Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Funny And Eventful Trip To The Lego Store...

While at a training conference I decided to have a look at Disneyland which was located right across the street from my hotel.  This fairly simple mission turned into a very funny episode.

I had no previous knowledge of the area so I just followed the fence until I saw what appeared to be the entrance.  As I was exploring the area around the monorail I came across the very large Lego store that is part of the “Downtown Disney” complex which is a large shopping area just outside the gates which is open to the public.  As I had not been in such a store since my dad and I went to Mall of America back in I believe 1995 and I had time to spare I went in.  My childlike enjoyment in looking at models created by the Lego Masters has apparently not abated and I was enjoying myself substantially as I did a lap around the perimeter of the shop.  In most respects it was nearly identical to the Mall of America store, dioramas of recent sets, colorful displays and the requisite life size Darth Vader model with sound effects and all.  However, as I came to the back of the store I observed something that had not been in my previous Lego Store experience.  It was called the Pick-A-Brick wall.  I immediately saw the genius of it.  In an alcove 20 feet wide the wall was lined with probably 30 wall mounted containers each housing thousands of loose bricks (each bin with its own type of brick).  It was obviously modeled after a candy store as the bricks were of a variety of shapes and colors.  I passed a quick critical eye over the offerings and my 23 years of training allowed me to quickly see what was going on here.  Whoever came up with this was a genius, the potential for ripping off unsuspecting parents was almost a guarantee.  The offerings were haphazard at best and almost unethical at worst, I immediately for example spotted the cabinet door pieces, without the matching cabinet pieces being offered (yay little Jonny can have 50 cabinet doors!) and, I kid you not half of a hinge piece.  Most of the other bins contained brightly colored but very small pieces (headlights in 6 different colors took up 6 of the bins) obviously meant for little hands to run around enamored with the colors and the ability to take handfuls of what would prove to be worthless bricks later on while parents who didn’t know any better watched oblivious.  With the delight of the kids and the obliviousness of the parents I suppose it all works out as the majority of the pieces being offered must cost Lego less than a penny to produce so everyone wins in their minds. 

Having surveyed this I asked the next logical question: how does this system work, namely how are the pieces quantified?  By weight?  By (God forbid) counting?  Then I saw the display and the cups.  Yes it was by cup, essentially an all you can eat Lego café.  Whatever you could get into one of the two cup sizes (small and large) you got to take.  As I mentally saluted Lego for their brilliant money making scheme and turned to go I noticed a bin at the bottom… and stopped in my tracks.  Surely this must have been a mistake.  To understand my shock you must understand a basic about Lego building.  When you go to buy a Lego set what you see on the box is the “final layer” if you will.  Every set contains on their outermost cool looking pieces that add detail and character.  But beneath those are two basic kinds of bricks: blocks and plates.  In order to build any sort of large model you have to have a ton of those two types in various sizes.  Small blocks and plates are easily found but the large ones mean dropping at a minimum $50 on a set, anything smaller just doesn’t get large enough to require them.  This is especially true of plates.  The holy grail of Lego plates is the 6x16 stud plate and to get one of those you are going to have to drop some serious coin.  I collected Lego sets my entire childhood (and in the interest of honesty perhaps a set or two or 10 or 20 after my childhood that I thought was really cool even as an adult…) and have maybe 25 of them.  Or shall I say that was as many as I had before yesterday. 

Yes in that bottom bin, and in the basic universal grey color (thank God not the new puke green), were 6x16 plates.  I couldn’t believe it.  Realizing this was a chance to add sizeable capital to my collection and allow my own kids to more easily create mammoth creations I grabbed one of the large cups and surveyed it.  About that time one of the employees came up.  Apparently it is a rare thing to have someone my age not accompanied by a kid in the pick-a-brick section.  We ended up talking and I explained how I had been collecting for over 2 decades etc.  He was genuinely interested and asked me a variety of questions.  At the end of the conversation he, noticing the large cup in my hand, informed me that the bricks did not have to be loose in the cup as I had assumed.  So real quick let me sum up the components of this situation:

Engineer + Rare Rectangular Plate Bricks + Round Cup = Craziness

I started building.  The cup was designed so as to make the user fail.  It was noticeably larger at the top than the bottom, purposefully structured to be as unreceptive to square and rectangular shapes as possible.  Fortunately when I was about 13 I embarked to mimic the Lego Masters by building round shapes, and I had gotten fairly decent at it.  Over the next hour (yes I stood there for that long) I constructed what ultimately amounted to a plug.  Like the engineer’s in Apollo 13 I constructed a round shape out of square objects to go into a round hole.  When I finished it had packed that space so perfectly that it almost didn’t make that “Lego Brick” noise when shaken despite the loose bricks I had packed into the empty spaces and was in so tight that if you flipped it upside down nothing fell out. 

But what made it interesting and ultimately hilarious was that I drew a crowd.  Kids curious about what I was doing came to watch.  Parents followed.  I started giving advice on what bricks were deals and what ones were not.  Kids began to consult with me on their selections before putting them in their cups and dads started copying some of the shapes I was constructing.  Lego should have given me a commission I sold so many of those cups.  Parents who would not have bought grabbed cups and others who were just going to get one got two.  I got question after question, it was like I had my own production in that little alcove, one set of parents even asked me to pose with their kid for a picture each holding our cups.  More and more people came over to see what was going on, it was crazy.  Parents were calling me the Lego Master Guy.  It was a lot of fun.

In the end I walked out with two of these cups ($16 a cup).  When I got back to the hotel room I just had to know how good of a deal I had gotten.  As it turned out I blew even my own expectations.  I knew that Lego has the pick-a-brick wall equivalent on their website.  The selection is far more vast but of course online the cost is by count not by cupful.  I counted the pieces and found that I had packed over 50 of those plates into my cups and with the other select pieces I had chosen to fill in the empty spaces, walked out of there with just under 1000 bricks.  But the kicker was when I entered those bricks into the website.  If I had bought the same lot of bricks online it would have cost over $180.00 and it cost me only $32.00.  On second thought maybe Lego shouldn’t have given me a commission as I coached a bunch of parents on how to do the same thing…

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