Thursday, March 29, 2012

Episode 7: The Rise of Inflation

Inflation.  It’s a scary word, one that brings with it thoughts of financial hardship, unemployment, and recession.  The idea that the value of fiat (paper) currency is relative, and that external factors affects its purchasing power, can be a troubling thought.  While I might spend time outside my room contemplating the financial future of our country, however, there’s little room for concepts like inflation inside my closet full of action figures, video games and pop-culture nostalgia.  Or is there? 

A few weeks ago, Target was again blowing out Star Wars toys on clearance.  This time, the prices were the lowest I‘d seen for a modern day action figure ($2.36).  As you can tell from previous posts, I relish the opportunity to snag items on clearance.  The spirit of the yard sale is all about the hunt, so it’s no surprise I look for other opportunities to find good deals.  It was an easy decision to buy up what they had, but it got me thinking about just how good of deal it really was.  Would I ever find toys cheaper?   The answer, it turns out, has to do with inflation.

The toys I bought, Star Wars: The Clone Wars action figures, were released by Hasbro in February 2011 with an initial MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) of $7.99 USD.  (Here’s the press release with their description).  Although the final clearance price of $2.36 represents a 70% discount, I found several clearance stickers underneath that suggest a steady level of decline.  Because clearance stickers have no noticeable date indicators (at least without intimate knowledge of Target SKUs), I can only estimate the dates for the price drops and assume the toys were priced at MSRP through the 2011 holiday season:

Shortly after the New Year, the toy’s price was cut 40% ($4.96).  Successive price drops to $3.94, $3.47 and finally $2.36 means the price decreased roughly 10% every 2 ½ -3 weeks. Although interesting information, the question remains: what does this have to do with inflation?
I decided to compare these numbers with pricing for an original Star Wars action figure, one produced in 1983 by Kenner toys.  I choose a Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Rancor Keeper (No. 71350) from my collection because it has a clearance tag along with the original price sticker.  Sears priced the toy at $2.99, which works out to $6.66 adjusted for inflation (see here for a cool CPI calculator).  It was then reduced to $1.49, or $3.32 in today’s dollars.  Although the toy was not discounted multiple times before purchase, the data we do have suggests a similarity in the way both toys were discounted.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Mace Windu (2011)
Discounted Price
Percent of MSRP

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Rancor Keeper (1983)
Discounted Price*
Percent of MSRP
(*adjusted for Inflation)

Separated by 28 years, an annual inflation rate of 2.90% and higher petroleum costs*(the action figures themselves are made of plastic, which comes from oil), the difference in how much both toys were discounted is only one half of one percent (0.54%).

What does that mean?  For starters, the data suggests toys are discounted today the same way they were back in the 1980s.  It’s entirely possible I will be able to walk into a Target store five years from now and buy clearance toys at 70% off.  Unfortunately, the data also suggests the toy will be more expensive (or rather, my dollar will be worth less).  Both toys are the same size, made from the same materials and packaged similarly, but the MSRP increased $1.33 (20%).  Even a 2% annual inflation rate over the next five years suggests the toy price could jump to $8.99, which translates to $2.70 at 70% off.

Barring a significant change in world monetary policy, it looks I will never again find toys this cheap.  It’s a sobering thought, but it’s comforting to know that bargain hunting will be alive and well.  I guess that means this blog could be too…

(*Some economists argue that oil prices can directly influence inflation.  Known as cost-push inflation, this can lead to an increase in the cost of consumer goods such as toys.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

And So It Begins...

For many people, mid-March is all about college basketball and a celebration of all things Irish*.  For me, the advent of Daylight Saving Time along with milder temperatures signifies the start of the yard-saling season. 

It is always a welcome sight to see garage sale signs taped to power poles, and Craigslist chock-full of listings for community rummage sales and mommy markets.  Part of the fun is planning a route prior to the big day that uses time and distance to maximize the number of stops.  Because most yard sales happen between the hours of 8-12pm, more locations equal a better chance of scoring something good.  Although Internet listings sometimes provide details about the items up for sale, a general rule of thumb is quantity over quality. 

It is with that mindset that I put together this week’s itinerary, which included a community yard sale roughly (30) minutes away.  Although this is slightly further than I normally travel, the extra distance proved to be worth it.  The haul was not large, but it falls in line with another tenant of yard-saling: when it comes to buying, focus on quality rather than quantity.  Unless you plan to immediately re-sell the bulk of your finds (as I did last year), you need to have space in your own home for all these ‘treasures’ (no sense moving it from one attic to another).  It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the hunt and fork over cash until your car trunk looks like a pawn shop.  I stuck to my guns today and only picked up a few choice movie memorabilia items:
Week One – March 17th, 2012
Est. Value*
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Motion Picture Soundtrack on Vinyl (45 single also stuffed inside jacket)
Very Good
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Souvenir Magazine
Gremlins Souvenir Magazine

(*Est. Values primarily come from EBay, where buy-it-now prices are used if no active auctions are found)

John William’s score for Close Encounters is a masterpiece that provides a strong, emotional anchor to the film’s awe-inspiring visuals.  Although the album is fairly common, it’s nice to find one in such good shape (especially with the 45 RPM ‘complimentary single’ that includes the main theme).

The souvenir magazine for Close Encounters is gushing with praise for the film, although that’s hardly surprising given the film’s tremendous box office success (just six months after the release of Star Wars).  It’s easy to forget the cultural impact Close Encounters had back in the late 1970s**.  Unlike today’s marketing-driven ‘blockbusters’, Close Encounters was considered an event to be witnessed, something more akin to a religious or spiritual experience.  Its positive message that ‘we are not alone’ unified moviegoers like never before, prompting reviewer Paul Clemens to suggest “Close Encounters of the Third Kind is quite possibly the most important film of our time.”

The magazine for Gremlins uses photos, production sketches and behind the scenes details to tell the ‘complete’ story of the movie.  Although the film was a commercial and critical success, its violent imagery was one of the factors that led the MPAA to update its rating system to include a PG-13 designation

*It just so happens my mother-in-law’s birthday is also March 17th.  As a young girl growing up in New York, she would watch the yearly St. Patrick’s Day parade with the satisfaction the parade was for her.

**When the American Film Institute (A.F.I.) released a list of the top 100 films back in 1998, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was number 64.  When the list was updated ten years later, it was removed from the list entirely.  Perhaps not so important after all…

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Now You See It...

I still remember the day I received my first handheld video game console.  It was April 15th, 1990, and my parents and I made our annual trek to my grandparents’ house for Easter Sunday (there's something ironic about Easter falling on tax day, but I digress).  I'm not ashamed to admit my grandmother spoiled me rotten (God rest her soul), and she rarely missed an opportunity to shower me with gifts*.  Easter was no exception, and I was always guaranteed a large, colorful basket brimming with jelly beans, Marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Crème Eggs.  As I wandered their house munching a peep (slowly working my way into a sugar coma), I discovered a far more interesting surprise waiting for me; resting neatly on my grandfather's computer chair was a brand new Nintendo Game Boy.  An avid computer user even to this day, my grandfather loves technology and was quick to stoke that interest in me.  The Game Boy was still relatively new then (US launch was August 1989), so perhaps my aunt and uncle clued him in (tech savvy themselves, they each held a post at Microsoft at one time).  Whatever the reason, my grandfather decided it was an opportune time to get me one and to say I was excited is a bit of an understatement.  The package included Tetris, arguably the most addictive game of all time (sorry Angry Birds), and so the rest of the events of that day are pretty fuzzy. I do remember crouching in the corner of their basement, pumping the contrast way up to see the 2.6" monochrome screen under the dim office light.  It was an amazing gift, only my 2nd video game system overall (after the Sega Master System), and I practically played the buttons off that thing.

Why do I mention that now? Roughly two weeks ago, I scored a NeoGeo Pocket Color handheld off EBay, and it finally arrived Monday night.  While it’s true I’m still enjoying my shiny, new PlayStation Vita, I never miss any opportunity to collect another defunct video game console (particularly if it's inexpensive).  My NeoGeo arcade cabinet helped me develop a fondness for SNK properties, and I was naturally curious to see what games like Metal Slug and King of Fighters would be like on the small screen.  Although largely ignored by US consumers and ultimately eclipsed by the Gameboy Advance in Japan, the NeoGeo Pocket Color was a portable powerhouse when it released in 1999. Sporting a full color screen, the 16bit console had extensive battery life (40hrs+ on 2 AAs) and a respective library of games. It even offered connectivity with the then newly released Sega Dreamcast.

My expectations upon receiving it were tempered, but I was eager to test it out.  When I turned it on for the first time, however, I knew something was wrong.  The music was loud and clear, but the screen was barely visible.  I was also staring at the system/settings menu; the included game (Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure) wouldn't load.  Past experience with cartridge-based consoles gave me the foresight to clean the contacts and re-seat the game. This eventually got Sonic going, but the console mascot known as the blue blur** was exactly that; very hard to see.  I swapped the batteries to no avail, and then finally hit the web assuming it was a bad backlight.  It was then that I discovered the horrible truth; to preserve the long battery life, SNK did not include a backlight.  Rushing back to the console, I turned it over in my hands to find a contrast dial/button; to my surprise, there was none. Perhaps years of backlit screens have spoiled me to a point where I can no longer go back to squinting, but this seems like an obvious design flaw. The 2bit olive-green graphics of the original Game Boy were undoubtedly hard to make out in low-light, but the contrast control made it usable.

...Now You Don't.
As a last ditch effort, I turned on all the lights and angled the NeoGeo screen away from me enough to make out the graphics.  Not surprisingly, Sonic looks good; the colors are sharp and action is fast.  The d-nub and action buttons are also sturdy and deliver precise control.  I even get through two levels before giving up.  The device is simply too hard to see.

My eyesight has never been good, and it would be easy for me to blame them.  That said, I think I understand now why the console failed to supplant the Game Boy in the portable gaming space.  While I don't regret the purchase, I am certainly disappointed in the end result.  My Neo Geo arcade cabinet is a loud, boisterous, backlit mecca of gaming goodness.  The NeoGeo Pocket Color is like its shy, reclusive younger brother. 

(*I was the kid who got presents on Valentine’s Day.  Seriously.)
(**Sonic junkies should check out, a website dedicated to all things hedgehog.)