On-line vs. Bricks and Mortar - How do you buy your toys? 
Posted 11/15/00

Once upon a time, there was only bricks and mortar.  Toy collectors had to hop on the bus, or jump on their bike, or slip behind the wheel and tool on over to their local store to obtain the plastic objects of their desire.  But that's no longer the only option, and often it's no longer the best option.

With the advent of the on-line commerce, toy stores quickly adapted to the new medium.  Major retailers like Toys R Us and Kaybee quickly put up web sites, along with new comers like Etoys and Hasbro  While they've had varying levels of success, they haven't put the bricks and mortar stores out of business yet.

So what's the best way to buy toys?  Is there a best way?  And what's the pros and cons to each?  I'll discuss my opinion on the subject in the next few paragraphs. 

There are several main areas that every shopper has always considered when making a purchase - cost, customer service, store location, and product availability.  With e-commerce, another consideration came into play - transaction security.  And for toy collectors in particular, the condition of the packaging is something that matters to a certain segment.

Cost:  Number one consideration then and now - how much does it cost?  Most B&M stores have similar prices to on-line stores, and poor on-line stores have to suffer the additional burden of shipping.  That means that a lot of the time, the on-line stores will end up more expensive than the average B&M store.

But they aren't stupid, and they realize this is the case.  Free shipping deals are very common, particularly when you buy a certain amount of goods.  Along with that, there are some terrific coupons and specials at most on-line stores.  Wise on-line buyers find many ways to reduce the cost of their figures, and have found that using discounts, group buying and gift certificates that they can purchase their figures at or below retail cost, even with shipping.

Even when , finding the figures at a B&M store can be almost impossible, and if you add in the cost of your aggravation, gas and time, paying slightly more on-line turns out to be not such a bad deal after all.  So when it comes to cost, I'd say it's a wash.

Customer Service:  When buying at your usual B&M, there are several areas of customer support that people assume.  The ability to easily return is one of the top ones, and they certainly have that over on-line stores.  Returning incorrect or poor merchandise is difficult at best.  Originally, Toys R Us allowed folks to return on-line purchases at their B&M stores - not so any longer.

Add to that the difficulty getting basic questions answered, promising items that aren't in stock or even exist yet, making billing errors, and what is perceived as an overall bad attitude toward customers, and it's pretty clear that the B&M stores currently have one up on the on-line stores when it comes to customer service.

Store Location:  Location, location, location - not only the chant for real estate, retailers have long known that having the right location makes all the difference in the world.  Unfortunately for many folks (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the big stores like Toys R Us, Target, Walmart or Kaybee aren't easily accessible.  For those folks, the on-line versions are tremendously helpful.  How can location be better than right in your own home?

For on-line stores, part of 'location' is not just being on the net, but how easy they are to find and use.  The biggies have overcome that situation, but for the smaller mom and pop shops, getting listed high on the search engines is as important as getting that corner store at the most popular intersection.

Not only is the individual store locations better on-line, but the options are better as well.  While most cities have only one or two major comic shops, dozens and dozens are available to you on-line.  Since many action figures are being sold predominately or sometimes only through these outlets, shopping on-line becomes almost necessary.  When it comes to location, on-line stores get the nod.

Product Availability:  I've already mentioned that some items are far easier to get on-line, particularly Diamond releases.  But other than that, on-line stores normally do not have the same level of availability that local stores do.

When it comes to shortpacks, or extremely popular figures, finding them on-line can actually be easier than finding them at retail locations near you since you have far more stores to shop.  But when it comes to 'average' items, usually the retail stores have a much greater selection.  And on top of that, on-line stores often get their items up on the sites later than the retail stores get them on the shelves.

Considering the variability from item to item, store to store, I'd say that product availability is another dead heat.

Transaction Security: For B&M stores, the security of your credit card or the transaction is rarely in question.  But with the boom in e-commerce, the security of your transaction is paramount.  Many people still worry about hackers and thieves getting access to their card information and running up huge bills.  It's been a major concern of all e-tailers, and combating that opinion has been a top priority.

They've come a long way, but aren't there completely yet.  Some people still worry that their transactions aren't safe, and don't want to take the risk.  Because of this, I have to give this one to the B&M retailers.

Product Condition:  Worrying about the condition of packaging is something that normally only MOMC or MIB collectors concern themselves with.  Since you can select the figure and package you want when at the local store, you have the opportunity to pick the package you want.  Buying on-line doesn't mean you won't get decent packaging, but it does mean you have to take a risk.  For small stores, after buying from them once or twice you can get a feel for whether or not you can expect decent packaging.  From the larger e-tailers it's usually a crap shoot.

For those that care about packaging, it's hard to beat the B&M retailers.  But for those that don't, this whole topic is pretty much mute.

So which is better?  As you can see, it's a toss up.  Each collector has to decide what works best for them, and often that can depend heavily on what they collect, how they collect, and even the individual figure itself.  So what works for you?  I'd love to hear your opinions!
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