The Empty Box

December 17, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

When I was a child, the two most unfriendly terms that came with Christmas morning gifts were "batteries not included" and "some assembly required." For the most part, my parents were good about having a small mountain of AA, AAA, C, and D cells around so nearly any toy could be accommodated. (These days, many toys come with an initial supply of batteries.) I can recall one Christmas, however, when something left under the tree demanded a 9-Volt battery, and there were none to be found in the house. For a while, it looked like I would have to wait until December 26 to play with the toy (an eternity for a child), but there was a 7/11 open nearby and they had 9-Volt batteries, so the day was saved.

Then, in 1977, something strange happened - not to me but to my next door neighbor. 1977, as most readers are aware, was the year of Star Wars. The movie created an unexpected firestorm of merchandising and no one (least of all Kenner, which owned the toy license) was prepared for the demand. For Christmas, every SW fan was clamoring for "action figures" (a.k.a., little plastic dolls with moving arms and legs), but they didn't yet exist. Some brilliant marketer had an idea: sell empty boxes with promissory notes that could be redeemed for the real action figures when they rolled off the assembly line. Parents loved this idea. Kids, not so much. Nevertheless, 600,000 of these "I.O.U." packages were purchased. In 1978, Kenner sold more than 42 million of the actual action figures.

The SW merchandise I got that Christmas was confined to towels and bed sheets. However, Tom (the guy next door) got an empty box. He was not as excited as his parents expected him to be. Ideas like "wait a few months" or "have patience" don't work too well with young boys, and there's not a lot of playing to be done with an empty box. It's worse than having no batteries when batteries are required and being unable to assemble something for which assembly is required. No matter how hard you shook the empty box upside down, nothing fell out except a few lousy stickers and a "membership card." It was a real bummer.

For the record, Tom got his Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and Chewbacca action figures the next spring, in (I believe) late March or early April. (Those were the four original figures for which the I.O.U.'s were valid.) I remember how excited he was the day they arrived in the mail, but by then Christmas was a long-dormant memory. I hardly ever slept on my SW sheets after those first few nights (they were too rough) and I had moved to a plusher bath towel. I didn't get my action figures until my birthday in September, by which time they were readily available. For the next Christmas (1978), my parents got me a bunch of the Cantina creatures, which were supposedly difficult to obtain. I think my mother ordered them through the Sears catalog, but I can't be sure. At any rate, come Christmas morning, I had toys to play with rather than an empty box.

Now, perhaps in honor of the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, this marketing approach has been exhumed. This time, it's for Nintendo's Wii. The problem for the video game system is that demand exceeds supply (more about that in a moment). So there are three possibilities for eager Santas: get something else for the kids, go through hoops to find a Wii (most likely possibility - pay about $200 over list for one on e-Bay), or go to Game Stop, which is offering "rain checks." What is a rain check? It's a promise that some time in January, there will be a real Wii available for anyone who pays in advance. But on Christmas morning, all that will be under the tree is an empty box. Want to make matters worse? Buy the kids a game that they can't use until the Wii arrives. Now, their Christmas morning consists of an empty box and a game they can't play. That bummer makes my friend's absent SW figures seem like a dose of good cheer.

One has to wonder about the intelligence of the executives at Nintendo. They have a winner on their hands and they've blown it. Estimates are that they will lose up to $1.3 billion in sales because of equipment shortfalls. That money will fall into the outstretched hands of Sony (PS3) and Microsoft (XBOX 360). What's hard to fathom is how this has gone on for so long. This was an understandable problem last Christmas, when the console was new. But a year later...? Given twelve long months, how could production not have been ramped up to meet demand? Now, people are simply giving up. That's a marketing strategy worth trying: underproduce the unit, frustrate would-be buyers, then offer them an empty box for under the Christmas tree. Way to go, Nintendo.

No matter how hot a toy or video game system might be, here's a rule of thumb: it's better to have something tangible in that neatly wrapped package, even if it's not #1 on the wish list, than it is to have an box full of promises and I.O.U.'s.