Why Is Some Merchandise So Hard To Find?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chad asked:

Recently some anime merchandise is more difficult to purchase outside Japan, whether for old anime or new. I've purchased collectable figures for years, but some figures now go on sale for less than the day of release or the pre-order day. After that day, merchandise is only found on the secondary market, where sellers charge ridiculously inflated prices. When we ask retailers why merchandise is scarce they reply it is the manufacturers (Bandai, Good Smile, etc) who always "intentionally limit supply". Why would a company do that? It seems like they're turning down paying customers.

There's a theory in economics called the "scarcity principle." Basically, as humans we tend to place lower value on things that are abundant. Gold, platinum and the like have value to us because they are historically rare metals. Almost every material object that we, as humans, instinctively put a high value on tends to be at least a little hard to find. Conversely, we all need oxygen, or we'd all literally drop dead within a minute or so. But if someone tried to charge you for it, you'd roll your eyes, because it's everywhere on Earth and nobody has any real ability to cut off your supply of it.

Not everything that's rare is valuable, of course. Scarcity is only part of value. You have to want that something on a very basic level, first. Let's say you own the only appliance store in town, you have five air conditioners in stock and can't get any more. If it's the middle of winter, you're probably not going to sell them, even if you mark them way down. But if you wait 'till the dead of summer, when everyone desperately needs an air conditioner, people will be knocking down your doors and shoving obscene amounts of money in your face to make sure they get one of the five you have left.

When it comes to nerd goods like figures, DVDs and other collectables, there's an absolute TON of anime, movies, TV shows and other media out there competing for our attention and our dollars. It's not enough to just "like" a show anymore, because chances are, even if it's one of your favorite shows, you'll probably still be a little apathetic about buying merch for it. That's only natural. If you've been a fan for a while you probably already have a big pile of stuff. You'll get to it eventually. You'll wait for a sale. Or maybe put it on your birthday list.

But if that thing you want is rare, going out of print, or has a very real chance of running out, you're probably going to put a little more effort into getting one. In fact, if it's something you really want, you'll probably take no chances and pre-order the thing, even if you have to subsist on instant ramen for a few weeks to afford it.

This is just a theory, and it doesn't ALWAYS work, but assuming the manufacturer already has a rough idea of demand for a new product, if they cut off the supply, chances are generally better that they'll actually SELL everything they make. They won't be stuck paying to warehouse thousands of extra copies. They won't have wasted money on making things that people might've wanted but eventually forgot about. They won't lose money by having to discount the hell out of unwanted extra product later. Sure, they'll have to turn a few people away, but the end result is much less waste, more profit, and maybe better sales than might've happened without the threat of running out.

Perhaps nobody is as good at hyping up products with artificial scarcity as Nintendo. Their products would already do well, but by maintaining a delicate balance between getting people excited and pissing them off, they can extend the hype for an electronic product for YEARS. Few consumers were really prepared for how few NES Classic Minis Nintendo made back in late 2016, and people FREAKED OUT when they announced that it was being discontinued a few months later. There was a huge run on them, and the total sales figure ended up being around 2.3 million units. The next year, Nintendo came out with the Super NES Classic Edition, and NOBODY slept on that one. As of February, that little console has sold over 4 million units, with no end in sight. The NES Classic will supposedly be back this summer, and I'll bet the lines for it will be pretty long. Especially if they tweak the system and its bundled games.

Think about that for a second. All that hype over a cheap little device with an ancient cell phone CPU, no WiFi, no display, no expandability, too-short wired controllers, and some curated pre-loaded games, emulating a game console over 30 years old that many of us still have. It's not a bad system, but as many have pointed out, it could easily be bested by a $10 Raspberry Pi Zero and a PS3/PS4 controller. But people lost their minds over them. Such is the power of scarcity, artificial or otherwise. You could literally offer to build people a RetroPie console that could emulate every cartridge-based system known to man, and they'd STILL want the official Nintendo Classic consoles.

It used to be that the entire Western side of the anime business was much more affected by scarcity economics. In the VHS era we would snap up every opportunity to get our hands on anime, because it was very hard to find, and our ability to get more of it was uncertain. That carried through to the DVD market for a while. People bought new series they'd never seen out of FOMO. But at a certain point, there was too much product out there, there were fansubs to be had online, and suddenly our viewing was no longer limited by what we could afford to buy, making anime no longer scarce. Sales dropped for a while. We had some bad years.

What's interesting is that, now that simulcasts and streaming are common things, anime hasn't gotten scarce again, but people are still buying discs, for other reasons. Occasionally things go out of print, but that's seldom a motivating factor. There are other ways to get people to buy things.

But man, for a manufacturer, it's hard to pass up the opportunity for free hype and an almost guaranteed sell-out of an entire production run. It takes out so much of the uncertainty, the worry and the stress from a product launch. It eliminates a number of expenses. It might cost a few sales in the long term, but the money saved in efficiency and not having to discount later more than makes up for it.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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