This is also seriously tl;dr, especially if you don't collect figures. Even if you do, you may just want to skip to the end.
Everyone has an opinion on what the cheapest places to get figures from are. The problem is that the support for these opinions tends to be anecdotal or based on a tiny sample, limiting their credibility. In the absence of anything better to do with my time, I decided to compare a decent number of figures (not as many as I'd like, but I'm still working on it) across a few different stores and see what conclusions I could draw.
At this stage, the only variable I've taken a serious look at is figure pricing, with a somewhat less thorough look at selection/availability and shipping costs.
I decided to look at five different figure sites, chosen for what I considered to be their perceived popularity and size. I didn't include any stores aimed mainly at the American domestic market as I did not see them offering me (as an Australian) very competitive prices or ranges compared to the stores with an international focus. I initially included an Australian-based store but decided to drop it after the results showed it not being even close to competitive. I also chose not to include eBay stores due to their questionable authenticity, nor did I include second-hand stores as I consider that market to be very separate from the new figure market.
- AmiAmi - You've all heard of this one. They're the largest online retailer in the Japanese market, and they've only been selling internationally for a relatively short amount of time.
- Hobby Search - another large Japanese online retailer (second biggest I believe). They have been selling internationally for quite a while now.
- Hobby Link Japan - these guys are another big store, and they've been around forever. They sell a wide range of non-anime modelling goods too.
- Otacute - a much smaller operation, although they're probably the best-known store that stocks exclusives.
- Play-Asia - not as popular among the /jp/ community due to them being thought of as expensive, but well known amongst the wider internet community as they stock a lot of asian games and music as well.
Much as I'd like to claim all figures to be compared were chosen randomly and all that good statistical stuff, that's not the case. Figures were selected by me from the Featured Items lists at each of the sites, with a focus on picking figures that were stocked at most of the stores. The focus was on price here, not selection. I made an effort to somewhat diversify the figures I picked to compare, meaning not too many from the one series or manufacturer. Having said that, GSC did end up a bit over-represented in the results. The figures were split roughly 50/50 between preorders and in-stock items.
Since Otacute and Play-Asia charge in US dollars, I converted the prices for these stores into yen for the sake of comparison. I used Google’s midmarket rates at the time, which were 83 JPY to 1 USD. The rates will almost definitely have shifted since then but in general a strengthening of the USD makes Otacute and Play-Asia worse value, and a weakening of the USD makes them better value. This only really applies to their existing stock as they presumably take the current exchange rate into account when listing new products.
Hobby Search is listed twice due to their loyalty program. With the program, every purchase is worth a certain amount of points, which translates into an equivalent discount on the next purchase. The potential saving from this is not large but it is significant, so I have decided to factor it into the price. If you consider figure purchases as largely standalone and/or do not plan on being a consistent customer of Hobby Search then look at the base price. Otherwise, use the loyalty program price.
Since prices vary hugely between figures, I decided to do all price comparisons as a percentage. Specifically, the percentage cheaper that the given figure is from the recommended retail price. This measurement is given on the page by AmiAmi and HLJ but I calculated it myself for all figures and sites.
I'll upload the excel file later maybe. It's a complete mess right now though.
|Figure 1: prices per store as a mean percentage discount from recommended retail price (n=30)|
This is the most simplistic way of looking at things. When all the prices are thrown in together and averaged, as can be seen in Figure 1, AmiAmi comes out ahead. Hobby Search takes a clear second place, regardless of whether their loyalty point discount is considered or not, and Play-Asia trails the rest by far, actually costing more than RRP on average. With this exception, all stores are at least 5% cheaper than retail price.
|Figure 2: Percentage of figures that were cheaper than RRP|
Figure 2 again paints a fairly broad picture. All figures at HS and AmiAmi were less than RRP, and nearly all from HLJ were as well. Otacute was at about 50% with Play-Asia trailing again. It should be noted that this graph doesn't show how much below or above RRP any of these stores are, and that any figures that were sitting right on RRP as well as those above it were considered as one.
|Figure 3: Percent saving from RRP by quartile|
I chopped the data into quartiles to make the spread a little more obvious in figure 3. For those not familiar with boxplots: the pink box shows the range of the middle 50% of prices, and the lines above and below show the cheapest and most expensive 25% respectively. If these are all pretty close, the percentage saving is pretty consistent across all items, while the opposite holds true if they're spread out a lot.
HLJ's case is interesting in this graph, and bears explanation. Nearly all HLJ's figures have a 10% discount, which as you can see here accounts for over half their figures. The only other discount amounts they offer are 15%, 5% and 0% (e.g. many Nendoroids were not at all discounted at HLJ).
Otacute's wide variation is what prompted me to look into separating out preorders and looking at them separately.
|Figure 4: Prices as mean discount from RRP, considering preorders separately. Error bars are one standard deviation each way.|
Figure 4, I think, is the most useful image here. The most apparent observation for me was that preorders are cheaper across the board (except for Play-Asia, but by this stage it's already been established that they're not really a contender). The difference is pretty minimal at AmiAmi, but is overwhelming at Otacute. From this you can see that they're actually cheaper for preorders than HLJ yet almost as expensive as Play-Asia for stocked items.
HLJ has a pretty high standard deviation for stocked items but, as explained above, this is due to their discount amounts being in multiples of 5%. As we saw in figure 3, most of HLJ's stock is sold at 10% off RRP, meaning most of their stocked goods are the same price as at Hobby Search (not counting HS' loyalty bonus).
I forgot to include HS' loyalty bonus here, which would add around 2% to their % saving.
This is worth mentioning, at least in passing. All stores (except Play-Asia, but again they're not really in the running here) offer SAL and EMS shipping. AmiAmi and Otacute offer registered SAL at ¥410 extra. All SAL shipping is done for all sites at the Japan Post rates, so aside from minor differences in packaging it'll cost you the same from wherever. If you get figures shipped by SAL, all stores are equal.
EMS is also done at Japan Post rates at all stores except for HLJ, which offers a flat 20% discount. If you get figures shipped by EMS then, in regards to shipping cost only, HLJ is the cheapest option. However, as previously shown, HLJ is not the cheapest in terms of figure price. Assuming an average discount of 20% at AmiAmi and 10% at HLJ, HLJ becomes cheaper when the HLJ shipping cost is at least 45% of the HLJ figure cost. I give this in terms of HLJ since AmiAmi doesn't give estimate shipping costs. If HLJ offers a higher discount (i.e. 15%) then they become cheaper much faster, at around the point of shipping being 25% of the figure price.
Selection's a bit of a crapshoot since it is so volatile. There are some general rules as to who stocks what though: Otacute is the only store out of the five to stock exclusives, while AmiAmi and Otacute together stock some product lines (namely Touhou figures) that the other three stores do not.
I approached selection with the perspective that, no matter whether the store had previously stocked an item, it had to be available to order now to count as being available. I ran a search for a number of characters/series on all stores, and counted the number of PVC figures (inc. figmas and nendoroids, exc. prize figures, plushies, vinyl, nendo petite) that were either in stock or available for preorder. In the case of Otacute, backordered stock was considered as not available. I'm not really sure whether that was the right course of action or not, since I don't know how likely it is that Otacute will fill their backorders.
The series/characters I searched were Touhou, Ore no Imouto, Strike Witches, Hatsune Miku, Saber, Angel Beats, Railgun, K-On!, Haruhi and Bakemonogatari.
|Figure 5: mean percentage availability per series. The 100% mark was defined per series as the number of items stocked by the store with the most selection for that series.|
The results are listed with and without Touhou as it's known that most of the stores don't stock any Touhou figures so I wasn't sure whether it was appropriate to include it knowing that. I think it's more reasonable to exclude it since, if you want Touhou, you already know that you won't get it from, say, HLJ, so you aren't going to look there in the first place.
Continuing on from that perspective then, HLJ has the best selection/availability. It's possible that the reason behind this is that it tends to be more expensive so people preferentially buy from other sources, but I don't think it's very relevant.
Overall, this section has a lot less basis than the pricing sections. The data only represent a snapshot of stock, and to make it more credible I'd have to repeat these searches over an extended period (separating it into preorder and stock items wouldn't hurt either). Will I? Probably not, that sounds like a lot of effort.
AmiAmi has the cheapest figures by a margin of at least 5% across the board. This increases to around 10% if we only consider stocked items. In addition to this, they have the second best selection for popular series (the best if you count Touhou) and - though I haven't previously mentioned this - they tend to list new figures the fastest, though this advantage is measured only in hours to days.
Otacute's preorder prices are decent, though their prices for stocked items are not. Americans may be able to get a better deal out of them based on fluctuations in the exchange rate, but that's neither here nor there. They have a good selection, and are your only option out of the stores mentioned here for certain exclusive figures.
Hobby Search is competitively priced for preorders, almost rivalling AmiAmi if you factor in the loyalty bonus. They aren't as good for stocked items, both in terms of price and selection. Their loyalty bonus comes out at 2-3% of the figure cost, which is a significant amount if you plan to regularly buy from them, but even with it AmiAmi is cheaper.
HLJ is pretty middling in terms of price, especially with preorders where the average 10% off just doesn't cut it against AmiAmi or HS. For stocked items they still lag behind AmiAmi considerably, but they draw close to HS. Considering they have the best selection for stocked items, they would probably be the next place to look after AmiAmi. Their shipping rates may make them the best choice overall if you want EMS, and the figure is large and heavy - if shipping is likely to come close to half the figure price then HLJ becomes the cheapest option. I get the impression HLJ will become more competitive for stocked items as their "Our Price" system expands, but we'll have to wait and see.
Play-Asia shouldn't be considered for buying figures from. Though their selection isn't the worst, you'll end up paying a lot more than you have to, and in most cases you'll actually pay more than RRP.
AmiAmi is the cheapest overall by a fair bit. Next is Hobby Search, then Otacute (for preorders), then HLJ, then Otacute (stocked items), then Play-Asia. Don't buy from Play-Asia.
The exception to this is getting big figures shipped by EMS, in which case HLJ will end up being cheaper if the shipping costs come to about half the cost of the figure itself. If you use SAL, AmiAmi is cheaper regardless of weight.
Don't despair if you can't get the figure you want from AmiAmi, there's a good chance it'll be available at HLJ or Otacute, even if you have to pay a bit more for it.
If you want exclusives, Otacute's your only option out of these stores. Try to preorder, as Otacute's preorders are a lot cheaper than their stocked items.