists designing them, each set probably has at least some figures that are undesirable to the buyer. This becomes especially problematic when the most interesting and ornate designs receive the highest rarity, forcing collectors to buy more than they want to find that desired vinyl.
Disney alleviated some of these problems by standardizing most case distributions, guaranteeing that anyone that buys an entire case receives one complete set and most of a second. However, most people can't afford to invest hundreds of dollars on each set. There's also the problem that most Vinylmation sets feature certain Disney characters or theme park attractions, which gives an extra chance at either limited appeal or high desirability for each figure. This can lead to major issues, like the Classic Collection, which was highly desirable for the doubly rare "chaser" figure, while the rest of the set was often unfairly tossed aside.
Disney, along with other brick and mortar sellers of designer toys, tried to solve the problem of customers dissatisfied with their blind box purchases. The solution was an official trading spot, somewhere the store keeps a few extra figures to trade with the customers, giving them another chance at a better find. Disney added the extra wrinkle of "mystery boxes," hiding traders within a numbered box that supposedly gives guests a random chance at something truly great. "Clear boxes" were also provided to give Vinylmation buyers a few non-obscured trading choices.
2. The Rules, The Problem, and the Failed Solution
|Clearance, clearance, and while it was full price at the time, the pig is in the outlet store now.|
The trade boxes came with their own rules. Guests first handed over their unwanted Vinylmation and selected a number from the mystery box. If they didn't like what was offered, they could either select a vinyl from the clear box, or select a second number. Regardless of what they found, guests had to trade a Vinylmation once the process started.
The idea was that by forcing guests to trade, figures inside the trade boxes would constantly change. However, the large number of trading locations and store employees handling the trading quickly distorted the rules. Except for the flagship Vinylmation stores, D-Street at both Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World, most locations formed their own versions of the rules, which the employees often ignored anyways. It was not uncommon to receive more than two trades, not be forced to trade, or even be allowed to see the entire contents of the mystery box.
As Vinylmations grew in popularity and in age, the number of series produced increased. Clear box figures were also introduced, ones that eliminated the random factor entirely. Overproduction and the creation of niche interest sets left some excessive inventory, which was clearanced through Disney outlet stores and the Disney Store's online sales.
Suddenly, lots of cheaper figures were available, and the trading process didn't differentiate between discounted items and full price Vinylmations. Increasingly, traders were utilizing these cheaper items to try to find more valuable figures. Combined with lax enforcement of trading rules, this flooded trade boxes with undesirable vinyls.
Vinylmation fans raised their voices in frustration, even as they contributed to the problem by trading cheap vinyls. Faced with a vocal group of unhappy customers, Disney tried to fix at least part of the problem. Last year, they removed all but one or two trade boxes at each theme park. They then reinforced and reviewed existing trading rules. The hope was that by limiting trading locations, Vinylmations would cycle through trade boxes continuously, and standard rules would always be enforced.
The solution only helped a little, if at all. Even with revised rules, employees quickly returned to trading with guests in any way they saw fit. The limited number of trading locations did improve items available, but the new rules did nothing to address the problem of clearance product. As such, most trade boxes still contain a majority of cheap, unwanted Vinylmations, even with Disney's attempts to rotate the contents and sometimes add their own figures.
3. The Complications
|Outlet store, outlet store, and outlet store. Some people are excited to find their favorite team in the trade boxes, however.|
The current status of trading is still dire. Vinylmation fans often believe that the real solution is simple, and that Disney just refuses to implement it. The most common idea presented is carefully restricting what figures can be traded into the boxes. By banning all figures that have been sold at reduced prices, Disney would guarantee that the contents of the boxes was at least desirable to someone.
However, there are lots of complications to such solutions. The first is that such restrictions would require lots of resources for little benefit. All store employees potentially working with the trade box would have to be knowledgeable about all Vinylmation series, and that knowledge would have to be constantly updated. Since hourly employees change all the time and often switch locations, it would be nearly impossible to keep consistent knowledge of such restrictions. It's already proved impossible to keep consistent trading rules between locations. Disney might increase sales of Vinylmations through better trade boxes, but they also might waste time on an effort with little actual return.
Further, trade boxes are intended just as much, or more, for casual buyers as they are for dedicated collectors. While the contents might be of little use to those with knowledge of the outlet stores, the average guest probably does not know about clearance Vinylmations. To many families, the cheaper items filling trade boxes are just as interesting as the ones available for full price on the shelves.
Dedicated Vinylmation fans are also one of the roots of the problem. Once a few individuals started to trade clearance items, it quickly became standard practice, even as fans spoke of it as taboo. At the recent Reflections of Evil event, it was almost comical hearing people complain about the poor contents of trade boxes while clutching figures purchased from the outlet store to trade into those same boxes. It's similar to speeding and other minor crimes, where the perpetrators justify their actions by pointing out that everyone else is doing it.
Another issue is that vinyls can be purchased at full price before they are discounted. For local visitors to the theme parks, this isn't a major issue, but those on vacation may buy Vinylmations on an earlier trip or at their local Disney Store, then decide to trade them the next time they visit the parks. These guests would probably be extremely upset to find they can't trade these items because they've been clearanced, even though they were bought for full retail.
Defining what is undesirable enough to be banned is also difficult. While some figures languish months at the outlet stores, others are placed on sale briefly to liquidate a small amount of leftover stock. Certain series, like Alice in Wonderland and Animation 2, were only available at the outlets for a limited time and often sold out completely. Some collectors are still searching for figures from those sets, and their presence in trade boxes would not be an unwelcome sight.
4. Other Solutions (And Their Own Problems)
One minor solution that would at least help the problem is the banning of all open window figures. Since these Vinylmations are purchased without any mystery to their contents, there should be no reason to trade them at the parks. This still retains the problem of training and trusting Cast Members to enforce the rule, which hasn't proven reliable in the past.
A more severe restriction could limit Vinylmation trades to products purchased within the store. Allowing guests to only trade new purchases would eliminate the need to train Cast Members and would prevent the trading of clearance figures. However, it would also prevent the trading of desirable older items, as well as items purchased on previous trips.
An alternate solution is the creation of a single, premium trading box at each D-Street. This trade box would be reserved for non-clearance Vinylmations and would be attended by a few, specially trained Cast Members. This box would only be available when those Cast Members are working, limiting its availability but also increasing its mystique. While in no way fixing the quality of the other trade boxes, it would provide at least one location with guaranteed decent trading.
None of these ideas are perfect, and all of them have the chance of alienating some group of Vinylmation fans. It's also entirely possible that Disney is satisfied with the current status quo, or at least tolerates it. Major collectors will continue to trade their expensive purchases with each other, and casual buyers most likely don't notice the dire state of the trade boxes.
While the amazing designers and artists that create Vinylmation are a dedicated bunch, Disney itself is focused on the profitability of the collectible. It's long-term popularity equals dedicated fans and consistent profit, but in the end it's another piece of profitable merchandise. Trade boxes are just a way to appease customers and encourage further purchases. Hopefully a solution can be found that appeases the Vinylmation community and proves workable for Disney's purposes. However, it's doubtful that solution is simple.