Over the last decade, as smartphones and tablets infiltrated households all over, observers have continually pondered the fate of the traditional toy industry. Who really wants bobbleheads in the era of the digital metaverse?
Lots of people, it turns out — and fervent collectors most of all. While physical toy companies may be ceding a portion of their profits to the likes of Candy Crush and Snapchat these days, they’re largely still in business, and the market for their older, rare or discontinued items is absolutely booming.
Consider the case of the Funko Pop, a line of cheerful statuettes, ranging in size from a kid’s palm to a Dodge Ram tire, themed to striking moments in pop culture and entertainment. You might not recognize the name — which can first conjure a niche music genre or a crystallized candy — but you certainly have seen the highly stylized toys, with their expressive eyebrows and audacious head-to-appedange proportions, out in the wild.
There are Funko Pops for the cartoon character Betty Boop, for the cereal Cap’n Crunch, for the British sci-fi series Doctor Who. There are Pops of Dumbo, of Dragon Ball Z, of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, of Jimi Hendrix; there are Pops exclusive to in-person conventions; there are Pops of Marvel, DC, and Star Wars characters, often in different poses, carrying varied props.
Of course, in keeping with the axiom of most things in the world in and outside of consumer industries, the most tough-to-find items end up being the most valuable. A Buzz Lightyear Freddy Funko Pop, released only at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, is going for about $4000 on eBay. A Pop authentically autographed by the comic-book titan Stan Lee can easily soar into five digits. The most expensive Funko Pop sale on record so far has been some reported $13,000 eBay sales of a glow-in-the-dark Alex DeLarge Clockwork Orange Funko Pop, differentiated largely by the fact that the character is not holding a cane, unlike in the more mainstream versions, where he is.
Funko is a Washington-based company that came into being in 1998, when toy collector Mike Becker licensed the rights of the Big Boy restaurant chain’s chubby, grinning, pompadour-haired mascot to create coin banks. Becker then expanded the business to produce figurines based on other advertising characters like Popeye.
The company has only been selling the Pop line (officially called “Funko Pop! Vinyl”) for the last ten years or so. The company debuted Pops of fan-favorite fictional characters by showcasing them at local comic conventions, and in 2012, just a year into the line, merchandise sales of the cutesy top-heavy figurines already exceeded $20 million.
Don’t call them dolls, marionettes, or bobbleheads; they’re simply and uniquely “Pops.” (The majority of Pops do not actually bobble, anyway. Two rare exceptions can be found in the Marvel and Star Wars lines, which do involve heads that bobble, in order to avoid impinging on the stationary Marvel and Star Wars lines sold by competitor company Hasbro.)
Today, the Pop line comprises more than 8,000 different figures, and it accounts for some 80 percent of Funko’s annual $686 million net sales. Under CEO Brian Mariotti, to whom Becker sold the company, Funko maintains licensing deals with myriad companies including Disney and Major League Baseball, churning new toys out onto store aisles at a furious clip. But these toys usually retail for $10 to $25, and it’s still the older, most infrequently encountered Funko Pops that command top dollar.
That pattern is not anomalous in the broader toy landscape. Plug “old toys worth a lot of money” into a search engine and it’ll unearth thousands of stray items from the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s — many of them dirt-cheap and unextraordinary at the time, purchased on whims by parents for their unsuspectingly lucky kids — that are now worth as much as a brand-new Mercedes-Benz SUV with all the works and a custom paint job. What may have once been considered junk is now hunted for treasure. A scarce first-edition Pokémon card can feed a family for a year. Some toy collectors make a professional career out of cashing in: Funko reseller Miguel Rivera recently told Insider he makes between $1,000 and $4,000 each night hosting live-streamed auctions of around 94 Pops per night, and has amassed $40,648 since December.
In 2020, amid the prolonged Covid-19 lockdown, U.S. toy sales rose 16 percent, according to the research firm NPD. But it bears noting that video game sales rose 25 percent over the same period, and consumer research suggests screen-based media is poised for even greater growth spurts. Perhaps the thrilling evolution of digital apparati will eventually curtail demand for action figures, statuettes, and bobbleheads enough that their manufacturers decide to throw in the towel. If that happens, and traditional toys go defunct, then you can expect the worth of old Funko Pops to absolutely hit the stratosphere.