Hasbro's Short-Toy Shortage WHY JOHNNY CAN'T COLLECT
By Herb Greenberg

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Frequently asked question No. 5 on Hasbro's official Starting Lineup Website asks why the toymaker allows the miniature sports collectibles to be sold "out the back door." It might as well have said "under the table" or "for a bribe" or something along those lines, because that's about the only way you can get your hands on rookies or superstars that have been immortalized in plastic under the Starting Lineup umbrella. While there's little in the way of proof, the buzz among collectors is that for years dealers have been slipping store clerks cash for holding back the most popular names, or for giving them a heads-up on the arrival of a new shipment. "You can always find some stock clerk who'll take $50 to put some aside," if not buy them up himself, says Mark White, editor of White's Guide to Collecting Figures.

Jim Fishel, an Alexandria, Va., music-industry executive, actually saw a clerk at a Toys "R" Us near his home stash a large box of Starting Lineups under the courtesy counter. When Fishel approached hoping for a Ken Griffey Jr., "she said that I was mistaken" about there being a box at all. "But when I refused to leave, she then opened the box and gave me Albert Belle."

Out-the-back-door sales are a growing problem with all types of toy collectibles, but they're particularly troublesome with Starting Lineup. Ironically, Starting Lineup almost flopped when it was first rolled out by Kenner Toys in 1988. Kenner, which has since been acquired by Hasbro, simply produced too many of the pint-sized (about 3 1/2 inches) football, baseball, basketball, and hockey figures. For the brand to survive, production was cut back, and shortages developed--or were encouraged, a cynic might say. Then the dealers starting getting into the act, and prices started to zoom, pushing the price for a first-edition Steve Young that retails for $7.99 to as much as $300.

Toys "R" Us officials say any employees caught taking money from dealers will be fired. As for Hasbro, its official response to question No. 5 is that "unfortunately," the situation is out of its control. "Once we have delivered the product to the retailers, we cannot dictate how it is distributed to their customers." Try telling that to a kid who wonders why the only players he can find are the ones he doesn't even want.

--Herb Greenberg

HERB GREENBERG is senior columnist at thestreet.com. E-mail: herb@thestreet.com