G.I. Joe Meets the B-Boy: Introducing
the New Wave of Action Figures
By Kevin Skaggs
Store Name: KidRobot Store Location: 1512 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA
94117 Store Web Address: www.kidrobot.com Store Owner: Paul Budnitz
Walking inside San Francisco's KidRobot, you soon realize
that the action figures being sold within the glass cases are not like
the ones you grew up with. This is G.I. Joe gone urban as limited edition
collectibles, where eastern styling meets western graffiti art.
Paul Budnitz founded KidRobot.com in February 2002 after seeing how fast
vinyl figures created by Hong Kong artists were selling from an online
store he was running. "My employees had been collecting these toys,"
says Budnitz, "and I got more and more interested in them. I saw
that people were making such amazing things and just bought a ton of them.
A Hong Kong phenomenon was now becoming an American one."
As Budnitz walked up and down the Haight Ashbury district last winter,
it hit him that, in addition to an online store, he needed a retail space
where he could display and sell his toys. He began asking storeowners
along the Haight if they wanted to give up their leases and finally came
across an owner who was on his way out of his 350-square-foot space. KidRobot
now had a home outside cyberspace.
Though the store has been a success since its opening, the inherent challenge
of selling products with limited runs of 300 to 10,000 units lies in simply
keeping the toys in stock. When an action figure runs out, it's gone.
It's this limited quantity as well as the quality of the figures that
keep the price tags of some toys high at KidRobot. While the miniature
figures sell for around $5, the high-end, highly detailed 12" figures
sell for up to $250. The collectible stuff can sell for even more.
At KidRobot, you find action figures designed by Michael Lau and Eric
So, the Hong Kong artists who pioneered the new street style that defines
this category (Lau started off by putting new heads and cool clothing
on G.I. Joe figures and showing off his creations at toy fairs). In the
KidRobot store you also find dozens of unique miniature figures, some
designed by such well-known graffiti artists as Maze. The store also functions
as a pop art gallery, with paintings adorning its walls and hip-hop beats
drawing people in from the street.
Those drawn to KidRobot are generally the 13-and-over crowd, with adults
making up a good portion of the customer base. That includes San Francisco
local Robin Williams, who frequents the store and, according to Budnitz,
is a big collector of urban vinyl figures. "We've skewed male, but
we've changed our product mix with newer figures designed by women,"
says Budnitz. "We're also carrying more plush toys, such as the Ugly
Dolls, which are popular with girls and women."
KidRobot remains more than a retail outlet. With unique relationships
and exclusive distribution deals with independent Asian vendors, the company
derives much of its revenue through its role as wholesaler of urban vinyl
toys, supplying toys to such outlets as Urban Outfitters
and Tower Records. In addition, KidRobot is now manufacturing
its own line of toys, with five different figures now in the lineup. His
background in art, film and animation has also allowed Budnitz and his
friends to design some of the toys themselves.
Along with manufacturing their own toys, the company has another store
slated to open this summer in the Soho neighborhood of New York City—not
bad for a company that just opened its doors last October. G.I. Joe will
never be the same.
Writer's Bio: Kevin Skaggs is a San Francisco-based
writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Harvard Review.