Rinker on Collectibles: The Empty ‘Closet’

In early December 2010, I received several e-mails from “Rinker on Collectibles” readers asking about my annual “Closet” column. When I chose not to write a 2009 “Closet” column, I assumed I would return to the tradition in 2010. I did not.

In November 1987, I decided to buy toys on an annual basis. Instead of playing with them, I would store them in a closet. The plan was to reopen the closet in 30 years (1) to see how well I was able to predict what future generations would collect and (2) to learn whether I would have been better off financially investing my funds in a savings account. I bought toys for 22 years, beginning in 1987 with a budget of $200, which I increased to $250 in 1992 and $300 in 2006.

In October 2010, I began saving newspaper inserts for K-Mart, Target, Toys “R” Us, and Wal-Mart and the American Girl and other Christmas mail-order catalogs that Linda received for the purpose of studying the toys available and tracking prices. I also visited several Toy “R” Us stores, doing a casual walk through to see what would catch my eye.

In the past, I did my “Closet” shopping in late November or early December. I grew up in an era when the Christmas holiday began once Thanksgiving ended. Now it begins before Halloween. In the 21st century, Macy’s Santa is the last, not the first, to arrive. I am not capable of singing “It’s beginning to look like Christmas” in October.

Shopping for bargains is one of the things that made doing the “Closet” column so much fun. Toys that failed to sell or were overstocked from the previous Christmas season were warehoused until early November and then offered at bargain prices, discounts ranging from one-third to one-half. Discounted toys filled K-B Toys and Toys “R” Us shelves. I usually spent one-half to two-thirds of my annual budget on these toys, thus increasing the buying power of what I spent by 50 to 100 percent.

As 2008 ended, two events changed this buying picture. First, K-B Toys experienced its second bankruptcy. By February 2009, K-B Toys had liquidated what they could. Toys “R” Us bought the balance of their inventory. Second, big box stores and Toys “R” Us no longer stored overstocked merchandise until the following year’s sale season. Instead, they sold it to discounters who offered it for sale on the Web. When the 2009 Christmas season arrived, K-B Toys was gone and discount shelves at Toys “R” Us were few. If I wanted to buy at discount at Toys “R” Us, I had to read the newspaper inserts, shop multiple times and hope that the store I visited had the discounted item in stock.

I found some relief at Tuesday Morning, a store specializing in the sale of overstocked merchandise. However, choices were limited. I found myself tempted to buy items I would have otherwise avoided simply because of the lure of discount prices.

When something ceases to be fun, I lose interest. By 2008, shopping for the “Closet” was becoming work. Instead of taking a day or two, stocking the “Closet” took a week. While I have no problem with working hard, I prefer to whistle rather than sweat.

The possibility (I am loath to use the word “need”) of utilizing the Internet complicated the shopping experience. Comparison shopping on the Internet is time consuming. Differences are often measured in pennies rather than dollars. Shipping adds to cost unless free shipping is offered. Finally, when I decided to purchase a toy, I often received a notice that the toy was no longer in stock, was back ordered or would be delayed in shipping. When I shop in a store, if I see the toy, I can buy it.

The increased aggravation of the shopping experience is only one of the reasons I failed to fill the “Closet” in 2009 and 2010. My failure to find an adequate number of toys that I felt had long-term collectability was another.

Older brand-name toys, such has Barbie, G.I. Joe, and Matchbox, have run their course. They are “same-old, same-old” victims. The new looks old. The same holds true for action figures. Newcomers such as Bratz do not have the same luster.

In tough economic times, the toy industry tends to resurrect past successes rather than create innovative new product lines. Star Trek, Star Wars, Strawberry Shortcake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers experienced a revival of one sort or the other in 2009-10. A rash of superhero movies inspired new toy products related to Batman, the Fantastic Four, Ironman and Superman. I am not turned on by any of this material.

Movie, personality and television licensed product keeps diminishing. When it does appear, its shelf life is one to two years at best. Some lines last less than six months. Long-term collectability is contingent on long-term shelf life. Time is one of the first commodities to vanish in a throw away, short attention span society.

Today’s toy store has too strong a generic feel. Proven favorites are nice, but collecting relies on change. A toy that does not vary from year to year or season to season has little long-term appeal. Changing the box cover or packaging is not enough. Collecting requires variation.

The rising cost of toys also proved a problem. I purchased one high-ticket toy every year. When the top price exceeded $75, I began having problems. In addition, the average price for a toy continues to rise. $14.95 became $19.95, then $24.95 and today is $34.95.

Much of this price increase results from the introduction of electronic and other technology into toys. Toys now talk or make noise and are capable of multiple motions. I remain unconvinced these advances enhance to a toy’s playability. They certainly add to the toy’s cost.

[Author’s Aside: Last evening Linda and I went to the movies. We left home with the intent of seeing “Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” When AMC wanted an extra $4 per person because it was in 3-D and indicated they had no intention of showing it as a “regular” film, we opted for “The King’s Speech.” 3-D is a racket; an excuse to jack-up movie costs, especially children’s movies.]

In respect to toys themselves, I still have not resolved how to deal with electronic games. The toy industry claims them as their own. I have my doubts. At the moment, I view electronic games as a separate collecting category. Further, I question whether they will have long-term collectability in the traditional sense. While the units can be displayed, the games can only be saved electronically.

The approach by today’s parents and their offspring toward toys is the final reason I failed to fill the “Closet” these past two years. When I visit the toy section in a big box store or Toys “R” Us, I am amazed at how full the shopping carts are. Grandparents, parents and others seem to exercise no restraint on what they are willing to buy (or sacrifice) to ensure that every toy fantasy of their grandchildren, children, nieces, nephews and others are fulfilled.

This Christmas, the grandchildren required two sessions to open presents. The presents from the grandparents, aunts and uncles were opened Christmas Eve, the presents from the parents on Christmas morning. The “take” was monumental, measured in double digits. Four American Girl dolls and a wealth of accessories were among Sofia’s gifts from Santa.

The birthday party racket is worse. Birthday parties are now staged events held at a recreation center, movie theater, or party venue such as Chuck E. Cheese. Each attendee comes bearing a substantial toy gift. The loot often fills the back of two SUVs.

Given such abundance, it is little wonder children have short attention spans in respect to toys. New toys arrive with such frequency that it is not possible to develop a long-term bond with a toy.

One of my long-term toy goals was to watch my grandchildren play with their toys. When I identified a long-term favorite, I planned to acquire a mint-in-the box example and put it away. When the grandchildren turned 30, I would give them a gift from their childhood. I have abandoned this idea. Their favorite toy differs from week to week.

As Linda and I prepare to move from Connecticut and Pennsylvania to Michigan, I am faced with the decision of what to do with 21 years of “Closet” toys. I approached The Strong Museum of Play, but the discussion never passed the preliminary stage. I need to make a decision soon.

I have not made a final decision to abandon the “Closet” project. Perhaps 2011 will be the year when I say to heck with the above concerns and go shopping once again. If I do, you will read about it.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

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Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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5 Comments

  1. Another excellent article from my collecting idol. Mr. Rinker, if you’re looking for a place to unload all those closets full of toys, I think I could find the room!

  2. Nick Ryan says:

    Harry, so if you are closing the closet early, will you publish the facts and figures of your predictions, what wins out and what fails

    Kind regards, Nick

  3. Regina Gabrielson says:

    I have to agree about Toy R Us & the shopping carts full of toys. I hate going to this store, but, for my grandkids I go. While I was there, I saw several sets of grandparents, lists in hand, looking for specific toys. My thoughts were mostly along money lines: where did they get all that money??? Also, how long would the toy last? & lastly, would the kids appreciate their grandparents taking so much time (& torture) finding them what they wanted?
    I understand your thinking, Harry. Thanks for sharing. Maybe things will go backwards a bit so we can catch up!

  4. Roxie Boyd says:

    Great article. I too, would like to see what you actually purchased and if they went up in value. I have almost every toy I ever bought my son, (from 1988 to 2000) although most of them have been played with, they are in good condition. I thought of making artwork with them.:-)

    I also collected happy meal toys a few years back (I love happy meals!) Two to three times a week for a year or so. Do these have any value (still in the original plastic wrap.)

  5. Neal McAtee says:

    I wonder if the move to electronic toys (ie, xbox, wii, etc) has been part of the reason for the change in available toys for your closet. Where my generation played outside with Tonka Trucks and GI Joes, it seems today’s kids are content to sit in front of the TV playing Mario and Halo.